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A Far Cry from an Empire at Peace

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In the Kingdom of Wolverdien, people had magical powers. They grew into them. On their fifteenth birthday, they would awaken to find they held the power of flight, or could shoot metal from their hands. Others learned they could read minds or turn into an animal at will. Each power was different. Some were used for better and some were used for the worst.

As the only son of the King and Queen of Wolverdien, little Prince Liam would take on the burden of the throne. His older sisters, the Princesses Ruth and Nicola, were overjoyed. They preferred much more lady-like pursuits, like the formal events where every eligible person in the kingdom would vie for their hand.

But such frivolous events would not be in Liam’s future, as his training and grooming to be future king started early with a birthday trip to the stables.

The royal stables were a place of awe for the young prince; despite the musky and earthy smells emanating from the stalls, the ornate wooden stables stretched high above young Liam's head and he marveled at the number of horses: his father's light grey dappled Tyr, his mother's dark brown Sif, the princesses' own cream colored twins Lofn and Ran, Nott, Saga, Val, Buri, and Odin.

Hlin, a mare, had just given birth to a foal two months before, and it was to be Liam's.

The newborn had a fiery spirit, and Liam clung to his father's leg as they approached Hlin's stall. The braying pierced the air, but young Liam pressed his ear against his father's thigh to block out the sound. The small animal kicked violently at the wooden boards encasing both it and its mother. Liam gasped in shock, holding his father tighter. The king patted the young prince on his shoulder in a reassuring fashion. "Liam, would you like to look at your new horse? You have to meet him to name him. That is the proper way."

The king looked down as the young prince detached himself from his father and raised his arms to be lifted above the box and peer inside at the tiny horse. Once in his father's arms, Liam lunged and pressed his face forward to peer between the wooden slats. The foal's coat was black with white markings on its face and legs. Liam let out a quiet chuckle as the horse nodded at him and swished its tail about the pen before trotting over to the slats.

"Hullo!" Prince Liam said, as the foal snorted and snot splattered across his face. "Oh no, what a rude animal! Horsey, you are already in time out, why are you creating more mischief!" Liam chuckled as he cleared the snot from his face with his sleeve.

King Geoff lowered the prince back onto the ground and slapped his arm away. "Princes have better manners than that. Use this," he admonished, handing his son a lace handkerchief. Liam took the hanky and stared at the intricate pattern before stuffing it in his belt, already having cleaned the horse spit from his face completely. King Geoff glanced into the horse box himself this time and the young foal reared up and kicked.

"This particular foal has been screaming and kicking at anyone who comes near it," came a voice from behind. Prince Liam turned to look at Patricia, the keeper of the Royal Stables.

"Ah, yes, it would appear snot is a friendly fluid to exchange between feral boys of a certain age,” the king chuckled. “Certainly I remember my days of spitting at my brethren," he snapped.

Patricia looked displeased, but continued speaking as she moved closer. "Well, it is a common bonding practice with horses. This young prince and this foal are linked," she said to the king, and then, to Liam, "He may be a little young for you now, sir, but in a few years you will be training out there in the courtyard with him, like the other knights." Young Prince Liam's face brightened at this, his cheeks almost squeezing his eyes shut.

"I would prefer that, being a knight atop my steed, fighting back evil and rescuing maidens! Prince Payne and uh, what's this animal's name?" Liam looked back at his father for an answer.

The king shrugged his shoulders at his son. "It's quite up to you, as your birthday present. Naming and presentation of your first horse. And hopefully one that will lead you to many victories on the fields of battle." The king nodded at the caretaker for confirmation and she smiled back.

"Yes, young Liam,” Patricia said, peering over the pen to check on the animals. “Although you won't be able to ride him until you are twelve, this horse will be your responsibility. We believe you create a deeper bond with animals that you care for."

Liam nodded in understanding and shuffled his feet a bit. "I'd rather think on its name, then, if I have the time. It needs to be a proper good name, and you can't have that when your only interaction is spittle. I do quite like the gift, though, thank you."

The two adults chuckled. "He's going to be an excellent king, if you don't mind my saying. Clear head on his shoulders, this one," Patricia said as she petted Liam's head. "And another thing," she said, motioning down the stables at a boy Liam's age. "C'mere, Zayn," she called. A boy about Liam’s age clambered over a bale of hay and sauntered over forlornly. The boy's hair was cut short, but he was a few months from his last proper shearing. He did not make eye contact with anyone when he stopped at Patricia's side. "This is my son, Zayn. He's my only son, as well, so he knows what it's like to deal with sisters who think of you as a little toy."

"Oi, mum!" Zayn said, making a disgusted face at his mom before looking at Liam with an awkward smile. "You're the prince, yeah? Nice to meet you. I only have one older sister but get my other sister and her together and it's not fun. A lot of tea parties and boring girl stuff."

Liam waved and smiled, his cheeks rising again. "Oh, I know! Ruth and Nicola are fun, but they're old. I'm seven, how old are you?"

Zayn nodded his head vigorously. "Yeah, me too! That's sweet." The two clapped the other on the back, and with their respective parent's permission took off to play together.

Liam and Zayn spent all their free time running about the castle walls and the garden pathways, chuckling and upsetting tables and banquets in the name of knights and knaves, their favorite game to play. While playing in his quarters one day, the young prince fell, hitting his head on a hollow section of the quarters' wall.

Zayn rushed over to examine his friend, but the state of the wall distracted him. "Liam, I think you found something!" he exclaimed, giddily staring at the wall.

"I discovered my head hurts when I fall, mate. What are you—" Where Liam’s head smashed the wall lay a hideaway in the corner. It was a dark hole, leading into an even darker abyss, and smelled of mold, dust, and spiders long past their expiration dates. The two boys marveled over the hole and upon confirming he was not bleeding, Liam stuck his head in the hole to investigate where it led. "It's quite dark in here, Zayn."

Zayn laughed at his friend and pulled the prince back from the wall. "Well, it was covered up until your head poked through it! Move out the way, I wanna see where it goes!" Zayn said, shoving his smaller frame into the hole and disappearing down and out of Liam's sight. Liam shouted after Zayn, but no answer came.

"I've lost my best friend in the walls," Liam said, to no one in particular. A cloud of dust puffed out of the space where Zayn had been sitting earlier. Liam coughed and waved it aside.

Zayn's voice bellowed from below. "Liam! Get down here, it goes right into the courtyard!"

Liam laughed and chucked himself into the space, down and out into the courtyard, where the hideaway spat him, covered in dirt and spiderwebs, into a bush located just outside the castle walls.

Zayn stood nearby, doubling over in laughter, himself covered in dust and webs. "That was so much fun! Let's do it again, oh," Zayn gasped, holding his stomach. "Liam, your face was hilarious!"

Liam crawled out of the bush, his face a mixture of pain and amusement. He stood, picking webs out of his hair and the braiding of his new princely robes. "That was a lot of fun, but oh, if Winston is around we're going to hear it. And how are we returning without alerting the guards?" Liam shook his curls and a spider fell out. "That one was still alive!" he said, pointing, as the spider tried to shoot a web at his arm. "No chance, mate, I'm not your home," he said sternly, yet bent down to let the spider crawl onto a nearby leaf.

Zayn looked up at the stone wall guarding the castle and back at the tunnel, shaking his head. "Next time, remind me to throw down your bedsheets first, so we can climb back up."

Liam looked back up at the crawlspace he'd just slid down, a twinkle in his eye when he looked back at Zayn. "Yeah, well, that's the fun part about being the knave. I get to figure it out now," and launched himself at the hole and crawled his way back into his quarters.

"You're mad! I'm not coming in there after you, Liam! I'm going around to get Sir William at the gates,” Zayn said, stomping around the rosebushes to the front gates.

The new hideaway became a fun part of the young boys' play dates as they transitioned into military training. Wolverdien took its cavalry seriously, and under the tutelage of Sir Cowell and his squire Winston, Zayn and Liam were to rise through the ranks and use their new powers to help protect the land from invaders.

The sort of power they aged into was random, of course, but there was a place for almost every power in the castle grounds or in the surrounding city of Wolverdien. The elder Malik sisters, who became handmaidens for the princesses, learned their powers could be appreciated in battle. Doniya Malik could weaponize plasma, and Waliyha was a masterful telekinetic within two years of accidentally tossing Zayn across the castle gardens. The princesses' powers were less of an offensive nature but still useful. Nicola's mastery of the manipulation of plant life could decorate the entire castle in sweet smelling flowers, and Ruth's wormholes helped knights on quests. Zayn's youngest sister had years before her power manifested, and took over Zayn's stable work when he left to train for knighthood.

Zayn's powers manifested as potionmastery. Potions were an exceptionally hard skill and the castle was unfortunately ill-equipped to train Zayn, as no one had mastered potions in decades.

Liam may have dealt with the betrayal decently, had he not overheard the conversations in the Great Hall. Unwilling to sit back and let his only friend in the castle be taken from him, Liam stormed into the room.

"Did I just hear you correctly, Sir Winston? What’s this about Zayn?" Liam said, standing before the throne, brows furrowed.

King Geoff placed his head in his hands, exasperated with Liam’s defense of Zayn. "Liam, son, don't worry about this. We will settle this matter privately. It doesn't concern you."

Winston took a step towards Liam and attempted to place his hand on the prince's shoulder, but Liam shrugged away.

"Don't touch me," Liam said, frowning up at the captain of the Order. "You've tried to find a reason to get rid of Zayn for as long as he and I have been friends."

"Liam, your Highness, I only want what is best for Zayn, and our men in the castle and in the village are not talented in the same ways that Zayn would need. But there is a potion master south of here who would be able to help Zayn achieve greatness."

Liam's face was red with anger and his eyes flooded with tears. The young prince had not let his royal blood change the way he interacted with those around him. He begged to have even harder training exercises to seem equal. Still, Winston was never fair with Zayn, even with basic training like jousting and horse-riding, even though Zayn was more of a natural than Liam was. It frustrated Zayn, and angered Liam beyond reasoning. Winston was unfairly singling out Zayn for being Liam's friend. It was not a concept that the young prince would ever understand.

Liam wished for a vicious power that would knock the newly appointed captain of the Order Winston out of the way and bring justice to the castle, if not the kingdom.

It would be the afternoon of his 15th birthday when the prince would develop hearing that filtered any lies spoken directly to him. The prince's childhood favorite of knights and knaves had, as he aged, turned into a mature true or false game on the training fields. Decorating Loki's new saddle one afternoon he asked Zayn to repeat his answer, and his face fell when he realized his powers had effectively taken away his favorite game.

The next time Zayn encountered Liam on the training grounds, the young prince had tear-streaked cheeks and red eyes. “I’m a truth detector. It’s a great power for being a king, you get to be sat on the throne, talking to peasants all the time. Listening to problems. I was born to sit on a throne. That's what I'm here for.”

Zayn pulled his friend into his quarters, where Liam proceeded to crumple onto the floor in a very un-princely fashion, while Zayn shoved assorted belongings into a worn brown leather satchel.

"Oi, it could be worse. Peasants aren't that bad. My family's peasants, by your definition. And, my power? I have to go out there and find work," Zayn said, waving about a piece of bread before wrapping it in a cloth and sticking it in the satchel. "You don't have to worry about that. Everything's here. I don't know when I'll see my sisters again." Zayn tugged at a jar from above the wash basin and it rolled off the shelf into his hands. He blew some dust off of it, wiped it down with his sleeves and placed it on top of the satchel.

Liam rolled over on his side, watching Zayn pack. "Did Cowell tell you to leave? I can't imagine that there is no use for you anywhere in the castle." Liam cracked a smile. "Who will I spend time with now? Sheeran and Xander?" Zayn laughed.

The other knights that made up the Wolverdien Order were men of dubious intelligence. Winston was beyond reprieve in Liam and Zayn's eyes, and Sheeran and Spurlock were his lackeys from the initial training day. Liam swore to Zayn that their days as knights would be limited under his reign; at least until they showed rare promise on the training battlefield of the southern lawn. But the others were agreeable. Sirs Jonathan, Xander, Joshua, and Daniel were all roughly the same age as Liam and Zayn.

"Stay away from Sheeran," Zayn warned. "Xander is alright. Call him Sandy, though, for laughs. He gets proper angry at that."

On the day that Zayn was to leave, Liam sat in his quarters, adamant about not saying goodbye to his close friend. "If I don't look for you, it will be as if you are somewhere in the castle I have not discovered yet, hiding during one of our games," Liam had explained to Zayn.

Instead, the young prince found himself fighting back sniffles and tears, forcing his eyes away from the window where he could hear Winston packing Zayn onto a young mare. Zayn was to offer the young mare as a barter for apprenticeship when he arrived at Esterkastel, a few days ride south. Zayn wore a heavy cloak over his eyes, refusing to look at his mother, who stood near the castle walls with his sisters. The rain trailed down the side of his hood as he mounted the horse.

"And now, Malik, remember, do please go straight to the town we told you. There are various ne'er do wells in these forests and I'd hate to see your precious gifts go to waste," said Winston as he clapped the horse on the rear.

"You're just saying that to scare me," Zayn sneered at the knight who would have him disappear forever. "There's maybe one man in this entire forest, but he's not got the powers to take me." The glass bottle tightly held in his hands flooded with a green, glowing potion. Zayn pointed the bottle at Winston. "One day you're gonna regret making me leave." Turning from Winston, the malice filtered away from his eyes and he addressed his family. “One day I will return, don't worry. I love you girls."

And with that, Zayn Malik left the castle he'd always known as home for an unknown wilderness.

Up in his quarters, the young prince Liam heard the galloping of Zayn's horse as he left. Regretting not saying goodbye moments too late, Liam scrambled to his feet and reached the window in time to see the remaining Malik family members huddled by the front gates.

Princess Ruth stood by the entrance to his quarters, watching the young prince heaving silently by the window.  "It's alright, Liam, you'll see each other again. You'll be the king and then you can go out whenever you want and see whoever you like—including Zayn."

Liam suppressed his hiccups and wiped his face as his elder sister touched her hands to his shoulders. He turned to cry into her clothes. "I'm never going to see him again and it's all Winston's fault."

"Liam," Ruth pulled away from Liam and wiped his eyes. "I know as well as you do, that Winston has everyone's best interest in hand."

"I don't think he does, Ruth," Liam shrugged into her side.

"Well, I know how much Zayn meant to you, and if there's something you want to tell me, I'm here. Nicola and I both. Perhaps even the Maliks. Just because Zayn is gone doesn't mean you're alone. We're here to support you. As our brother and as our king. Well. King someday, don't get too big a head about it."

A smile spread across Liam's face and he chuckled. "Zayn meant a lot to me. He was my only friend. And my powers are already confusing and things are tough. And then there's Winston, and I'm so grateful that I've had to learn all I could... but I don't understand why Zayn had to leave. We have so many people in the castle, and even people in the town, that it's hard to believe that no one could have helped him here. When I'm king I'm going to make sure everyone has a chance to learn about their powers without leaving anyone behind."

Ruth collected a washcloth from a basin to wash Liam’s face. The prince was sixteen. He was maturing into a man, but Ruth smiled at her younger brother as she cleared snot and tears away. "Well, I imagine you will be a fantastic king. Even better than father, but don't tell him that. He might give me more cleaning to do."

Five Years Later

 

The two forests of Wolverdien were dangerous places for wanderers. Not only were the woods uncharted and live with diseased and wild animals, but dishonorable people, from the desperate and out of work to the outcast and devious souls with ill intentions, flooded the woods looking to harm the ordinary traveler.

The forests were not places for the brave and were not traversed unless necessary. Craftsmen and the Order were the only regular passengers, and the scoundrels of the forest awaited them.

One such scoundrel, Louis Tomlinson, was a tiny rodent of a young man; thin, scruffy and shrill-voiced. His power had manifested as mind manipulation. He could manipulate people into doing his bidding with just his words. This had led to hundreds of counts of robbery, larceny, and general conduct unbecoming of a citizen of Wolverdien. However, Louis paid most attention to the carts of weapon makers and tailors because he was a man with simple needs.

A carriage carrying a metalsmith's wares trundled along the forest path, below Louis' tree. Louis timed his jump so that he landed on top of the carriage and slid down the front. The horse-driver yelled in fright.

Louis rolled onto the dirt path ahead of the horses. "Good afternoon, gentleman. I understand you're trying to find your way through this dangerous forest, yes?"

"Please, sir, we are only simple craftsmen. We want no trouble. Just to pass safely." The driver tightened his grip on the reins.

Louis chuckled and patted one of the horse's noses. "My goodness. A man says good afternoon and your response is you want no trouble. I can promise you I have not a violent bone nor ill-will in my body. What do you say to that?"

Another man stumbled out of the carriage. "What is the hold up, Mr. Fincham? You very well know that there are--who is this man?" The man stood straight and towered over Louis, but Louis did not budge from his stance.

The driver spit at Louis’ feet. "This unnamed man wants to have a conversation, here in the middle of the road."

Louis looked down at the path and kicked at the dirt. "Name’s Louis. Yeah, this is not a road, love. Don't see a polished stone worthy of the royal stables out this far. Good afternoon to you, Mr. Grimshaw," he said, hoping for a better response from this second man.

Mr. Grimshaw tutted at Louis. "Dear, do not address me wearing such clothes. Furthermore step aside, we are busy and must be on our way."

"Oh, of course, of course. Before you do, though, can I have the few daggers you promised? The… I'm not sure which they were, honestly, but just the finest ones you have?" Louis struggled to hide his joy. He loved using his charming powers on strangers. It was a lonely life in the forest, but at least his powers brought him some entertainment.

Mr. Grimshaw dashed back to the carriage and returned with a small rectangular chest which he thrust at Louis. "Of course, of course! My newest metalwork, my pride and joy. These will cut through any food you desire. Clean fish, gut small rats and rabbits, chop up vegetables!"

Louis' smile was all teeth as he placed the chest into his satchel. "That's all I wanted for the moment. Pleasure doing business with you."

Mr. Fincham hummed his disproval. "You know this man?"

Louis raised his hands in mock surrender. "I don't think this concerns you, does it? You can just sit there and not talk, yeah?"

Mr. Grimshaw frowned at Louis and looked back at Mr. Fincham. "Mr. Fincham, I have doubts I have ever seen this man. And furthermore, why are we stopp--"

Louis cleared his throat and adjusted his satchel on his waist. "Many thanks, again, for the lovely daggers. Really beautiful work. You've outdone yourself! And uh, I've already paid you for them, yes? Please send my love to… wherever it is that you're going. Mr. Fincham, continue on!" With a flourish of his arms Louis leaped into the bushes, leaving the mystified craftsmen to their path. When Louis’ effect wore off, Mr. Grimshaw's displeasure at being burglarized echoed through the forest, disturbing birds from their perches.

^^^^

Niall Horan had inherited a sum of money and decided to open a pub after touring the world. He had found himself in Esterkastel by fate and with his family friend Niall Breslin, started an inn on their last dime. It was a venture that had gone exceedingly well. No passerby could deny the usefulness of having a bed to pass out in after one too many lagers.

Breslin, the older of the two friends, knew much more about running a business, but Niall was the heart and soul of the pub. Everyone in Esterkastel came to hear Breslin’s monstrous yet fantastical tales and hearty pub songs, and having the pub’s doors open with a genuine “Wa-hey! Welcome!” was a wonderful start to the day. Zayn could not have been luckier to get apprenticed here.

Zayn had arrived five years before, welcomed as every visitor is, by Niall’s warm greetings and Breslin’s great food. He was immediately useful to them as a bartender, since despite what Winston had told Zayn, Niall was not a native potion-maker.

Niall Horan was a foreseer, and most of his knowledge came from what he gleaned from the flashes of images his power forced on him. Whether it was human skin, a spoken sentence or object, Niall had no alternative to letting the information wash over him and sink into the empty spaces between what he already knew. Between learning how to bartend and Niall’s extensive knowledge from past potion-makers, Zayn came to trust and love his new home.

On the day of Harry’s arrival, Zayn was the first to the door. Harry’s disheveled appearance was nothing new. From Esterkastel’s drunkards who frequented and paid well and paid daily, thieves looking for a short night’s rest from the law, and travelers from further lands than Sanctus, Zayn had seen much worse than the lanky traveler at the door.

Long before the Paynes came to rule, Sanctus had shriveled into a forgotten village, its villagers ostracized during a war long forgotten. The cultivation and use of powers there had slowly died with its elders. Unable to protect themselves from the powered marauders and thieves in the surrounding forests, even the hardest-working of the residents were at a lost to pay taxes. It had been Gemma, Harry's sister, who suggested that making connections beyond the village could reap benefits.

“Alright, you dummy, take my idea away from me. Go see the world. Just bring yourself back here with success, then.” Gemma had said, when Anne offered to let Harry off his duties. Gemma raised her hands in beckoning for a hug and Harry pulled both her and Anne.

“I’ll be back in four days,” Harry had said. “Take care of the old maid while I’m gone, okay?”

Anne had tsked.

“Hey. Welcome to Mulling Over, are you looking for a bed or a meal or can I interest you in both?” Zayn pointed his fingers at Harry, in his best mimicry of Niall’s charm. Harry stared down at Zayn’s fingers instead and Zayn grimaced, resetting to his own personality. “There’s music, innit, in the corner,” Zayn continued as Harry shuffled through the door and into the warm, dank pub that smelled of alcohol and burning wood. An obscenity burst from the corner where Breslin was strumming a mandolin. Niall was shimmying on a stool.

“Forgive the owners,” Zayn said. “He’s had a few today. But I can set you up with a nice room or a proper mead.” Harry smiled as Zayn disappeared behind the bar. “Nialler, be a boss, mate,” he shouted, and then to Harry, “Cider alright?”

Niall toppled off the stool and jumped to his feet. The small crowd around him cheered and hooted as he bowed and jogged over to Harry. “Oh, aye, great to meet you. Sorry about all that there. Usually ‘m more professional than that, but, it’s been a slow day. Good day though! I’m Niall.” Niall extended his hand and Harry placed the pouch of Gemma’s pastries in it.

Niall looked down, confused at the gift.

“I’m from Sanctus. It’s a little west of here. My mom and sister, they work with me at our bakery. It’s a good bakery. It’s popular. We made these.”

Niall blinked, confused, but opened the pouch to peer inside. “Oh, wow, you weren’t kidding, these look scrumptious.”

Zayn appeared at Niall’s side with Harry’s cider. Harry nodded a thank you and took a sip as he accepted the drink. “What’s he brought, there? You a baker man on the roads?” Zayn asked, his eyes lighting up. “Give one here, Niall. Let me sample this man’s wares.” He bit into one of the breads and froze. “This is delicious,” he said around the bread.

Niall nodded vigorously. “Try this one, Zayn,” he said stuffing half of a donut into Zayn’s cheek.

“Watch it, Niall! Let me enjoy the one first, yeah?” The two stood in silence, chewing away at their pastries and smiling at Harry, who was beaming with pride at his family’s handiwork.

Harry did not know what to do with the silence and decided to fill it. “It was a long journey. Those forests around your city, they’re quite dangerous. I left my house early—I usually wake up early—I clean and set things up. The stale bread from the day before I give to a couple by the church. They’re not part of the church, they’re homeless, and they can’t afford the bread. But I give them the bread I can’t sell. These pastries here, these my sister made. And she woke up early today. They’re fresh. They were hot when I put them in the bag. But it was a long walk, a few days. And I met some miscreants. Or I escaped them. Not good people, I think.”

Niall glanced at Breslin, not sure what to make of Harry’s story. He dug around his mouth at the remnants of the pastries with his tongue.

The rest of the crowd around Breslin had either dispersed or blacked out across the floor or a bar table. Breslin poked at some of the regulars. “Niall, stop stuffing your mouth and get over here. Zayner, get these two up to their rooms.” Niall waved him over, and tossed the butt of a loaf at his head. “Bressie! Take a bite of this one.”

Breslin caught it in mid-air. “Cheers, uh…?” he said, motioning at Harry.

Harry nodded and waved. “It’s Harry! I assume you’re Breslin?”

Breslin shredded into his bread and nodded. “Name’s Niall, but he’s the owner he—wow, these are surprisingly good, mate. You made these today?”

Harry beamed at Breslin. “Just this morning. Took me almost all day to get here. I just arrived a minute ago. A lovely lady outside directed me here since I needed a place for the night, but I was also hoping that one of you would be interested in selling my family’s wares in this establishment as a sort of a trade.” He lifted his cider up. “In exchange for these, perhaps. Where I’m from these would be well received.”

Zayn hoisted one of the drunk customers over his shoulder. “Cheers. I’m sure Niall will get you a good price for them. I’ll be back in a moment,” he said, making his way up the creaky, wooden staircase. It led to an entire walkway of doors where the inn part of Mulling Over existed. Zayn shoved his body into the door of one room and slipped inside with the man.

After half an hour, Zayn shut the last of the doors and stuffed his keys back into his belt pouch. “They come by every night,” he said. “But as long as they pay for their own vices I don’t mind being their mum. No one’s died yet, and we’ve got no problems from the Castle. I’d say we’re doing alright.” He sauntered down the stairs with a smile and vaulted behind the bar. Niall, Breslin, and Harry sat at the bar, hands around cups. Niall and Breslin’s eyes were heavy with alcohol and sleep. It was the time of night where Zayn became most useful to his co-workers.

Harry, for all his travels, was still bright-eyed. Zayn nodded at the Nialls. “Same ol, yeah?” They nodded back. Zayn took a seat behind the bar.

“Same ‘ol…?” Harry repeated, confused.

“Every night,” Zayn explained, gathering two clean tankards from below the bar, “these two get drunk with the customers, which every night I tell them is not a great idea because they’re just wasting our drink, and every night they ignore me, and then I have to save the day with my potions.”

Harry’s eyebrows rose. “Potions? Like, magical potions?”

“Yeah, proper—that’s what I do. I make potions. You know?” Zayn poured three liquids into the tankards and waved his hand around them. A small purple mist floated out of two, and the liquids glowed bright white for a bit before settling back into white broth-like drinks. Niall grabbed his and chugged it. “I can’t make them drunker than they need to be but I can save their hides when they’ve gone too far. It’s not the best method but it works,” Zayn wiped his hands on a rag and shrugged. He sat back and watched Niall as a small portion of the potion dribbled down his chin and got lost in his rough tunic.

Harry’s face crumpled in disbelief and then smiled. “You’re having a laugh, right? No one can make potions. Like magic potions.”

Niall smacked his tankard down with a loud bang.

“Oi, mind me head and the customers,” Breslin warned, his own fingers pulling a potion towards him. “You don’t have a power? This ‘un says he don’t have a power.” He tutted and then downed his own tankard in two gulps.

“Everyone has a power,” Niall slurred, even as his speech was starting to steady out again. He clapped a hand on Harry’s hand on the bar, and, jolted back by a flash, fell to the floor laughing.

“You are having a laugh, this man is still drunk,” Harry said, as he smirked and stared down at Niall on the floor.

Zayn shook his head. “No. That’s just Niall’s power. He can… see things, in the future.” He shouted over the bar, “What did you see, Niall?”

“Aw, Harry!” Niall chuckled, turning red. “It’s totally mutual.” Harry looked at Breslin for an answer, but there was none. “We’re gonna have so much fun, lads. Louis is about to come in and you’re gonna get along so well, but mind your feet, yeah?” Niall dusted himself off as Breslin pulled him to his feet.

“I’m already feeling better, actually. This one was really good. Thanks, Zayn,” Breslin said, pushing the empty tankard back towards Zayn. “Louis, you say? That’s your lot. I’ll see you in the morning.” Breslin slid off the bar stool and shook his head as he walked into one of the back rooms. “Clear as ever, g’nite!” he said, gesturing at his head.

Harry watched Breslin disappear into the back. “Who’s Louis?” Harry said, still trying to keep up with this.

The front door creaked open and a nasal laugh echoed through the pub. “‘Who’s Louis?’ Why you can’t be a card-carrying member of Mulling Over and not know Lootin’ Lou!”

Louis stood in the doorway with his arms extended, as though he welcomed praise that didn’t come. “Alright, alright, no need to be rude. I know it’s late. Zayn, my love, be a dear and fetch me a water, I’m parched.” Louis clomped through the pub and over to the bar.

“This is Louis,” Zayn said dryly, fighting a smirk at the edges of his lips. “He’s a wanted man in these parts, because… well, I’ll let him explain, but you’d better drink this.” He pushed a shot glass towards Harry. Harry looked down at the drink and then back at Zayn, who was already downing his own shot glass.

“Nialler! … Man that I don’t know! Zayn!” Louis said, louder than he needed to.

Harry grabbed up the shot glass and chugged it, bewildered. He exhaled forcefully as he placed the glass back on the bar. “That burned! What was that?”

“It … burned?” Louis furrowed his brow. “Zayn, you can’t keep giving people that bloody drink. How am I supposed to have fun around here if you keep taking the piss! Also, water, yeah, I said that?” Louis snapped his fingers at Zayn’s back and then grinned brightly at Harry, pleased with himself.

“It’s not taking the piss, Lou. I’m keeping the peace, more like,” Zayn said, shoving a glass of water towards Louis.

“Yeah, well, cheers. Anyway, who is this lad, he’s got nice eyes. And look at those curls!”

“I’m Harry. From Sanctus. It’s a bit down the road—“

“‘Down the road’ he says!” Louis chuckled, slapping Harry on the back. “Down the road is my territory, mate. Ever seen one of those wanted signs—well, I guess you haven’t if you haven’t heard of the famous Lootin’ Lou. Anyway, surprised I didn’t run into you before. Come here often?” Louis batted his eyelashes at Harry.

“It’s his first time here, actually,” Niall said, downing his own shot glass and sitting back on his bar stool.

“But you’d know that if you were around more,” Zayn said from behind the bar.

“Sorry!” Louis chuckled. “Sorry, I’m just too busy surviving.” Louis looked down at the floor, a smirk forming on his face. He looked directly at Zayn, his eyes sparkling darkly. “Surviving and trying not to get caught by your friend, Zayner.”

Zayn started to jump over the bar, but Niall shoved him back. “Alright, everyone!” Niall barked a laugh and stood up quickly. “It’s late, we’ve got a big day, tomorrow. Harry’s been traveling all day. Lou probably, too. Zayn, see Harry off, yeah?”

Zayn dumped a key on the bar and motioned Harry to the stairs as he pulled out his keys again. “That’s yours, Lou. Harry, this way.” Harry nodded goodbye and followed Zayn up the stairs. “Lou’s got the room downstairs. We keep him there because he’s a rat and we like to keep the vermin away from the paying patrons.”

“I pay good money, Nialler, you know this,” Louis muttered to Niall. “Maybe it’s not an honest living but it’s just as good, yeah?”

“Don’t worry about Zayn, he’s had a rough day. Harry’s going to start baking here. He’s uh, from another town, but he’s brought these breads with him.” Niall grabbed the pouch from a nearby table and pushed it towards Louis.

“That guy was a baker?” Louis said, digging into the pouch. He stuffed the last donut into his mouth. “Oh, yeah! That is delicious,” he said nodding. “Good job, Niall, keep him around. We might have use for him.”

Niall laughed at that. “I can’t imagine the uses you might have for him. But he’s off limits. And it’s getting late.” He crossed over to the door and locked it, his hand coming away from the door slowly. “Wait. How did you get in? Zayn and I are the only ones who can unlock this.”

“Well, look at the time! Time for bed!” Louis leaped off the bar stool and ran to the back room. “You know how the Order is, always ready to bash your head in at any time of day! Gotta go!”

“Louis! You can’t hide from me in my own bar!” Niall yelled after him. It was one of his poorer efforts at corralling the elder man but it was late. Niall yawned and shook his head. “What a madman, that one.”

^^^

Prince Liam had determined to trust Winston, even as his heart told him otherwise. Winston was the king’s advisor now, and Liam had to respect that. It did not help the young prince to feel as though his parents would never deem him worthy enough to captain the Order himself. Sir Winston was a stalwart of old tradition and cared deeply that tradition stayed in place. Traditions such as marriages to breed stronger generations and not for love, and blindly adhering to decrees written down at Castle Wolverdien when it was built over 800 years before. Liam had one option: to could learn all he could from Winston yet keep his power and personal convictions to himself. And eventually he would be in position to lead the Order himself.

Astride Loki, Liam followed Winston over to a felled tree with a fire-torn base and scattered gold coins. It was the third such scene they’d come upon that day. Liam frowned down at the tree trunk.

“Liam you refuse to agree with me on the level of terror these men have wrought on our kingdom, but I promise you, it’s no bigger threat than my plans,” Winston said, arranging his horse’s lead in his hands.

“Pardon? Your plans?” Liam said.

Winston’s face froze in a telling moment of panic. “My… plans to make you… king are of utmost importance to me,” Winston ended.

“Well, never mind your plans, Winston. We must search these woods for clues as to the culprit.”

“From a charred tree? Do you think you’ll get much from that? Liam, all that’s here is coin and what is left of a once magnificent tree, from the hole it’s left behind in the canopy,” Winston said, craning his neck to the sky. A patch of blue dazzled in the space the tree’s branches once occupied.

“Who owns the property yonder?” Liam said, turning Loki towards a small house in the distance. “Perhaps they would have ideas.”

“I know your heart, Liam, and I know you want to take on all the horrors in these woods. But do realize that you need to let others lead. People who know better.”

Liam frowned at Winston’s words, but nodded an agreement. “Like you, I suppose!” Liam chuckled. “Always knowing what to do next with crime. Winston, your record as captain of the king’s Order is incredible.” Liam studied Winston’s face and then glanced over the rest of the Order. Somehow this moment had turned into Liam’s moment to shine. “Alright. You two go with Winston, inquire with the owner of the shed about this. Xander, Jonathan, come with me. We will continue our search for this perpetrator. Daniel, collect the coin, donate them to the chapel on our return home.”

Winston smiled and trotted down the path. “Spoken like a true leader. Come on, then,” he said, nodding to the knights as they parted ways with Liam and his faction.

^^^^

The next morning was a bright one, the warmth of spring starting to hold. Harry, as he was wont to do at home, rose first. Yet being neither owner of the pub nor resident of the town, Harry stayed in his room until he heard more chatter downstairs.

Two hours later, Zayn and Niall, as well as Harry, were at the bar enjoying squeezed juice and some meat strips Breslin had collected from the butcher to start the day off. Breslin was already tuning a guitar for the evening’s pub songs when Louis emerged from the back room.

“Morning lads!” he shouted. “My, my, what a nice bunch we’ve got this morning! Good morning…Harry, is it?” Louis flashed a smile at Harry, who sat nearest to the stairs.

Harry nodded. “That’s right. Don’t try your charm on me, though, Zayn’s already dosed us for the day.”

Louis grunted at that. “Honestly, Zayn, you’re no fun. Haven’t you even got a potion for curing alcohol disease?”

“Oh!” Harry raised his hand in the air. “Yes, he does, I experienced that effect on the uh. On the Nialls? Niall. Niall and… the Nialls. Yesterday.”

Louis studied Harry slowly before turning to Zayn. “Be careful around this one, he’s out to spoil the fun for everyone.”

“Your charm powers are not helpful to anyone but you, mate,” Zayn said, filling glasses for a patron. “We’ve got a pub to run here. It’s nothing personal.”

“Yeah, well,” Louis grabbed a stool away from a table and squealed it across the floor to sit at the bar next to Niall. “I’m gonna take that personal, if you don’t mind. You’re making me defenseless, Zayn, you’re taking away my only power!” Louis clutched his hands to his heart, as though mortally wounded.

“You’ll survive,” Zayn said. “A juice for you as well, or do you have to take off today to rob more people?”

“I think I can stay for breakfast, innit? Surely your lot won’t deprive me that, yeah?” Louis grinned at Niall.

“Hang on, hang on.” Harry waved his hand in the air. “His lot? Rob? What?”

Niall shoved his stool away from Louis and closer to Harry. “Lou’s on the run from the Order. He steals from passersby in Parlous and Daunger Forests. Zayn here grew up at the castle,” Niall said, gesturing at Zayn, who nodded at the recognition. “So he’s part of that whole movement to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, even though the Order is exactly who sent him here.”

Zayn looked upset. “I’m not with the Order anymore, alright. I just know there are good people in Wolverdien. People who will turn things around in the future. People I trust.”

“What Zayn really means is his boyfriend.” Louis’ eyes were slits. His hair slid in front of his eyes. Harry grinned.

“He’s not my boyfriend, innit. I wouldn’t be here if we were lovers. What’s your excuse for teasing him in the forest all the time, yeah?”

“A man must survive, Zayn! If your boyfriend was good, he wouldn’t have… there’s just some things about that boy you love a lot that aren’t adding up.” Louis slammed his hands on the table. “Anyway, why are we fighting, there are customers to feed, yeah? Harry, do you have any more of your delicious pastries, those were good. Share the wealth, lad!”

“I don’t, no. I do have to head back home, though. I will return with more pastries, if Niall will sell them.” Harry sat back in his stool and smiled at Niall.

“I reckon I’d end up eating them all if you do, but I will pay for them,” Niall said, getting off the stool and shaking Harry’s hand. His face froze and Harry let go immediately, his eyes wide. They stared at each awkwardly and then Niall’s face brightened.

“Uh, right, everyone was lovely. Thank you for the uh, potions, Zayn. Bres, Lou, Niall. Okay. Bye!” Harry grabbed his belongings off the bar next to him and scampered out of the pub and into the morning day.

“What was that about, Niall?” Zayn asked, getting up to close the door behind Harry.

Niall chuckled nervously. “Nothing. I have to uh, see to the rooms,” he said, clasping his hands in front of himself and running up the stairs.

“This day just started and already everyone’s acting the weirdest I’ve seen them,” Breslin said from across the pub.

Zayn chuckled as he walked over and ushered two customers into the pub. “Your typical morning, though. Wouldn't miss it for the world, eh, Bres?” Breslin waved in agreement and continued noodling with his instruments.

“Good morning, good morning, welcome to Mulling Over. Niall should be down in a moment. We have drinks at the bar…”

^^^^

Winston led his knights out into Daunger Forest almost daily. The forest was large enough that surveying one area would take an entire day, and if there were ruins and victims of thievery around, even longer. Finally out from under Winston’s thumb, Liam beamed at the idea of setting his own rules. He was ready to prove himself and drive every criminal to the dungeons where they belonged.

Liam heard the cries before Loki cleared the final tree. A little girl sat crying on a log, a bottle smashed at her side. Several pieces of glass were visible in her arm. Xander and Daniel hurried over to help her while Liam maneuvered his horse closer to the glass. “Is she alright?” he said, sliding out of Loki’s saddle. He toed the shards away from the little girl. “Hello, fair lady. Where is your family?”

“Forgive me for crying, sir. My mum sent me to Esterkastel for ointments but a large man frightened me and I dropped our bottle, and then he took my gold. We’re too poor to afford more and I don’t know what to do.” Tears cleared trails through the dirt on her face.

Liam glanced over at the rest of his Order, their faces unreadable. “Was the man about my age, rough-looking?” Liam asked.

Celeste shook her head. “No, he was shorter, older than you, sir. And horrifying.”

“It’s not a Lootin’ Lou problem, then. Good news, that,” Daniel said, his eyes lightening.

“It doesn’t matter who is the culprit, as long as they’re distressing my subjects,” Liam retorted, brows furrowing. Liam ordered Spurlock and Julian to care for Celeste. Julian carried the girl over to his saddle, climbed on behind her, and took off for the castle. Jonathan and Savan surveyed the scene, while Liam got back on Loki. “It seems the forests are becoming more dangerous every day. This is the third attack on children that we’ve seen this fortnight. And none of them are the biggest terror that my father would have us believe.”

“Terror! That’s got a nice ring to it.” Louis appeared from the bushes with a full pouch in his hands. The coins inside clinked about as he swished the pouch in the air. “Where’d you put the little girl? Send her off to the dungeon, too?”

“My men have returned to the medical elders of Wolverdien with her, to care for her wounds before returning her safely to her home.” Liam turned Loki as if to leave.

“Look at that! Prince Payne ready to turn tail just at the sight of me! Do you remember me?” Louis’ voice cracked.

“I have never met you in the flesh, if that’s what you are referring to, Tomlinson.”

“Oh, Tomlinson! Not that catchy name you’ve given me, yeah? Are you not a fan of it yourself? I mean, I’m not, but what wanted man has the rights to his own reputation!” He chuckled. “Some of the posters, though, love, you need to work on your artistries, like. I’ve seen squirrel shite that looked more like me than that portrait.”

“I think that says more about your face than our royal artistes,” Spurlock said, edging his mount closer to Louis. Louis eyed the horse’s feet and side-stepped, putting himself closer to Loki’s nostrils as they flared and blew hot breath over his face. He grimaced at the stray spit that flew his way.

“Cheers,” he said, wiping his face on the sleeve of the jewel-toned suede tunic he’d swindled from a duke two days prior. “And you’re probably right, but mine is a face only a mother could love.” His eyes danced with fire. “Right, well, I had this gold for the lass, but if you’ve done away with her—and you don’t seem interested in me at the moment—I’ll best be on my way.” Louis jingled the bag once more and turned on his feet, ready to stride back into the dense brush.

“Wait a moment,” Liam blurted. Louis turned around, his eyebrows raised expectantly, and clasped his hands and the pouch behind his back.

“Yeah, mate?”

“You will address me as your Highness, for the first, and for the second, from where did you acquire this bag?”

“This?” Louis said, pulling the pouch up again. It clinked as he tossed it between his hands. “Oh, like, maybe 100 yards that way, a banker on his way to Sanctus. I mean, he was a banker… but I think Celeste would have appreciated this more.”

“Are you admitting that you stole it?”

“Well, I’m not saying I earned it by the hard work of me hands. That’s not what this is.”

Liam looked over at the Order. For the last few years the prince had trained to detect the difference in pitch where a person’s exact words were not reaching his ears. But like any skill, it failed him at times and he, being a loyal and good-hearted man, trusted those of his Order to illuminate him when he was at a loss. “I’m hearing that he stole that pouch.”

“That’s exactly what he’s saying. He’s not lying.” Julian said.
“Tomlinson, why do you so eagerly admit—” “Liam turned back to address Louis, but found only air. An embroidered heart, torn from the sleeve of the shirt Louis had been wearing lay on the ground. “Where did he go?”

“Your Highness, just because he wasn’t lying does not make him an honest man.” Daniel said, turning his horse towards a small stream.

Liam slid off his saddle and collected the heart from the ground.

Payne in my arse

You’ve stolen my heart

But you can keep it

L

^^^^

“See, the thing is, Lou, you’re too taken by Liam. I don’t know that he likes men, but you’re definitely not his type.”

Zayn was wiping down the bar as Breslin escorted a drunk man out of the establishment. Louis curled in on himself on top of a stool, next to Niall, who was leaning on the bar and admiring dancers on the far side of the room. Breslin’s strong arm tendencies did not discourage the patrons from carrying on as they always did, singing loudly at the top of their lungs and swaying together even in the absence of music.

Niall laughed. “I don’t think the royals would take kindly to an outlaw betrothal.”
“I didn’t say I liked him, Zayn,” Louis said, as he slid himself around to watch Breslin’s antics. “It’s just that he’s not what I imagined from all your tales. He’s really… disarming.”

“Liam is that. He’s gonna make a great king one day. I was just a little stable boy working in the hay, and he was just like, we’re two lads, innit? Just didn’t care at all.” Zayn waved his hand over the top of a brew and the mug let off a small spark before steaming and foaming for a bit. “Niall, bring this over there?”

Niall glanced over at where Zayn had gestured and groaned. “That lad that’s always talking about Harry? I mean, it’s just weird,” Niall said, pushing off the bar.

Zayn shooed the blonde man away. “His money’s just as good as when he thought you were shagging Breslin, go.”

Niall opened his mouth as if to counter and then shook it off, walking the drink over to the customer.

“Do the people here always slag you lot off? I feel like that’s just low. Biting the hand that feeds and that,” Louis rested his cheek on his hand, curling back around to the bar and staring at Zayn.

“Most everyone here at this time of night are outlaws. We need the money, they need the space. You’re here. You’re the most dangerous one.”

“What’s my going price, now? 3,000? That’s triple what I got from that banker.” Louis looked down at the empty pint glass in front of him. “I’ve never seen that much money,” he said, quietly.

A billow of smoke poured from behind Zayn and they both looked up in time to watch as Harry emerged, covered in raw dough and icing.

“It blew up.”

Zayn sighed and rushed into the kitchen to inspect the damage. To call the room a kitchen was stretching the truth. It simply held a few barrels of alcohol, a preparation table for simple food items, and a cauldron. Oftentimes it smelled like rotting meat, although more recently it smelled like Harry’s attempts at baking. Such was the current situation, as more smoke billowed from the cauldron.

The patrons in the pub stared at Harry. Breslin continued a desperate attempt to distract them by changing to an uptempo number. Niall walked over to Harry and gently tossed the pastry attempt on the bar. “We can see that, Harry. You need to control your powers better.”

“Power?” Harry asked. He ran his fingers through his hair, shaking out more flour. A small cloud of the baking material circled around his head.

Niall and Louis watched Harry cross his eyes staring at the cloud, and then glanced at each other. “Your… you know, the energy stuff you can do. When you sing.”

Louis laughed, unfolding his feet from under himself and straightened up, smirking. “Oo, mate, I don’t think he knows!”

“Do you think… the reason my cooking explodes is because I sing to it when I cook?” Harry said, looking up as the smoke wafted into the pub’s rafters. Two boarders were looking down at the bar below, concerned about the smoke. Harry waved sheepishly at them. “I love singing, though,” he said, addressing Niall.

Niall shook his head, and chuckled before walking around the bar to Harry and brushing off soot from his face. “Harry, I know that’s the reason.” Clapping a hand on Harry’s shoulder, his face lit up. “Oh! I forgot! You’re from Sanctus.”

Zayn reappeared from the kitchen, covered in powder and shaking his head. “It’s not Sanctus in there, now.”

Niall shook his head. “No, see, Sanctus was cut off from the rest of the kingdom ages ago. There was an uprising, and they banished all the survivors there, and brainwashed them. Although I don’t think this was the Payne family yet, though it was related in some way—it was this region still. But over time people forgot they had powers, thought they were useless and powerless and defeated. The point is, everyone’s born with a power. People in Sanctus just can’t remember how to access them anymore. Unless they’re really bright. And even then, they can’t understand it. That’s you don’t know, Harry.”

They sat in silence for a while, waiting for Harry to respond. He frowned. It was a lot to take in, and it answered so much about his life. Finally, Harry nodded. “Well, I don’t understand it, but I don’t know what you’re talking about, either.”

“Classic,” Louis admired. “Sanctus is my favorite place, for this reason. They’re too dumb! Just too dumb!”

Zayn swatted his arm. “Be nice, Lou, or I’m sending your boyfriend after you.”

Louis leaned away from him. “Your mate’s fit, I’ll give you that. But lay off it.”

“It’s just weird that you spend so much time out there. All that fighting to get away, instead of just clearing your name,” Niall said, in an attempt to instigate. “Although, I would probably do the same, in your shoes.”

Zayn straightened up, wiping soot off of his arms. “I can’t see you doing that, Niall. You’re not as mad in the head as this one. And I’ve known you for almost as long.”

The conversation was not going to come back around to Harry anytime soon, and so he took off to listen to Breslin’s song about fighting far off dragons, but tripped on a chair on the way. As he went down, half the bar patrons turned at the noise that escaped him. Then the entire pub laughed as he crashed down with the chair over his back.

Breslin glared at Niall, the only one not reacting to Harry’s misfortune, as he put down his guitar to save Harry from his wooden prison among the slats of former chairs.

Zayn looked at Niall. “Did you see that before? Is that what you saw the day we met Harry?”

Niall nodded and pointed at Louis. “He was wearing different clothes when we met, I should have known.”

Zayn mumbled, throwing his dirty rag into the water basin and going to help Breslin extricate Harry. Never a dull moment at Mulling Over.

“You could take on the world with those powers, mate,” Louis marvelled at Niall.

Niall opened his mouth as though he wanted to say something, but closed it and nodded in agreement.

“You keep mentioning powers but no one explains,” Harry whined, finally taking a seat near Zayn and Breslin. “Like what Zayn does, I get it. And Niall you see things. Louis is charming.”

“I’m charming all on my own, lad, but there is a subtle enhancement of the preternatural kind.” Louis grinned.

“Louis is charming, Breslin is very strong and musical,” Harry continued. Zayn flashed a curious look at Breslin, but the pub owner avoided him.

“And I… blow things up?” Harry’s eyes looked troubled.

Niall shook his head. “You’re what they call a calokinetic. You manipulate heat and energy. When you sing. The other day you made that pudding. It was perfect until you started humming to Bressie out here. And right now, again. What you need is to not sing.”

“I quite like it, though,” Harry said softly.

Zayn, Louis, and Breslin stood up and dispersed. Zayn elected to clean off the dirty tables. Breslin collected his guitar from his corner and continued with the night’s songs even though the audience participation was waning.

Louis’ only motivation to stand was to stretch his aching muscles.

“You don’t have to stop it, though,” Zayn said from two tables away, where he was collecting plates from a passed out villager. “He can learn to control it, right, Niall?”

Niall shifted into the seat vacated by Breslin, and Louis pushed his stool closer to him before tucking his feet under himself. Zayn passed by with the collection of dirty dishes and poked him in the back with an, “Alright, Lou?”

Louis didn’t respond, his eyes focused on the back of the bar.

Niall continued educating Harry. “Calokinetics can control it, most manipulators can. I can teach you. I’ve known quite a few manipulators. We can start tomorrow before the early morning villagers come in. Plus, I know Bressie wouldn’t be able to have his Music Mulls without you, ain’t that right?”

Breslin was packing up his guitar but nodded anyway. “There’s always room for Harry here, but please stop exploding our things. We only have so much. Night, lads,” he said as he disappeared into his room.

Zayn waved goodnight to Breslin and walked into the kitchen. He reappeared with steaming mugs of hot toddies. He placed one in front of Louis and waited until Louis was forced to look up at him. Zayn gave him a wide grin and shoved the drink into Louis’ hands. Louis looked down at the mug with its swirling amber liquid. “It’s a cider, no potion stuff,” Zayn said, dealing out the rest of the mugs. Five more mugs went out to villagers still sitting at tables around the pub. When he returned, he leaned into Louis, who was barely audible as he spoke.

“Me mum was a calokinetic.”

Louis was from the forest. This was a fact that all three workers at Mulling Over had come to know. But the details surrounding his family life and why he now lived alone, hiding from the Order yet determined to get their attention, was unclear. It was something he had never spoken of before, at least to anyone at Mulling Over. Zayn hushed Niall and Harry, who had been arguing specifics about Harry’s training sessions. Upon seeing Louis’ state, both immediately hurried to nearby stools to give him their attention.

“I didn’t know you had family still, Lou.” Zayn curled his fingers around his own mug of cider and took a long sip.

Louis combed his hair out of his face and stared into his cup. “I don’t like to talk about it,” he said in a low voice. Louis was not a person one would call ‘quiet’. He was loud and boisterous. A quiet Louis meant something was wrong, and Zayn was determined to figure it out.

Zayn nudged Louis’ shoulder with his own. “You don’t have to say, Lou, we can just sit here in quiet.”

Louis took a sip of his cider and stared at the steam rising out of the mug, his mouth hanging open for a second before he spoke. “My family used to be musicians. Dancers, entertainers, and the like. My mum was a psychic, proper-like. I never knew me dad, but sometimes I would go off and get some food for us because I was small and wiry and could sneak off with food without people really noticing. So that’s what I would do, just grab bread and rolls and meats if I could, and they weren’t too heavy for me because I was like, a young lad, no muscles, you know? I used to do a lot of that because I felt like I was too young to really properly help, but that, that gave me purpose. And I enjoyed doing my part, since we didn’t have a home and everyone hated us just for being who we were, which you know, well done, there, slagging people when they’re down, gotta applaud that.” Louis smiled a bit, trying to lighten the mood.

The others did not move an inch. Louis continued. “Anyway, a few years ago I was at this small farm outside of Kastlier which is like, two days south of here, even, and I’m like proper old, not yet an adult but like, not a kid, you know? And they had these magnificent chicken eggs, and my sister Felicia always loved a proper eggs breakfast, when we could scrounge it up. So I’m there going, this’ll be perfect I can’t wait to see her face, it’s gonna be great. And.” Louis’ eyes flickered down to the bar. “I remember thinking of what her face would look like when I got back, and how good those eggs were going to taste and I started noticing like, the smell of wood burning, but not the smell of the camp. It was just smoke and fire and something else. I couldn’t really understand what it was. And then I get to our tent area. My sisters weren’t there. Me mum, our troupe, everyone. Our tent was intact, but some of the youngers of the troupe, their toys and playstuffs were scattered on the ground. And there’s a knights. The Order, the Castle. And I know why they’re there. But they can’t see me in the bushes—this dumb kid with eggs wrapped in my hands and half a loaf, in the bushes. And the one in charge—with his scruffy face and slick hair—orders two of the other knights to see to it that they’re taken care of. Just like that,” Louis sniffled, tears already dampening his eyelashes, and staring at Zayn.
“There were carriages, with locks on them. And I couldn’t really see who was where, but there was no one left in the camp and we numbered about forty by then. They had them all. Everyone I knew. Anyway, me mum, and I would have done the same, but I watch, and at this point my eyes are blurry with tears and fear for them and like, what I’m supposed to do without them all?” Louis said, his voice cracking. He inhaled deeply. Zayn rubbed his hand on Louis’ shoulder and Niall, yet again steel-faced, pushed a cloth towards Louis.

“Niall, did you know all this?” Zayn asked. Confusion and anger spread across his face, partly at Niall and partly at the Order, his old life.

Niall shushed him. “Let him finish, Zayn.” Harry shifted in his seat.

Louis sniffled and blinked back tears. “A spark goes off in one of the carriages and the whole thing just bursts into flames. And at that point, mate, I was just furious and I ran out. I didn’t look back. But I survived, did a lot of things I had to do, things I’m not proud of, but things I had to do,” Louis punctuated his words with a fist on the surface in front of him. He looked down at his drink again. “I… learned how to control my powers. I could have used them but,” he beamed a bright grin at Harry, though his eyes were wet. “After that, no one around to teach me what was even going on with me? I realized that I could control people by focusing all my energy on them, which works out well, for a wandering robber of food and money. I mean, I didn’t feel so guilty, because it was great food I had learned to find on my own, but for the first few months… you’re taking from families who are possibly struggling themselves. But you get over it in the end, when your stomach is screaming at you.” He pulled out some coins from within his robes and chucked them on the table, blinking away the tears.

Harry picked up the cloth Niall had offered earlier and waved it at Louis. He smacked it out of Harry’s hand and stood up. “And that’s why I can’t stand the castle or your stupid boyfriend. They took the only people I loved, the only people that cared about me and killed them. And whoever they didn’t kill in that fire, is locked away in some murky dungeon. And I’m all alone in the forest, fending for meself. Damn the castle. I’ll do whatever I can to be a pain in their sides. And protect those who the Castle fails, who the Castle has also let down and orphaned by their blind justice laws.”

“But don’t you want to see your family again?” Harry asked, picking up the cloth from the floor. “I miss my family when I’m here.”

Niall turned on Harry, frowning. “We’re not keeping you here, love.”

“That’s not what I mean. It seems like Louis wants to be caught. So he can see them again.”

Niall brightened at that. “Or he’s really into the prince.”

Louis glared at Niall, but the effect was destroyed by his wet cheekbones. “I don’t care about the stupid prince. He can’t even lead correctly. I’m just watching them until I see a break in the chain. And then I swoop in.”

The room was quiet, all of them unsure how to react to this revelation. Zayn shrugged. “Swoop in, you say. I’ve never seen you lift a finger in attack. Always words, no action with you.” He shifted his weight and reached for the coins. “And also, you can’t know that it was Liam, back then. I don’t think the time matches. If you were fifteen, Liam was thirteen. I’m a few months older. Whoever was on that raid wasn’t Liam. He was too young and the King never rode when I was there. If anyone was on that raid, it would have been Winston. I shouldn’t be saying this but I don’t really like Winston myself. Mate, I think your hatred of Liam has been unfounded this whole time.”

Louis blinked his eyes dry, staring at Zayn. He opened and closed his mouth as he thought of a comeback, but nothing was quite as good as he wanted. At last he rubbed his face on his sleeves, flashed a quick grin at Zayn and stood up straight. “Well, then, it’s late,” he sniffled. “Everyone should be getting to bed, yeah? I’ll go ahead and retire to my lovely quarters picked out for me by the Nialls.” He pointed at the coins in Zayn’s hands. “There’s your payment for it, good sirs, g’day to everyone.” He ignored his regular room by Breslin’s and made his way up the stairs to Zayn’s, raising his voice as he went to ensure they would still hear him from the second floor.

Once Louis shut the door, Niall let out a honk of a laugh. Harry and Zayn shook their heads quietly. “I would go get him out of my room and turn him in to the Order myself but he’s a decent guy underneath,” Zayn said, shaking his head.

^^^^

It was not lost on Liam that certain knights were starting to fall away from Liam's lead and venture off with Winston. It was understandable. Allegiances had formed over the years since training under Winston as teens. Liam had naively believed that his noble rank would carry weight among the Order. That had simply not been true.

Nonetheless, the only son of King Geoff collected the remaining knights under his guidance and went out to canvas Daunger Forest again.

Being wary of his knights' needs was important to Liam, and he made sure to schedule rest periods. As comfortable as a royal saddle could be, he desired not to spend the better part of the day on Loki’s back.

Liam clambered off his mount and joined Xander, Daniel, Julian, and Corden around a small fire where they roasted small fowl and drank from metal flagons. The men sat on logs and stones, stuffing their faces in the most uncivilized fashion, and watching Liam, who stretched his legs nearby.

“I will remember your loyalty, men. I know that I have much to prove to you, and that change within ranks is never easy. But I hope that you will come to see my vision for the kingdom, and that you will still be proud of your time as a knight of this Order when we have eradicated every last criminal from these woods.” Liam smiled and took his seat on a mossy boulder, reaching for a piece of meat.

“Liam, we've been friends since we were children in the castle. You are our king and leader, and we will follow wherever you lead. You are the rightful head of the Order,” Julian drawled around his food.

The rest of the Order nodded along and shouted, in varying degrees of clarity, “To Liam!”

Liam grinned harder and studied the faces of the men enjoying a meal with him. He was filled with pride that these men truly appreciated his efforts to the cause. Liam washed down his second piece of meat with water and stood up to stretch again. “Continue with your meals, I will take a short stroll and return in a moment.”

Liam walked to the end of a small hill, where a rotted tree trunk had fallen and was in the process of being eaten by insects and small critters. He tested the trunk with his foot and it creaked under the force.

“Who goes there?” a squeaky voice cried from below. Louis peered up at Liam from below the trunk.

“Lootin’ Lou,” Liam said.

“Prince Payne! Fancy seeing you out here again. Are you looking for crime? Well, not going to find it here. Decent citizen I am, minding my business.” Louis crawled out from under the tree and dusted off his stolen clothes.

“You left me a note the last time we met,” Liam said, mindlessly kicking small pebbles down towards Louis.

Louis scowled at the pebbles and moved to the side, folding his arms. “My, my, they let you nobles read your own post? That's a new one. Thought you had servants do everything for you. Honestly, it's nice that you can use your brain without consulting someone.”

“Well, you dropped it in front of the Order,” Liam said, stumbling on his words. “I happened to be the first to pick it up. It was addressed to me… I wouldn't hav—”

“No, you're right, your Hig—uh… it was for you. Thought you'd like something to remember me by and that.”

“Because your crimes aren't enough?”

Louis' eyebrows rose into his fringe. “My crimes? I challenge you to pin exactly one situation you've come across in this forest on me, because I think it's fair to say you have nothing.”

Indeed, the Order had no solid evidence to connect Louis to anything. Besides scraps of cloth that were clearly stolen from previous encounters with citizens, nothing could lead them directly to Louis.

“While that may be true, my subjects would bear testament against you in my father's court.”

Louis laughed at that. “In court, yeah?” He tongued the inside of his cheek. “Assuming that you're able to get me to the court, of course.” His smile dazzled against his dirtied face, even in the shade of the treetops.

“Well, I won't arrest someone who is not caught in the act. I refuse to arrest on hearsay. I've seen many a wrongly convicted person imprisoned, or worse, under my father's rule, and I propose that—”

“Proposing?” Louis interrupted. "You could at least buy me a warm meal first."

“What?”

Louis chuckled. “You’ve got to be better at jokes. You take so much for granted, over there in that castle,” Louis said, waving his arm in the general direction of the castle grounds. “Can’t even have a basic conversation with a criminal.”

Liam's face lit up. “Criminal! So you do admit it?”

Louis frowned. “I admitted nothing of the sort. What's a real crime, though, are those posters. Will someone be around to fix those? I do know a magnificent artist. He's a poti—”

“I’m not interested in jokes,” Liam said, shifting his weight on ground. “I’m interested in crime. Lowering the instances of it. It behooves you to act accordingly, the dungeons of Castle Wolverdien are not kindly to its visitors.”

“Maybe I've got some friends there I wouldn't mind seeing again,” Louis said, standing on his toes. “Certainly got more in common with the lot than you spiffy royalty.” The rustle of armor and leather increased behind Liam and Louis nodded. “Looks like your mates are missing you, love. Should get back to them.”

Liam turned to see Julian and Daniel approaching.

“I’ve got a meal to catch in these woods. Cheers, love,” Louis said.

By the time Liam turned back around, Louis had disappeared yet again. Liam shook his head, anger blooming across his cheeks as a fond smile crept across his lips.

^^^^

Harry’s skill in his powers grew during training sessions with Niall. Zayn honed his potions as well, serving both Harry and Niall heatproof potions and energy dampeners. For two weeks, they teetered on the verge of alcoholism, with Zayn barely keeping the bar stocked with potion and alcohol between the sessions. With all the fiery mishaps that occurred, Zayn was relieved when both his mates lived to see another day. As the month wore on, Harry spent most of his evenings draped around the bar, with Niall either entangled in his limbs or on a nearby stool while insisting he was being a professional. This was a cue for Zayn to remind Niall that Harry’s deal was free bread for their breakfast, and was not paying Niall for anything.

“Has Breslin ever competed in the Nix Festival? I feel he might be good at it,” Harry said one day, head resting on the hardwood of the bar . He watched Breslin from across the room with one eye. Niall sat on the floor behind the bar, a pint in each of his hands and a foot resting on the rung of Zayn’s bar stool.

“The what festival?” Niall slurred.

"It's a big festival, music and dancing, comes through Wolverdien quite often. The organizer comes from Sanctus. It’s a huge deal where I'm from." Harry slid over closer to Niall. "I think Breslin would have a shot. He's good. Surprised you haven't heard of it, king of the dance as you are."

"I knew about it, just not by name. That man is loud and obnoxious. I don't think Breslin would like the attention. Gets him scared."

"A big guy like Breslin? Scared of performing?” Harry scoffed. “Or of Nick's hair? Because that I could understand. His quiff's quite large."

"Breslin is like, a large bear. You think he'd want to kill you. Muscles, height. Looks like a tower. But he won't, he's too delicate. Complete opposite of Lou, if you can get it."

Harry turned in his seat as Breslin made his way over from the corner. "Breslin, I had no idea!"

Breslin smiled to himself at Niall's words. "Looks can be deceiving, lad. But if you want a go at the festival I can help out."

"Oi, I'm helping him with his powers," Niall started, still laying on the floor.

Harry and Breslin peered over the bar at him. "And you’re doing a fine job at that. Look at this place, it’s still standing! What I meant was his singing. Calokinetics,” he said, looking at Harry, “among other things concerning Harry, are all yours."

“Cheers, mate,” Niall yelled from the bar floor.

“What’s everyone staring at? Is Niall pissed again? It's not even afternoon,” Zayn said, walking over to the bar, his arms filled with rags, dishes, and a few leftover loaves. “Harry, these loaves of yours are selling well. We might just ask you to live in the kitchen. But not where you can blow things up, yeah.”

"Cheers, Zayn. And no, Niall's just reclining, uh, down there. I was asking him and Breslin about the Nix Festival."

"Oh yeah. That Grimshaw gets around here a lot. No one here has the time to perform, but it's fun to hear from inside when it's in the town. No offense, Brez, it's just a nice change of pace from the stuff in here."

"No offense," Breslin said, laughing and smacking Zayn's back, pushing a few of the loaves off the top of his pile onto the floor. "Oh, sorry."

"It's alright, those were for the birds, anyway,” Zayn said, peering over his hands at the loaves. “They aren't gonna sell this late in the day. Harold, you joining the festival?"

Upstairs, a door burst open and Louis stormed out. "Honestly, whatever this is happening right down by the fountain outside is mad. I'm trying to sleep and people are just out there doing whatever they like.”

“Afternoon, Lou,” Niall waved his arm aimlessly above his head.

“Sounds a lot like what you do. Do whatever you feel, sod the law.” Zayn mused as he walked back to the kitchen.

“Yeah, well, Malik, see, I at least pay for my room, so you can just shut it. What time is it, anyway? Who's got the food?”

“Well, it is afternoon, like Niall said. What’s over the bar is what I’ve got left.” Harry said, gesturing to the counter where Zayn and Niall had set up his baked goods.

“Well, that’s great, I might as well go chew on some fowl,” Louis said, descending the stairs and disappearing into the kitchen to take the back door out of the pub. “Seems they’d be easier to find at this time, cheers, lads!”

^^^^

Rainy days were rare in Wolverdien, but when rain did come, it rained for weeks. Prince Liam was adamant about working through the rain, declaring that the sun would return that afternoon. The sun did, in fact, breach the clouds later that afternoon as Liam brought the Order and their mounts to a dense area of the forest. While the horses rested free of saddles, the men changed their sodden clothes. Liam decided to rest near a saddle drying on a log, away from his men on the pretense that he could focus better on how to canvas the next swath of forest alone.

Kicking away moss, Liam sat down and admired the lush greenery around him. A saddle above his head slid off the log with a thump. Liam stood up to inspect it and came face to face with Louis.

“You again,” Liam said, looking down at the bag and then back at Louis. “Did I not state the last time we crossed paths that I would arrest a criminal in the act?”

A few drops of water fell from Louis' fringe. “That does sound like something you'd say. But I don't care enough to remember for sure. Too much work. I'm running low on energy here.” Louis held up the loaves of bread in his arms. His other hand held a roll of parchment.

Liam motioned to the roll. “Paper?” Liam said, pointing at Louis’ arms. “More letters for me?”

“That's a little presumptuous, don't you think? Just 'cause you're a prince doesn't mean you're the sparkle in everyone's eyes.” Louis shook aside his damp fringe. “Some people might actually hate you.”

“Is that how you feel?” Liam frowned.

Louis dug around in the saddlebag again. “Might be. Us roguish types tend not to hold people like you in high favor.”

Liam watched Louis thrust his arm into two bags at once, face deep in concentration. “Are you actually still searching my own saddlebags in front of me? Have you no shame?”

“Ah, now you're catching on!” Louis said, a drop of water sliding down his cheek. He glanced up at Liam, his smirk vanishing at the sight of Liam's expression. They stared at each other, the wind shaking more raindrops from the branches above.

“How would you write without writing utensils?” Liam said, changing the subject and cocking his head to the side.

Louis grinned. “I think a fantastic noble such as yourself should be able to put that together, considering how I came upon the parchment.”

Liam shook his head. Nothing was off with Louis' words. He was speaking truthfully to Liam. “That’s well, but you keep admitting to robbing. I find that sort of pride in criminal acts troubling.”

“You should,” Louis said, stuffing the butt of a loaf into his mouth. “Your job and that.” He smiled around the bread and continued poking through another saddlebag.

Liam cleared his throat and stood up straight. “I should arrest you.”

An exasperated sigh came from Louis. “You could do.” Louis stuffed another sack of coin in his tunic. “But I don't think you want to.”

Liam frowned, taken aback. "How do you know that?"

Louis wiped water from his brow and stared at Liam, sighing again. “When you're dealing with a charming person such as myself, it's hard to stay mad.”

Liam fought the smile that threatened to break across his face. “Is that your power? Charming?”

"That's not in my interests for you to know, really," Louis said, stuffing another bite of food into his mouth.

"That's not very charming, then," Liam said, gesturing at Louis' full mouth.

"Well, you've got your answer… Then," Louis said, a grin crossing his lips, soggy crumbs on the edges.

Liam smirked, despite himself. Louis was a highly confusing criminal. For every crime Liam knew Louis had committed, none of them were deeply disturbing. Just crimes of survival. Louis had a good heart. And he never once activated Liam’s powers. That counted for something with Liam. His joy won over and Liam smiled as he watched Louis blatantly commit crimes in front of him. The idea did not sit well with him, but his affection for Louis was growing.

A shout echoed through the trees. Liam could make out Julian’s voice.

“Seems like they're out for you again,” Louis said, stepping around the horses, his tunic sagging around his belt where he had hidden his saddlebag loot. He stood on tip-toes to check the area. No knights were visible yet.

Liam opened his mouth to address the situation and then closed it again, studying Louis. His clothes were still muddy but his blue eyes sparkled in the dim light. He probably cleaned up well.

“They will arrest you on sight,” Liam said, finally. “All I have to give them are orders.”

Louis swallowed and set his face in a neutral expression. “As you should.”

Liam frowned. “Are you not going to disappear?”

“Do you want me to?” Louis' voice cracked.

“The knights of the Order will surely arrest you if you are caught with their possessions and provisions in the open forest.”

“‘Possessions and provisions', you're a poet, yeah,” Louis marvelled. “You’re also the bloody prince; if you haven't arrested me…” He trailed off, staring at Liam.

“You’d run away anyway.”

In his seventeenth year Liam had courted a maiden with charming powers and nothing she did worked on Liam. Charming and manipulation powers had never worked on Liam. Louis was also not challenging his powers with lies. He was a delightful puzzle in the monotony of Liam’s forest patrolling.

Louis grinned at that. “Well.” He gathered the unwieldy bulk of his tunic in his arms. “If you won't miss me too much.”

Liam tutted. He would have to answer to Winston, and possibly the king, if he was discovered to have let Louis go. “You’re quite mad,” he said, shooing Louis into the brush.

Louis made a face and tumbled off a nearby path into a thorny bush. A variety of muffled curses followed. Liam had barely regained his composure when three of his knights approached him.

“Sir? Are you alright?” Daniel said, glancing in the direction where Louis had just disappeared.

Liam wiped a tear from his eyes. “Yes, yes. Just reminiscing about my childhood. Belly laughs,” he said, patting his stomach.

Xander and Julian reached the disheveled saddlebags strewn about on the dank forest floor. Xander caressed his mount's neck and counted up what was missing.

“It seems someone got into our bags,” Julian said, peering into his own bag.

Liam rubbed the rain from his face. “Apologies. It appears I was not as vigilant as I could have been. May have dozed off a bit by this log.” Liam patted the log he'd sat under earlier. “Nothing we can do now. Let's pack up the mounts and move on. Evil does not stop and neither will our Order.”

As Liam climbed into Loki's saddle, a flash of flesh happened to catch his eye and he glanced up to spot Louis sat on a thick tree branch pulling thorns from his bare chest. The prince's eyes crinkled at the sight, but said nothing to the Order as they continued deeper into the forest.

^^^^

“How have you dealt with Louis so long?” Harry asked one day as Niall greeted a trio of boarders at the door.

“He’s got money. It’s not the right money, but it keeps us open,” Zayn said, coming out of the kitchen. He waved a hand over two pints and pointed towards the back of the pub. “Mate,” Zayn said to Breslin, “bring these to those lads who just came in. This one to the guy near the window, though, yeah? He could use that boost.” Breslin nodded, slinging his guitar over his shoulder before grabbing the mugs and walking towards the customers.

Harry watched the patrons delight in the gift from Breslin. “How can you tell what they want before they order if Niall’s the one who can see the future?”

“If you can’t use the power you were born with, why bother?”

“Your potions are your power?”

“Know anyone who can that does anything else?”

“I don’t know anyone with powers.”

“Right, you come from that… place.”

Zayn returned to the kitchen for a plate of food. Breslin walked back to the bar and balked. “Sometimes I think you’re the one with the foreseeing powers,” he said, taking the plates from Zayn. “This is exactly what they ordered.” He turned to deliver the food to the customers.

“Amazing,” Harry marveled.

“Well, that was Niall’s premonition that time. But you get used to it. I would have preferred to be back at the castle with my mates and my family, but it’s okay here. I don’t mind being away from them anymore. It’s home, and I’m a lot better about it than I used to be.”

“Why don’t you ever try returning to the castle?” Harry asked.
Niall rounded on Harry and clapped him on the back. “Is he bothering you about the castle again?”

“It’s not bothering! We were having a conversation, Niall,” Zayn said, a disproving look on his face.

“Louis is right, though!” Niall said, sinking into a seat next to Harry. “You talk so much about Liam that sometimes I think he’s mad for him. The prince is well fit, but he’s also the prince.”

Zayn grunted and shook his head. “It’s not about Liam, though? It’s my whole family. Everyone else is back there and learning their powers but… somehow I was the one who had to leave. The only one! Out of the whole castle? It’s not feasible. I don’t like being away from them. I don’t like not knowing what Safaa is growing up to be. I had to sell my horse to a family when I got here. I miss Vör. That was the horse. It’s not easy. I blame Winston, but Liam said it was in the interest of the kingdom. But the king thought of me like a son, and my sisters like his own loves.”

“We talking about Prince Hot-for-Zayn again?” came a sloppy sentence at the door.

Niall started and then barked a laugh. “For crissakes, Lou, how do you keep popping up like that?”

“I’ve got to have my secrets, yeah? Can’t be the Lootin’ Lou without knowing how to get about unnoticed. Apple, Hazza?”

“No, thank you,” Harry said, recoiling from the wormy apple in Lou’s outstretched hand.

“More for me, then. This un’s got extra protein, it’s good for flavor.”

Niall slid his hand across Harry’s back as he walked around Louis to the bar, laughing. “Lou, Harry thinks you’ve lost it.”

Harry frowned at Niall’s betrayal, but Louis shook it off. “That’s a fair assumption, I won’t take offense. But he’s the one missing out.” He pointed at Zayn with the apple. “How goes it, Zayn? What’s new on the docket about our lad?” Louis leaned against Niall, who in turn was forced to lean on the bar to stay standing.

Zayn leaned forward on the counter. “I told you your timelines don’t match up. Whoever came after your family wasn’t Liam. He wasn’t in charge, we were too young.”

“I think it’s convenient that after, what, three years of knowing me…? Now is the time where you tell me this. I was just out there and saw him, you know. All of them, in their shiny getups just ransacking carriages and the like. Saying they were criminals and rummaging through their packages. They’ve been stopping anyone going towards the castle. They took two fishermen casting off the waterfall near the north part of Daunger Forest and arrested them for trespassing on castle grounds! Great love affair you’ve got there, Zayn.”

Niall pushed away from Louis and left to tend to his customers. Louis lost his balance and toppled into Harry’s lap. Harry helped Louis into the seat next to him. Breslin appeared from his bedroom to set up for the night by the hearth.

“You’ve got it wrong, Lou. Winston’s the one you want,” Zayn said, collecting dishes Breslin had placed nearby. “Next time you find yourself crossing paths with the Order, check if the leader’s got a birthmark about here on his neck.”

“Zayn, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be close enough to your boyfriend to know such intricate details about his neck. Honestly, the fact that you can remember such detail after five years…! Proper besotted you are.” Louis reached over the bar and grabbed an empty goblet. “Harold, my love, can you fill this up for me?” he said, wiggling it in Harry’s direction. Harry frowned but glanced at Zayn for approval before filling it from the keg on the counter to his left.

Zayn hopped over the bar top and went into the kitchen. “All I’ll say, Louis, is the next time you see them, pay attention. Birthmarks here, here, here,” he said, pointing at various spots on his own face and neck. “Winston’s hair is darker, got more curl than Liam’s. And it’s not cos I’m in love with him. You’re the one bringing him up lately. I just don’t like you demonizing Liam when I know he’s gonna be the one to set this kingdom right in the future.”

Louis waved Zayn away and turned to Harry. “Right. So you and Niall…”

Harry ignored Louis and slid off his stool to join Breslin and his guitar. Breslin turned to the meager pub audience and shouted, “Lads and gentlemen, and the elegant ladies afeared to lose them to the drink at this humble establishment, I would like to welcome to the… stage section of the pub, my mate Harold. He’s been here before and he’s going to be in the Nix Festival this year. So while he’s not from these parts particularly, give him the same warm home welcome and support, if you will. Get in, Harry!”

Harry nodded his acknowledgment of the scattered claps and belches that arose from the crowd. Breslin started in on the same tune he’d be playing the day Harry first arrived.

Harry’s eyes lit up when he recognized the tune and smiled at Breslin. “Good one, this,” he said before starting in on the harmonies.

Zayn applauded from the bar.

Louis knocked over a glass to distract Zayn. “That Harry lad seems odd. I don’t like him,” Louis said, shoving the rest of his apple in his mouth.

“Learning to be charming without your powers is tough. Especially with a personality like yours, yeah?” Zayn chuckled as he shoved another full goblet at Louis.

“I’m charming enough on my own. What you see is what you get. Lou is what Lou is.” Louis spread his arms in a messianic pose.

Zayn nodded in mock approval. “Yeah? Should get that branded on ya.”

“Maybe I might,” Louis said, chunks of apple flying across the bar.

^^^^

Liam enjoyed the outdoors. He welcomed the cool breeze in the forest and the fresh air that curled around him while Loki drank from the various rivers. Unlike the tension back at the castle, the forest’s siren song was a simpler life, but one that Liam could not ever imagine himself in. Sections of the forest were still rampant with crime and Lootin’ Lou was especially taxing on Liam’s patience. Liam had let the man go several times and they were not proud moments for the young prince. Despite his desire to the contrary, Liam was determined to arrest Louis on site the next time they crossed paths. It was a matter of honor, nothing less.

A trio of Order knights came galloping up behind Liam and he turned in the saddle to greet them.

“Your Highness, we have reason to believe that the Tomlinson fellow is in a neighboring village,” Corden said. His mount stopped unreasonably close to Loki and Liam pulled back on his own reins. “Is he or isn’t he, Corden? Spit it out.”

“Sir,” said Jonathan, coming up behind Corden, “Tomlinson is not in the woods right now.”

“He’s not in the kingdom of Wolverdien, nor is he in these woods themselves,” Corden agreed.

Liam frowned. Their speech patterns were not their usual, a tell-tale sign their words were being translated through Liam’s powers. “You two do realize my powers can sense lies and yet you distinctly try to betray me to my face. After all this time, you’re still under Winston’s orders, even though I am in charge? Why is that?” Liam glared at the men.

“Liam, I assure you we’re not trying to lie,” Sir Julian said, siddling up to Corden’s side. “We have reasonable information that says Tomlinson has been in Esterkastel, which is south of these woods. We rode a bit and found no further information.”

Liam had grown to trust Julian’s information and conceded then. “Very well, but the horses need to rest before we head out again. Tomorrow we will ride for Esterkastel, but should we leave now; it would be too late to return to Wolverdien for the night,” Liam said. He guided Loki through Corden and Jonathan’s horses to take the lead back towards Castle Wolverdien. He raised his voice to the trees. “Tomlinson, if you are out there, I promise you we will return for you!”

Unfortunately those were the last words Liam spoke before he blacked out.

^^^^

When Liam came to, Louis stood above him.

“Oh, cheers,” Louis said with relief. “Welcome back to the living! Sit up, eat this muffin, it’s quite good. That I did not steal—I know that’s your whole deal with me, got you a proper dessert.” Louis slid onto the ground next to Liam, who studied him. His blue eyes sparkled, his scraggly beard almost the same color as the dirt caking his body and he was favoring his right arm. Louis grinned broadly at the prince before digging through a bag Liam had not seen before. “‘Course, don’t ask how I got the money to pay for it.”

Liam looked around at the forest. He was reclined on a large boulder at the edge of a waterfall, his leatherwork and armor to his left, and he was barechested. His fingers gingerly touched the swollen bump on the back of his skull and he hissed. His head was wrapped in a scrap of fabric.

Louis scooted closer to him. He stuffed an entire bread roll from the bag into his mouth. Liam watched the mass move around in his mouth, before realizing he was being rude.

“Are you okay? Did you think…?” Louis said, moving the lump to one side of his mouth. “I’m not the one who conked ya, if that’s what you’re thinking. Come on, drink up, those mates of yours are gonna be back to finish the deal.”

Liam cleared his throat and looked down at the muffin still in his hands. “We were returning to the castle, and I called out to you to beware. Why wouldn’t you attack me?”

“If I attacked you, love, where’s the rest of your men? I’m good, but I’m not able to take down four knights of the Order and their mounts with no trace. Thanks for that confidence boost though,” Louis said, raising a cracked glass filled with riverwater in toast.

“They must have returned to get help, then,” Liam said, straining to stand. His wound forced him back, a dizzy spell disorientating him. He squinted at Louis. “But you’re also telling me the truth,” he said, still puzzled at this characteristic of Louis.

“Well, I did overhear you telling your men that you cannot hear a lie. So. I’m not trying something I can’t do. Eat up, come on, I’m still a wanted man. I don’t have this time,” Louis wiped his mouth with his sleeve and dropped the shard back into a satchel on the ground behind him.

Liam scanned the area again. This must be a trick by Winston to see if Liam was a worthy captain. Except that no one else seemed to be around. “Why did you stay with me?”

Louis’ breath caught and his eyes darted to the grass, the smile vanishing from his face. “If you must know: I needed to see if… you had a birthmark.”

“A birthmark?” Liam frowned, but it just brought more pain. He winced again.

“Don’t think too much into it, it means something for me. It—” Louis stopped himself and sighed. “Sod your powers, mate. It means I don’t have anything against you.”

Liam’s face lit up and then he grimaced again at the pain. “So you’ll stop terrorizing my citizens?”

“I said I have nothing against you; your father is still a problem. And that Winston lad,” Louis said, waving a finger at Liam.

“Pardon, did you say Winston? How do you know Winston? I knew it, this is a test from him, isn’t it? To see if I would let you g—”
A tree branch snapped in the distance, and Louis jumped to his feet. “I’ve gotta go. Your horse is tied up over yonder, watch out for that portly knight of yours, I’m pretty sure it was him that struck you.” Louis extended his left hand to Liam and helped him up. Liam rested his weight on the shorter man and slowly stood up. Louis’ hold was gentle and he didn’t let go of Liam until the prince was standing on his own feet. Liam was suddenly glad that they were alone in the forest for two reasons. The first was that he would never escape anyone knowing that he was about to let the most wanted man in the kingdom free a third time. The second was the reason why.

Liam scoffed at the thought and his breath blew Louis’ fringe lightly. It did not make Louis any less stunning. Later the prince would dismiss the moment, saying it was because of the sun and his head being poorly, but he pulled Louis close and pressed a kiss to his lips. The rogue immediately struggled and fought against the prince until Liam let him go.

“A little too close there for my liking, your Highness,” Louis said, stepping back and wiping his mouth with his right hand. “I don’t want your royalty to get all over me. Not a good look for a thief.” Louis grimaced before seeing the vulnerability in Liam’s face and contorting his own into an exaggerated smile. Liam was frozen in the same position he was when Louis pulled away.

Louis opened his mouth to speak, but instead turned and dashed off into the forest again.

“Well, that went brilliantly,” Liam said walking over to where Loki was tied. “I can carry out orders fantastically when it’s Winston, but my heart is something else.” He patted Loki on the neck and nuzzled him. “Good to see you, boy,” he said, before gathering his armor and dressing again.

^^^^

In all his years of living, Louis had never had a personal conflict as strong as this. The walk through the forest brush seemed longer than ever. Louis climbed into his familiar rotted tree trunk. It gave him refuge when he felt vulnerable in the forest. He poked around in his satchel and pulled out a few clothing scraps, wetting them in the nearby stream. During his battle to save Liam, Corden had sent a crystal dagger at Louis, slicing his right forearm. His arm stung slightly as he pulled back his sleeve to wipe it clean and he hissed, throwing his head back against the tree trunk.

The prince had been the man he’d blamed for the death of his family. Louis had lived his life for the moment when he could exact revenge on the kingdom. He never had a plan of attack, but the motivation of revenge was enough. His charm powers had always worked when he needed them. When he’d found himself in a compromising situation he used his powers to charm money away from the person. Romance was never part of the equation. His heart being what it was, he concerned himself with helping those around him. And not finding himself in a dungeon, or worse, dying at the hands of the Order. And now everything was different.

The kiss was not spectacular, but three parts of Louis had pulled at him. The first part wanted to reciprocate, the second assumed it was a strange trap designed to throw Louis off guard, and the last part of him—the one that had won out—had said run, and analyze the situation later. It was that part that had guided Louis through many close encounters in the past. It was the part of him that he trusted the most at this point in his life.

If given a second chance, Louis would have listened to his first instinct. Liam had been amusing in all their earlier encounters. He had been kind and forgiving in setting Louis free numerous times. Liam’s hold on his face had been so soft yet desperate, his lips perfect and warm. Louis had seen the birthmarks Zayn had mentioned. The birthmarks that meant Liam wasn’t the knight Louis wanted revenge on. And Louis had wanted to kiss Liam back.

Louis pulled at a nearby flower stem and chewed on it. His battle wounds dressed, he tossed aside the dirtied scraps of cloth.

A bird fluttered down near Louis and drank from the stream. “Well, you’re perky, aren’t you. I wish I were you, love,” Louis whispered in the bird’s direction. “We’re practically the same, you know. Grabbing food that’s not ours, drinking where we can. Bet your home is a bit cozier than this thing. ‘Course you’ve got a real nest somewhere, yeah?” Louis shook some crumbs out of his satchel into his hands and threw them close to the water. “Here you go, enjoy that on me.”

The bird hopped over to the crumbs and pecked away.

“Yeah,” Louis said, smiling. A bush rustled on the other side of the stream and a rabbit hopped into view. Louis groaned. Rabbit stew would make him feel so much better. “Of course you’re on that side, where I can’t get to you, delicious thing.” The rabbit wiggled its nose and its eyes crinkled. “Oh, come on,” Louis whined. “Do you see that rabbit? Honestly, hop along; I don’t need your eyes sparkling like the prince’s to remind me. Trying to forget that, I am.”

Louis slumped into the tree trunk. He should get to Mulling Over and have Zayn take a better look at this wound.

^^^^

Zayn, Breslin, and Niall sat around a table in Mulling Over, enjoying a small breakfast.

“Uhm, Liam really enjoyed being sneaky as a kid, though. It destroyed him when he realized that was taken away from him,” Zayn said, during another story about his days in the castle. He sipped at some milk Niall poured. “The first day he cried about it. He wanted to rule, couldn’t wait to be king and all that, but not the way it played out. I know he’s angry at Winston, he’s got to be. But there’s not much he can do but just play along for now.” Zayn glanced over at the bar where Harry was setting up pastries before his usual afternoon nap. Zayn took another bite of bread. “Liam always made sure that he’d hear people as they meant to, tried so hard not to use his power when he could avoid it. It nearly drove him mad, and I only knew him with his powers for a year before I left.”

Niall reached out and grabbed Zayn’s hand. Zayn batted his eyes in confusion. “No, sorry,” Niall said, as he pulled away. “I thought maybe I’d flash on something.”

“He sounds grand. It’s a good thing we have a ruler like that to look forward to.” Breslin grabbed for another tuft of bread and dabbed it in his saucer of creamed butter.

Niall nodded. “Yeah, the problem with that is that we still have to wait. And I don’t particularly enjoy waiting for people to die for things to get better.”

“Oi, what, you gonna assassinate the king?” Breslin said, recoiling from Niall.

Niall cackled. “No! I meant it’s morbid to await his death like it’s a feast day.”

“The king’s alright himself,” Zayn sniffed. “It’s just Winston, like I told Louis.”

The door to the pub swung open and Louis toppled inside, grabbing a stool before he fell to the floor. A few pastries on the bar tumbled off their pyramid and Harry frowned.

“You’re right, I give up!” Louis said with a sob. “Your mad prince is not the one who killed my family.”

Zayn got up immediately to help him up. “Lou, what happened, were you followed?”

“‘Was I followed’ you wanna know, alright, thanks, Zayn, I’m in perfect condition, no worries about me, then.” Zayn shouldered Louis’ weight and brought him to the table with Niall and Breslin, dropping him in the empty seat but still supporting his weight.

“You don’t look it, Lou,” Niall commented, “Brez, the door.” Breslin leaped towards the door and attached the lock in case Louis was followed.

Niall leaned closer to Louis across the table from him.

“So what happened?” Breslin asked, dragging another chair to the table to sit.

“Zayn was right, I got close enough to the prince and… well, he has those birthmarks he said. He was with the Order in the forest and they were coming here, for me and--”

“They what? And you led them here?” Zayn shouted, dropping the rest of Louis in the chair and stepping back.

“Oi, let me finish, lads,” Louis winced. “I was not. They were lying to him. His power is forcing people to tell the truth or something like it. And so he knew they were trying to get around him. He decided to turn back home, two of them attacked, left him by the water with his horse. Supposedly the horse was to trample him when it was afeared, but all it did was kneel next to the lad and wait for him to wake up.” He sighed before adding, “it’s a good horse.”

“Liam’s had Loki almost as long as he’s been alive. I’ve known him almost as long as—”

“Yeah? Is this your story you’re telling? Or can I…” Louis grabbed the milk container and held it to his face. “Anyway, I’m up in the trees like a bloody bird, watching this all happen. One of the knights—fella with long greasy hair—chased the other two back towards the north. He’s a feral, I saw his form change halfway down the path. So I jump down because like, I’m a monster but I’m not a monster! I’ll help him if maybe he won’t arrest me.” All eyes at the table stared in silence. “It’s complicated,” Louis said, voice cracking.

Harry looked over from where he was fixing the pastry pyramid, smiling at his achievement. He applauded himself and made his way over to start cleaning tables.

“So I pulled him completely out of the water, splashed his face with water and gave him and the horse some food. Left a calling card, even. Kinda regret that bit, now. Anyway,” Louis shrugged his weight onto his left side, delicately resting his right arm on his torso. “I fought off the two knights, but they got away. There were three, but only two had their own agenda. The third one didn’t know whether to stay with him or go, ‘cause you know, me, but went after them. I don’t know how well that worked for him. But the prince is fine. One of the Order caught up with me later though, that’s how I got this.” Louis lifted his sleeve to reveal his wound. Niall and Zayn leaned closer to examine the wound.

“Did you clean this yourself? Did a pretty good job!” Niall said with an impressed look.

Breslin and Zayn excused themselves to tend to business as Harry brought over a small cookie for Louis. “You look like you could use the sugar,” he said, beaming at Louis. Louis stuffed the entire biscuit in his mouth and clamped down.

“Always a fan of yours, Harold,” Louis said, crumbs tumbling from his mouth. He glanced down at Breslin’s half-eaten breakfast. “Done with this, then, Breslin?” It was more of a statement as he gulped down the rest of the milk.

Zayn returned quickly, a creamy purple liquid sloshing inside a chalice. “This’ll make you feel a lot better than milk will.”

“If you’re trying to temper my powers, Zayn, I’m not in the mood to even use them.” With his better arm Louis gestured at his body. “I’m nursing some wounds if you hadn’t noticed.”

Zayn set down the glass on the table in front of Louis anyway. “If you want the potion it’s there. It’s gonna soothe the pain a bit, nothing to do with your bloody powers. Not everyone’s out to get you all the time, mate,” Zayn said, walking back to the bar as Breslin tended to boarders. Louis waited until Zayn turned around to swallow the liquid in one gulp.

^^^^

At the previous year’s gala Liam had confessed to his sister that he fancied one of the other noblemen in attendance. Princess Nicola had giggled into his shoulder and explained the nobleman was betrothed to another kingdom’s princess. Liam had spent the night trying to ignore the man, but couldn’t. When he returned to his quarters, Nicola had seen the look on his face and told him that the heart cannot be told what it wants. The young prince hadn’t understood what she meant at the time, but as he climbed on Loki’s back he was beginning to understand.

Liam had resolved to capture Tomlinson on their next meeting and had instead found himself kissing the criminal. Liam was risking his honor as captain of the Order by letting him go. He should be livid with the man. Everything about Louis went against what Liam believed in, and yet Liam couldn’t shake the idea of kissing Louis again. Liam pushed the thought to the back of his mind and continued on to search for the members of his Order.

He succeeded in finding three. Daniel and Joshua had found Julian as he lay in a bush, a crystal stalactite of Corden’s design puncturing his shoulder. Liam knew Julian’s powers to be superhuman healing and metamorphosis. The Order knights had dressed the wound as best they could, but even with Julian’s healing powers his life was still in danger. Liam slid off his mount and approached Julian as he lay propped on the kneeling Yggdrasil, Julian’s horse.

“You don’t look any worse than when we last laid eyes on each other,” Liam said in an attempt to ease the knight’s pain. Julian smiled up at Liam, his eyes a pale yellow, a sign he was close to turning into the beast.

“Sir, I did my best, but Corden and Jonathan took off for the castle. I fear they may be entangled with Winston and Sir Cowell in laying siege to the castle and usurping the king. They sideswiped my Yggdrasil, who is old, and—"

“You did honorably, Julian. I appreciate you for your efforts and sacrifice. We will hunt down those fiendish knights together.” Liam reached down to pat Yggdrasil’s head. “And well done to your steed. You have trained her well.”

Daniel moved to re-dress Julian’s wounds as Joshua approached Prince Liam. “Sir, if I may have a word,” Joshua said, stepping even further from Julian and Daniel. “We are far from the castle and cannot save Julian if we doubled back. Our only option at saving him is to entrust him to the nearest town doctor.”

“Daniel and yourself just returned from the castle! Are you saying that trip is far more difficult than a town we are not familiar with?” Liam’s hands reached out for a vine growing on a nearby tree.

Joshua watched Liam’s fingers fiddle with the vine. “That is precisely what I’m saying, your Highness.”

Liam glanced back at Daniel, who was lifting a clay pot of river water to Julian’s lips. “Julian is a feral mind,” Liam said too loudly. “Would that not assist his case?”

Joshua shook his, still whispering. “Unfortunately not for the wounds he’s afflicted with, your Highness.”

“Thank you, Joshua,” Liam said, forcing a smile onto his face. And then, louder, “Very well! We will continue onwards to this town of Esterkastel.”

“Your Highness! If this is about my condition, don’t suffer me any longer. I can fend for myself with my powers. Please, save your kingdom and your castle, it is more important than I.”

“Nonsense,” Liam said, as Daniel coaxed Julian onto his feet. Yggdrasil followed suit. The faster Liam could postpone meeting with Louis again, all the better. “I care deeply for my family, but I know that even with corruption among them, they will stand tall. We all fought valiantly and trained fiercer alongside my sisters and the maidens of the Malik family. I trust that even as we leave them, they will be stronger in numbers. You are my priority and we will continue this search at a later point.”

Liam’s hands shook as he grabbed the reins, worried for the state of his kingdom. It was important to him that his knights trust his decisions, but his head and heart still ached from his earlier encounters. He may not be in the best mindset, but the feel of Louis’ body against his was a new experience and much more intense than his younger childhood fantasies of Zayn. Winston had spent so much energy keeping Liam apart from the people he loved the most, he had no real idea what passion was. He thought it was the drive of being prince and a knight. He thought it was a night with the maidens at the balls he attended with his sisters. That was all wonderful, Liam agreed, but his brain would not erase the memory of that moment. He needed to see Louis again. In this way, he was almost grateful for Julian’s predicament, hoping it would take his mind off of Louis.

As Liam settled in the saddle, a parchment fell to the earth. Daniel retrieved it for Liam, who opened it.

To his royalness Payne in my arse you’re a nice fellow and I had you wrong. I’m a man of my word when I feel like giving it so please accept the satchel of food I found for you and your mount, who is a lovely horse and is tied up yonder. Til we meet again, but not like I’m counting the days or anything, Lootin’ Lou

“Sir?” Daniel said, steadying himself in his saddle.

“It’s a token from Tomlinson,” Liam said, stuffing the parchment into his saddlebag. “Pay it no mind, we must get Julian to this doctor in town.”

^^^^

While Harry’s original intent at Mulling Over was to sell his pastries, his burgeoning relationship with Niall was muddying the waters. But since Breslin and Harry entered the Nix Festival, Niall was seeing even less of Harry than before. The blonde watched Harry from the bar as he strummed in the early morning, focused on the tune he and Breslin had been practicing. He’d foregone sleep for a few nights to work on it. Niall found he had patience for Harry’s music, but not an empty bed. “Hey, Harry, when’s the festival again?” Niall asked finally.

Harry missed a note and grimaced, upset at himself. “Next week. Everything is coming along great. Breslin is going to win, and my, well, you know, gets everything fired up.” He fiddled his fingers in the air, grinning.

Niall snorted. “Does it now?”

“It does,” Harry said, leaving Breslin’s guitar by the cold hearth and walking over to Niall. “I can control where I direct the energy so I focus it on the lights and—” Harry slid into the seat next to Niall and caressed his knee. Niall’s head shot back in a quick flash. “Oh… sorry, what did you see?”

Niall blinked away the sensation. “’S nothing. Images of the festival. Your powers, yeah?”

“Yeah, you’ve really helped me out.”

“Just helped? I reckon I’ve done a bit more than that,” Niall said, leaning into Harry’s shoulder.

“Definitely more than that,” Harry whispered as he bent over and kissed Niall. When they pulled away, Niall noticed Zayn retreating back into the kitchen, mouthing “Don’t mind me” at Niall. Niall and Harry had not kissed in front of the others yet, but they were overt in their affection otherwise.

“Good. I’m glad,” Niall said, sitting back in his seat.

Harry bit his lip and stared past Niall at the wooden planks of the pub bar, deep in thought before he lowered his eyes to his own lap. “Niall, there’s a lot of things going on lately. I don’t even know where Lou is, and what’s going on with that, but—"

Harry cut himself off to look straight into Niall’s eyes. “Nothing would make me happier than to stick around here. Permanently.”

“We’re not talking about powers anymore, are we?” Niall said, in his insistence to always keep things light.

Harry grinned at him and caressed the blonde’s face, pressing a chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth. “No, we’re not. But, and this isn’t an invitation because I’m really tired, but I’m going to bed.” Harry hopped off the bar stool and walked towards Niall’s room, watching Niall until he couldn’t anymore. Niall buried his face in his arms, his scratchy tunic scuffing his face as he giggled into his sleeves.

As soon as the door was closed, Zayn peeked out of the kitchen, holding a dinner and grinning with his whole face. “I thought that giggling was a large mouse. Where’d Harry go?” He put the plate and two clean goblets back in their place and filled up another two heavy pint glasses with lager, waving at customers across the pub.

Niall uncurled himself from the bar stool and rested his flushed face in his hands. “You know, can’t keep him from his naptime for too long.”

“So you two, huh?” Zayn’s grin threatened to split his face in half. “Need any confidence or are you all good?”

Niall let out a quiet chuckle and shook his head. “I don’t need your potions, Zayn.”

Zayn made a delighted squeal at that and chuckled, collecting the pints and the plate before setting them back down. He slapped his hands on the bar. “Well! If you’re going out later with him, you should be waiting on your customers now. Go on, I got drinks to prepare,” he said, shooing Niall away from the bar.

Niall shook his head, still blushing with excitement as he left. “I got it, thanks.”

The pub door opened and Breslin ushered in five villagers who waved at Niall as they took a table near the hearth. Breslin’s arms were full of logs that he walked over to the corner. Dusting off the wood dust and splinters from his person, he joined Zayn at the bar.

“What’s with Nialler. Lad looks well-chuffed?” Breslin asked, leaning over the bar to grab a clean tankard for himself. “Can you give me one of your boosts in this?”

Zayn obliged his friend, flicking his wrist and filling the tankard and leaned back on the lintel of the kitchen. “He and Haz are courting.”

“That’s not news, I can hear them at night from my room,” Bressie said, a little too loudly.

“Bressie!” Niall shouted from across the room, his ears turning red.

“I’m just kidding; get in, Nialler!” Breslin shouted back. Niall blushed an even deeper red and continued doling out drink orders. “And what about our good friend that Looter? Has he proper shagged your childhood dreamboat?”

“I don’t know; haven’t seen Louis in weeks,” Niall said, shrugging.

“Yeah, I noticed that. Think your boys caught him?”
“Don’t know,” Zayn said, glancing over at Niall dancing around tables. “You know, all Louis’ talk about Liam got me thinking. Like, Liam was my best mate when I was younger. But I don’t think we’d ever work out as a couple. He’s too earnest and too serious. Supposed I’m more a lass man, anyway.” Breslin furrowed his brow and Zayn continued. “They still exist. We don’t get a lot of them in here, but women are really nice to look at,” he said, grinning at Breslin.

Breslin smacked Zayn on the arm. “Oh, I love the fairer sex as well, back home where Niall and I are from it’s a bit more on the narrow. Was the life at the castle like that, too? Maybe it’s a generational thing.”

“Not really,” Zayn said, looking up at the ceiling in thought. “The king was adamant about having a lineage and Winston made sure of that…” he trailed off.

Breslin finished his drink and slammed his tankard back down on the bar. “What’s up? Cat got your tongue, Zayn?”

Zayn’s face was almost as pale as Niall’s natural complexion. He shook his head. Zayn had spent his life appreciating his childhood friendship with the prince. He had never thought more about the bond they had shared. Where Liam had cared too much, Zayn had apparently not cared enough.

“Winston always made sure that the prince and princesses were surrounded by the opposite sex. Imagine if he thought that I and Liam…”

“Maybe Liam….?”

“No, I don’t think he… he would’ve said… we were best mates, we did…” Zayn slid into his bar stool, unable to process the revelation.

Breslin clapped. “You mean to tell me you just realized that the prince, Prince Liam Payne of Wolverdien, thought you were fit in his formative years, doesn’t know where you are now, and is aiming to arrest one of your better friends? And now you’re sitting in this pub in Esterkastel washing dishes!”

Zayn scoffed at the slight. “Oi, I’ve done more for your health here than just washing your silver, mate. See you live your life without my potions, yeah? Try it, call me when you pick yourself off the floor, yeah?”

“I’m just having a laugh.”

“Yeah… but between you and I,” Zayn leaned into Breslin, “I think Louis is the sort of person Liam should go for. With someone like Louis he would be less likely to start wars with countries we’ve never heard of.”

“Zayn,” Breslin said, standing up and stretching. “If I see anyone fall for the rodent that is that Louis lad, I will eat one of Eoghan’s branding bits whole.”

^^^^

Being too far to protect the castle weighed heavily on Liam’s mind. The threat of the forest was one thing, and while the maidens of the castle were strong and able, Liam determined to race to the castle as soon as Julian received the medical help he needed. And though he had hoped—his childhood crush dampened by the years apart—he did not expect to find Zayn again. As he followed Daniel and Julian into Esterkastel’s town square, Liam refused to believe the stark quiff and broad shoulders a short distance ahead of him could possibly belong to the same person he had last seen five years ago.

Daniel rode ahead and addressed the man in the square. Zayn’s face went pale at the sight of the horses and the insignia they bore on their dress, but offered his services as he was the closest to a doctor the town had. Zayn’s fast-acting potions had come to be Esterkastel’s first line of defense.

Zayn hesitated at the pub door, knocking his shoulder against it at first, a warning to the others inside. When it finally opened, he pointed at a broken table. The knights of the Order lay Julian on the wood, propping him up slightly, taking care not to further irritate the injury.

“It looks like glass but it’s almost organic. Have you seen powers like this before?” Daniel asked Zayn.

“Crystalkinetic, yeah. I’ve seen it before. It’s not a pleasant wound to heal, but give me two seconds,” Zayn said, nodding at Joshua while Daniel tended to Julian. “Of course, anything here at Mulling Over is free of charge for the men of the Order. I’ll send over someone to help you while I fix a tonic.”

Breslin locked eyes with Zayn as Zayn disappeared behind the bar, nodding towards the rooms and giving him a thumbs up.

“Bressie, keep an eye on these men of the Order, I’ve got to brew a strong one,” Zayn said, frowning over small vials and a chalice Louis had collected during one of his raids.

Breslin smiled over at Daniel and Joshua. “How are we playing this, Zaynie?” he said, leaning on the bar, out of earshot of the knights.

Zayn studied vial after vial, dumping different liquids in the chalice. “Dunno. I need to save a man’s life right now, I’m not focusing on Louis.”

“You don’t mean that,” Breslin said, patting the bar with his hand.

“Where’s Niall? Can you care for them before they get more of their lot in here? I know these two, but they don’t recognize me and I can’t be here if they do.”

“I can handle it,,” Breslin said, finally sliding away and over to the Order with some rags.

Harry noticed the commotion as he stepped out of the kitchen and retreated. Niall bumped into him from behind.

“Oi, Harry, pick a direction,” Niall said, maneuvering from behind him.

Zayn concentrated on pouring the last of Julian’s remedy into the chalice. Niall knit his brows together and grabbed Zayn to reprimand him on letting the Order into the pub. But before he could get his words out, his power flashed, his color draining away from his face at what he saw. “Harry, go check on Louis,” he said, gulping. “Are you sure none of them recognized you yet?”

“I guess the beard makes me look older,” Zayn shrugged.

The pub door opened again on its own and Liam walked in. Harry gasped and dashed up the stairs to the room Louis was letting.

Liam stood in the doorway, adjusting his eyes to the dim lighting and the woody smell of the pub. All the staff seemed to be nursing Julian, except the man at the bar. Liam made his way over and sat at one of the stools. After a moment, he waved at Zayn to get his attention, still not recognizing him. Zayn busied himself with the tonic until it was unavoidable. He put down the pint, heaved a sigh, and stared straight at Liam. “Took you long enough to find me, yeah?”

Liam’s jaw fell, staring straight at Zayn for the first time in years. “Zayn Malik! You grew a beard!” Liam knocked the seat from under himself as he flung his body over the bar to hug Zayn.

“You cut that mop off, yourself,” Zayn said, his eyes starting to wet. “Expected you not to know what to do with shears.”

“Hey, beware, I’m still your prince,” Liam warned, but his face was amiable. He rubbed Zayn’s cheek and then glanced around the pub. “Are you eating well here? Have you been here this entire time?”

Zayn shrugged. “I do part of the cooking so I hope it’s good. But this is where Winston sent me,” he said matter-of-factly, waving his hand over the finished potion and moving to deliver it to the knights.

Liam trailed behind him. “Winston?”

Zayn watched Julian slowly sip the potion in Daniel’s hands. “Well, Winston’s the one who sent me away, not your father, Liam,” Zayn said, folding his arms and gesturing at Julian. “You do know Julian’s powers, right?”

“We know. Daniel said his wounds were too harsh for the healing to save him.”

“He’s right. He would have been dead within a day.”

Liam rested his hand on Zayn’s shoulder. “I’m all the more proud to have found you, then.”

^^^^

“Harry, if you were all going to sell me out in the end, you could’ve not pretended to be my friend the whole time. Although I guess you were having a laugh at the unfortunate one, yeah?” Louis paced around his small room, avoiding Harry’s eyes.

Harry stood inches from the door, avoiding Louis’ eyes. He watched Louis stuff various objects into a satchel: expensive-looking tunics that were muddy and dusty, ripped-up trousers and rags from the kitchen downstairs, small daggers and pruned branches, scraps of bread and Harry’s pastries from the morning. Louis stopped, holding yet another dagger in his hands. “Why don’t I tell them you’re the reason I’m here? I think I will do.” He dropped the dagger into the bag and slung it over his shoulder, walking past Harry to the door. “So much for mates,” he said opening the door and peering into the landing.

Harry pulled him back into the room. “No,” he said. “Niall and Breslin have risked a lot to keep you here and let you know when the Order was around. I’m not letting you jeopardize that for whatever chaos you want to bring.”

Louis shrugged off Harry’s hand and closed the door. “Alright.” He dropped the satchel to the floor. “What do you suggest we do?”

Harry smiled and walked out onto the walkway and peered over the banister at the scene below. He waved, and sing-songed a hello. A tiny spark let out from his hands and shot towards Daniel, still tending to Julian by the door. Joshua and Liam immediately leapt up, ready to defend each other. “You there!” Joshua shouted, “We are knights of the Order of Wolverdien!”

“Oops!” Harry said, ducking back into Louis’ room.

“Oh, great, cheers,” Louis said, ducking behind an empty barrel.

“It’s alright,” Harry said, smiling over the top of a barrel at Louis. “I’m creating a distraction!” And with that, Harry turned and ran out onto the walkway. All three unwounded knights were at the top of the stairs, but Harry ran right past them down into the pub and crashed into Niall. The two tumbled together into a table. Daniel and Joshua turned on the stairs and followed suit, while Liam stood his ground on the stairs. Daniel yanked Harry off of Niall and dragged him closer to the hearth.

Zayn jumped up from where he was tending to Julian. “Oi, get off him. He’s not good with his powers, it wasn’t a threat.”

Daniel pushed Harry closer to Zayn, while Joshua collected Niall. At the sight of Niall’s pained face, Breslin closed in on Joshua. “I think you’re hurting him, you can be a little gentler, yeah.”

“Oi, what a grand feat that one was, Harry,” Louis said, walking over to the upstairs banister. He glanced at the stairs and his face fell when he realized the person there was Liam.

“You,” Liam said.

Louis studied him up and down and gulped hard. “Me, yeah. I see couldn’t even arrest the right man,” he said, pointing down at the pub with a smirk. “See I know the posters have been quite wrong with my eyes and nose and such, but I don’t have blonde hair or such a magnificent burr of curls like them two. Also my eyes are bluer than Harold’s.” Louis sauntered over to Liam. “Unless you want to arrest them two and not me, Prince Charming. Did you know Harry’s been plotting a festival to woo all the maidens? That’s against your law, innit? Niall and Breslin, god bless, aiding and abetting, yeah, yeah. That must count for something.” Louis addressed everyone downstairs again. “Take them away, just like your mates did my family. I don’t care, I’m not crying over their lives at the end of the day.”

“Louis, stop that. You… it’s not going to work,” Zayn shouted, nodding over at Liam. Louis followed his lead and stared at Liam, who looked pained. There were a few tears stains on his cheeks. Louis sighed to himself. “Oh, so that’s what your powers are. Impervious to charming?”

“Truth detector,” Liam said, crowding Louis and forcing him back into the room. “And I need to see you.”

Louis threw his head back laughing obnoxiously. “Of course. So what you heard me say was—”

Liam shoved Louis against the back of the door, slamming it shut in the process. “You’ve been the only criminal that’s evaded me my entire career. And yet this year I have crossed paths with you multiple times, still unable to bring you in. Do you know how many charges are against you?”

“A man like myself doesn’t keep track of things like that. I’m a bit modest, not having a real home. You sort of stay humble when you don’t know if your next night will be in flames or in a cold, stone dungeon.” Louis said, fingering the slats in the door to gain purchase.

“A cold… no, the dungeons are nothing like that.”

“That’s where I’d end up, wouldn’t it?” Louis’ eyes started to water, remembering his family’s fate. His sisters were so young. He shut his eyes.

“No, it’s not. Do you not listen? I’m trying to tell you that I’m going to continue letting you go free.”

Louis’ eyes flew open, a confused look on his face. All he managed was, “Why?”

“I don’t know. I can’t figure you out and it’s done something to me.” Liam’s hand found its way into Louis’ hair and was twirling a single curl around Liam’s finger. “You’re amazing, Tomlinson.”

“You said that already,” Louis said with a tremor in his voice, his nerves betraying him before his words could. He pulled away from Liam. “And I’m not sure—ah, bugger, come here,” he said, throwing the both of them at the wall and pushing himself up against Liam. Liam’s armor clanked loudly as Louis jammed their lips together.

When Liam pulled away, Louis pulled him back.

“I was so scared,” Louis gasped into Liam’s mouth.

Liam looked confused. “Of me?”

“I needed to know it wasn’t you. I had hoped. You are gorgeous,” Louis said, kissing down Liam’s neck.

“Tomlinson,” Liam chuckled. “I allowed you to run away every time! What could there possibly be to be afraid of, with me?” They kissed again.
“I’m so glad it wasn’t you,” Louis gasped into Liam’s mouth.

“It wasn’t me…?” Liam replied.

“My family.”

“The ones in the dungeon?”

Louis pulled away at that. “How do you know where my family is?”

“Just outside now, you were saying you just wanted to see them again. I know that’s not what you meant to say, but it’s what I heard. You miss them.” Liam’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “You also said you are warming to my presence.”

Louis tutted. “I’d never have thought that. You are fascinating though,” he said, reaching down to Liam’s crotch. The prince was half-hard even under his armor.

A scream pierced through their embrace.

“Oh, god, Niall,” Louis said, breathlessly as he left Liam behind in the room, stopping in the doorframe. “We’ll finish this later?”
“Oh, I hope so,” Liam said, stumbling off of the wall.

^^^^

“There’s a faction of knights riding against the castle,” Niall blurted. The knights had forced Niall and Harry onto their knees, where they awaited orders from Liam.

The entire pub turned to look at Niall. He shrugged as best he could in Joshua’s grasp. “I’m being held, I can’t help my flashes.”

Louis pointed at Niall from the walkway and smiled. “That man is a foreseer. You can’t control your flashes even if you wanted. I know. Probably knows the fate of the world at this point, him.”

Ignoring Louis’ speech, Niall continued. “Zayn, your family is still there, you should go with them. Or us.” He frowned.

“Yeah, are we still being arrested?” Harry said, trying to reach over to Zayn, who shook his head.

“Harry, don’t,” Zayn said. “My sisters are going up against Winston? What’s he planning?”

Liam came out of the room behind Louis and pulled him closer. “You said you needed to exact revenge on Winston, but he has also wronged the castle. If we ride on the castle tonight, come with me, please.”

Louis turned to Liam. “See, for the last few years I’ve been on my own. Your mates were ready to arrest my friends and I’m not ready to go just yet, myself,” Louis said.

“What?” Zayn said loudly, noticing the change in the prince and Louis.

Liam smiled at his old friend. “It’s alright. I’ve pardoned him of his crimes. Them too,” he said, gesturing at Harry and Niall.

“What?” Joshua said. “We came here to help Julian, accidentally found the most wanted man in Wolverdien, and now you want to let him go?”
“Sorry, ‘most wanted’?” Louis said, twisting around to the bannister. “Is there a list?”

“Can we get back to my sisters, first? Liam, Safaa isn’t even fifteen yet.” Zayn said. He had no knowledge of what her power would be, but she wasn’t old enough to protect herself. “Winston’s kept me away and I was bitter about it, but I can’t leave my sister to his hands,” Zayn said, and ran upstairs to his room to collect his things.

Liam scanned the faces down below before turning back to Louis. “You saved me in the forest. I know that for sure. And you’ve never lied to me. I need people I can trust on this undertaking. You can trust me. But do know that while I do pardon you and your friends of any wrong-doing, further transgressions against the crown will be bought before a court.”

Louis reached on his toes and pecked a quick kiss to Liam’s mouth. “There’ll be further transgressions for sure.”

A small smile crept across Liam’s face but vanished just as quickly. “I must save my castle, but I expect to cross paths with you again. Do not prove me wrong.”

“Oi, don’t say that! That’s the last thing you tell a criminal such as myself!” Louis said with a smirk.

Zayn bolted out of his room and ran down the stairs yelling, “Prince Payne, if you’re coming or not, I’m riding Loki!”

Liam watched Zayn leave the pub. “Zayn! No, no one rides Loki but me, you know this!” Liam cast a final look at Louis before dashing down the stairs. He stopped at Daniel and Joshua and separated them from Niall and Harry. “Our time here is done, you have your orders. Reconvene at the castle,” he said, running after Zayn. The Order shuffled out behind him, mounting their own horses and taking off for the castle.

Niall and Harry rose to their feet. “Well,” Harry said. “It seems like all our troubles are gone.”

“If Winston wins the castle out from under the crown, it’s misery for everyone. We keep the pub, but at what costs?” Breslin said, straightening the mess caused by Niall and Harry earlier. He brushed against Niall and the younger man shouted and fell to the floor, overcome with visions.

“Is he okay?” Harry said, turning to Niall. “I’ve never seen him this bad before.”

Breslin nodded and tried to grab Niall’s wrist, but Niall shoved him away and crumpled into a ball. “At least, he should be…”

Louis appeared at the foot of the stairs, ruffling his hair. “I just want to let everyone know,” he said loudly, “that kiss was not my idea. I know that I’m charming but not that... That was all him. Poor Zayn, eh, how’s he going to take that. Was he… watching? Did you guys…?” he trailed off, suddenly seeing Niall crumpled on the floor.

“Not now, Louis,” Breslin said, as they all crowded Niall. The blonde willed himself into a sitting position and opened his eyes.

“Welcome back,” Harry beamed, hugging Niall.

Niall smiled weakly. “That was the biggest flash I’ve ever gotten. This siege is major. And Louis…your family… four sisters and your mom?”

Louis nodded, only partly in the moment. It would happen that the world would send all the things he’d wished for in life at the same time.

“Louis, they’re safe. They’re in some sort of dimension portal? Your mom’s got burns, but she’s alive.”

“They’re alive?” Color flooded away from Louis’ face.

“I say we help the prince, get us on his good side.” Niall smiled at Louis.

“We’re already on his good side, he kissed Louis,” Harry said, smirking at Louis. “A little more happened at that forest encounter than you let on.”
“Oh, come off it,” Louis countered, but a smile lingered on the edge of his lips. “But Niall, you’re sure?”

“Sure as I own this pub, Lou.”

“I’m with you,” Harry said. “But how are we getting to the castle? It’s more than a day’s walk.”

Louis chuckled. “Yeah, well, it’s a good thing you’ve got me. I’m sure I can wrangle up some horses from Eoghan’s stables and we’ll be on our way.” He rubbed his face and pulled Niall and Harry in for a hug. “Let’s go get this Winston and save the day, lads.”

Breslin coughed and the three looked at him. “Why go through all that work when I can just use my portals to get you there.”

Niall burst into laughter, but Harry and Louis blankly looked back and forth between the Nialls.

“Sorry, your portals?” Louis said, confusion and frustration rising in his voice.

“I thought Niall would have mentioned, I can send people through space with these,” Breslin said, flinging his wrist to the left of Louis. A purplish-black oval, moderately bigger than Louis himself appeared, a slight breeze blowing out from the center.

“What!” Louis squeaked, turning on Breslin. “You’ve been able to do these all this time and never once mentioned this to me? When I needed to hide? When there were bloody knights of the fucking Order in this very pub?! Niall, you knew?”

Niall was beet red from laughing, but nodded. Harry stuck his arm into the portal. “Where does this one go?”

“This one would take me back home. It’s what I usually use them for.” Breslin waved his hand. The portal slurped out of existence and pushed Harry’s arm back to Mulling Over.

“Sweet. I could use those to get back to Sanctus,” Harry said to himself.

“It isn’t instantaneous,” Breslin started. “But portal travel is about half the time of walking places. But they can only go places I’ve been. Fortunately for you, I’ve been to the castle a few times.”

“How are you not furious? We could have used this ages ago!” Louis said, throwing up his hands. “Wait, did you just say you’ve been to the castle? Who are you! And why are you laughing, Niall!”

Niall was out of breath and leaning on Harry. “I’ve been so caught up teaching Harry to use his powers I completely forgot to tell you about Bressie’s power.”

“I just assumed his strength and musicality were powers,” Harry said, shrugging.

“That’s kind, Harry, but no.” Breslin opened a blueish-gray portal next to Louis. “This’ll take you right outside the castle gates.”

Louis studied Breslin’s face for a few seconds and then started. “Alright, we’re gonna take them, but only because I feel like, for the most part, I can trust you. Come on, lads.”

Harry and Niall held hands as they walked into the portal behind him.

The three of them found themselves standing in the middle of a clearing. Castle Wolverdien stood in front of them, with no sign of Liam, Zayn, or the Order.

“Well, that was unpleasant,” Harry said, frowning and rubbing his arms. “I feel like I’ve been encased in sludge.”

“That’s portal travel for you. The human body can’t comprehend the sensation. It’s just phantom enough for your senses to know what happened. You’ll be fine.” Niall said, shaking himself to return the feeling to his limbs. He slapped Harry on the back. “Now. Where to?”

“Hang on, hang on. I’m still surveying,” Louis said. “You can’t just go barging into a place like this, you have to use finesse.” He raised his hands as if he could caress the building from where he stood.

Niall nodded, watching eagerly. “Have you done something this size before?”

Louis lowered his hands. “No, no. But I’ll figure it out. Harry, what are you doing?”

Harry, for all his excitement, had gone straight up to the wooden gates and tapped on it with his hands. He hummed a tiny song into the hinges, which turned bright red and melted away from the wood, letting him slip in the front hall.

“Or, we bring Harry along and he sets the place on fire,” Louis said, chuckling at Harry. “Come on, Niall.”

By the time Niall and Louis reached the castle bridge, Harry was already in fisticuffs with three guards, all twice his size. He sang tunes to energize objects around the room to his will.

Niall glanced around at the damage. “For Gods’ sake, Harry, you’re gonna get killed,” he said, bending over and touching his hand to the guards. Nothing happened at first, and Harry and Louis watched as he grabbed at various objects until one struck.

“See, Harry, this is why you can’t just go blowing up everything. Niall might need it!” Louis said. In the corner, Niall recovered from the flash. He stared at Louis.

“Don’t look at me, Nialler. You lead the way.”

“Right then, this way,” Niall said, taking off down the musty, darkened hallway with Louis and Harry trailing after him.

“Wait, hold on,” Louis said, stopping in his tracks. Niall and Harry turned to face him. They were in a small hallway, with at least five guards up ahead. “Niall, how much of the future can you see? Do you know if we make it out of here? Like do things go wrong?”

“Well, we are stepping into a battle with a powerful manipulator. There’s going to be wounds. But I think if we stick together we’ll be okay.”

Louis’ eyes widened. “That’s not what I asked you, is it? Niall Horan, does one of us die?”

“No, but listen to Zayn when he tells you to do something. He’s better trained than any of us. He knows.”

“Well, if he knew so much, why did he need to leave the castle,” Harry said, smirking. Louis and Niall glared at him. “What?”

“If you’ve got any doubt in Zayn Malik, you can leave now,” Niall said. “He knows the same training that this Winston does. I only know what I’ve learned in books. You can trust me.”

“Yeah, well, you say that but you knew Breslin was a portaler and didn’t tell me so…” Louis said, wagging his head back and forth. “Anyway, onwards we go, can’t keep this Winston waiting, I’ve got some words for him, myself.”

^^^^

The sound of the horses’ hooves on the flat ground echoed through the forest. The silence between the men as they rode was deadly. Liam and Zayn rode on Loki, Daniel and Joshua rode on Joshua’s mount, and Julian was close behind on Daniel’s steed.

“Why did you not arrest us back at Mulling Over?” Zayn shouted over the din.

“I will discuss the situation with you all when Winston is defeated.”

“Louis is a good man. He’s got a survival instinct.”

“I know, he has shown me kindness in the past. Among other emotions.”

Zayn laughed at that, gripping the saddle harder. “I think he fancies you.”

Loki skidded to a stop and reared up. Zayn lunged forward to hold onto Liam. “Why’s he stopping?”

The other mounts stopped their thunderous hooves as well and returned to Loki’s side.

“He’s alright, just a tad scared by something. We’re both nervous. And he’s never ridden this hard before. It’s easily a few more hours before we arrive at the castle.” Liam soothed Loki’s sides and re-arranged the bridle.

“What’s that ahead?” Zayn said, squinting from below his hood. There were two horses drinking from the nearby waterfall.

“Looks like we’re not alone in these woods,” Daniel said.

“Do you think it’s Zayn’s friend?” Julian added.

“Louis? No, he spends a lot of time at Mulling Over, but when he leaves, he leaves alone. Doesn’t work well with others, I don’t think,” Zayn said, shifting around Liam to get a better look.

“Whoever it is, they are more likely to be unfriendly to the crown. Tread carefully,” Liam said, easing Loki into a trot. As they neared, Liam recognized the horses as belonging to Spurlock and Xander. Daniel and Joshua dismounted and searched the area for Spurlock. Xander was found further on, bleeding from his side. Zayn took control of Spurlock’s mount while Daniel helped Xander back onto his own.

The ragtag team reached the castle without further incident and soon stood at the castle gates. Their trusty mounts tied up nearby, a recuperating Xander slumped at the foot of a tree bordering the clearing. Zayn caressed Spurlock’s mount and studied the outside wall. “Liam? Was your room not over there? Is the hideaway still there?”

Liam beamed. “Ooh, Zayn! You’re a smart one!” he praised. “Although I stopped climbing down after you left. I was sort of distraught about the whole thing.” Liam smiled sheepishly at his old friend.

Zayn looked wistful. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t know.”

“It’s alright. It took me a while to understand.” Liam glanced up at the castle walls. “There might be blockage in front of the passage. Can’t say what Winston’s done in the months since I’ve been gone.”

Liam and Zayn left the knights and trudged through the overgrown bushes growing up against the castle walls, searching for the playground of their youth. Liam looked for an embroidered rope Ruth had given them as teenagers, and when he found it, gave it a tug. No light filtered down from the room above.

“Well, I can’t see any light up there,” Liam said.

Zayn stood with his hands on his hips. “Well, is there another way to get into the castle?”

Joshua walked up to them. “Your Highness, it appears the front gates are melted off.” He gestured towards the bridge.

“How’s that?” Liam said, offended on behalf of the castle. “This castle has held back decades of warriors trying to take over Wolverdien. I will not allow it!”

A small screech sounded, followed by a trickle of dust and debris onto Zayn’s head. They looked up the passageway.

“Hullo from Mulling Over!” came a shout.

Zayn laughed. “Niall! How did you get into the castle?”

“It’s alright, Harry used his powers to knock down the door. Sorry about that, your Highness, we’ll get it fixed once this is all over.”

“That was Harry? He’s more destructive than I believed,” Liam said, shaking his head.

“You don’t know Harry,” Zayn said, peering back up at Niall.

Louis squeezed himself into the space next to Niall. “My goodness, this is dustier than half the spots I’ve slept in this season alone. And I slept in a spider’s web at one point. Oh,” he said, noticing Liam. “Fancy seeing you down there, and me up here?”

Liam’s eyes almost disappeared behind his cheeks as his face filled with glee. “Now how did all you get in my castle before me?”

“Oi, are you surprised?” Louis shouted before Niall shoved him back into the room.

“Liam, don’t worry, this is perfect for us. Niall, does this seem sturdy enough to pull us up?” Zayn said, waving the frayed rope around.

Niall gave it a tug and the rope plummeted to the grounds outside. “Hold on,” Niall said, disappearing into Liam’s quarters. Louis appeared at the passage again, but his eyes were on Niall.

“Hope you don’t mind us rummaging through your stuff. You royal types are all the same, though. Lot of nonsense in this room. Oh, here’s Niall.”

Niall returned holding a pile of cloth in his hands. “Grab the other end, we’ll pull you up!” Niall tossed the fabric down.

Liam tugged the rope and started climbing. “Shite, lad, you’re large,” Louis commented.

“That’s a rude thing to say to the prince!” Liam shot back, as Louis pulled him into the room and on top of him.

Harry stood by the doorway, watching for signs of knights. He turned at the noise Liam and Louis made as they hit the floor. “Oh, hello, Louis, Prince Payne,” he said, going back to staring at the halls.

The weight of Liam’s armor pressed into Louis’ smaller frame. “Can you get off me now?” Louis said, wriggling under the taller man. “I mean I know these are your quarters, but you can’t just expect everything to fall into place so quickly, yeah. As much as I wan—” Louis continued wriggling, his knees clanking against Liam’s armor.

“You’re going to make more noise than you need,” Liam shushed, getting to his feet and offering Louis his hand.

"What chivalry this one's got," Louis said, dusting off his bottom.

Liam grinned at Louis and pulled him to his body, immediately exploring his mouth with his tongue. Louis squeaked at the impact as Liam pushed them against the bedframe.

Harry turned at the sound again, and watched the two of them snog until Niall's grunting caught his attention. Harry ran to help Niall pull Zayn into the room and fell backwards with Niall while Zayn fell onto his side.

"I think I pulled something," Harry said sadly, grabbing at his arm under Niall.

Zayn rolled onto his other side and his eyes fell on the couple against the bed. "Ugh," he cried.

Harry hummed his approval, and then, off Zayn's disgusted face, frowned. “Uh, Louis? I think maybe you can save that for later, when the castle's been won."

The prince and the rogue finally detached, chuckling at Harry. Liam rested his head on Louis’ forehead, panting and staring into the man’s blue eyes. “You’ve driven me mad,” he said, finally.

“Well,” Louis said, reaching up to bite Liam’s lip. “It is sort of my charm.” They kissed again.

“Goodness sakes, you two, your families are in danger,” Niall said from behind them.

“Louis’ family isn’t even here. Mine is,” Zayn added, waving a hand in Louis’ eye line. “Come on, leave these two, we’ll go after Winston alone.”

Harry glanced down the hideaway to the grounds below. Two guards had spotted Daniel and Joshua outside the wall and a battle had ensued. “Guys, we’ve still got— oh. No, never mind, Daniel and Joshua are knocked out. Sad, I thought they had those two. The bigger one, he looked—”

“They’re what?” Niall said, running over to the crawlspace. “Harry, pull up the rope. They’ve already spotted us, we’re going to get caught. Zayn, we have to go.” Niall grabbed Julian and Zayn’s hands and ran out of the room.

Harry watched them leave before realizing he should follow. “Oh. Well… bye, you two, we’re going to go save your castle. Enjoy… that,” he said, jogging into the hallway.

Liam and Louis were left alone, staring into each other’s eyes. Louis was the first to speak. “Yeah, alright, let’s get going, got a castle to save, yeah?” He extracted himself from Liam’s arms, walking towards the door everyone had just exited.

Liam shook his head. “What just happened? Did you… did you just charm me into making out with you?”

“No, love, you did that yourself. But as you heard Nialler, we’ve got more important things to deal with,” Louis said with a smirk and nod towards the hallway. “You coming?”

Liam smiled fondly and joined Louis in the hallway.

Liam almost crashed into Zayn when he turned the corner.

“Oh, done with exploring Louis’ cavities, yeah?” Zayn said, grinning widely.

Liam tutted. “You didn’t make your move when you had the chance, Zayn. You can’t fault Louis now.”

Zayn muffled his laugh. “I’ve spent the last five years listening to romance woes of one kind or another at a pub. I’m doing alright without that. This one’s a different story, though,” he said, bowing to Louis.

“It’s not fair, he’s got that truth power,” Louis said, indignant. “I can’t say anything to stop him. Got me under his spell in more ways than one.”

“Me?” Liam said laughing. “You’re the charmed one. Thief, liar, all that.”

“Who was the one following the other around in the forest?”

“You both were,” Niall and Harry said in unison, and then smirked at each other.

Zayn shook his head.

“Well, Harry and I are gonna go ahead, see what we find,” Julian said, willing himself into a shaggy beast. He ran down the hallway with Harry looking back at Niall for reassurance.

This hallway, not unlike the others they had encountered in the castle, was littered with broken furniture. Torn rugs, broken tables, and knocked over lights, and large candles lay cracked on the floor, ripped from their candelabras. Signs of superpowered struggle were around as well: from singed tapestries and crystal daggers to melted breastplates and dripping ice sheets across the stone walls. Niall bent down to interact with a vine-wrapped knight resting where he lay unconscious against a table.

“Liam, your sister’s a florokinetic?” Niall said, shoving the vine towards Liam.

“That’s Princess Nicola, yes,” Liam said, peering over at the dark green vine. It was thick and sturdy, exactly the kind from a masterful florokinetic. He smiled.

“Sorry, I thought we were among friends now. I meant no disrespect.”

“She is still your princess. Never mind, what does that tell you about her and Princess Ruth?”

“Not much. She’s a tough one, but she’s with others. They’re strong, too.”

“Must be Wali and Doni, they’re always together,” Zayn said, smiling at Liam.

“Just like us, Zayn. That’s why I didn’t worry about them. They’re going to beat this man before we ever get there!”

Louis cleared his throat loudly behind them. “Well, this family moment is nice and all, but Harry and your knight lad’s down the hall as it is, maybe we should catch up with him, yeah?”

A loud shout echoed down the hall and a royal tapestry caught fire. Julian came bounding back towards the others. “Harry’s in trouble, come on!”

“This sounds promising in the ‘not die’ way,” Louis joked, as they followed Julian down the hall to rescue Harry.

As the ragtag team rounded the corner, they found Harry in the middle of the room, dodging heat rays and countering with his own rendition of Breslin’s pub songs. He seemed to be winning. Julian leapt at the knight attacking Harry.

“Don’t hurt him, he’s not in his right mind!” Niall yelled after him.

“Julian can only hear you in this state, I can’t say that he’ll be able to respond. Although he will try!” Liam said, sidestepping a heat beam himself.

Louis and Zayn dashed ahead of the battle in front of them and into a staircase. It was dark, but they could see a glowing purple fog masked the steps. “What sort of castle stairs are these?” Louis said, kicking the ethereal material around.

“Doniya," Zayn said. "She’s plasmatic.” He turned and shouted at Liam that they’d found the girls.

“Does your sister leak purple gasses, or is this a one-time thing,” Harry asked, ascending the stairs behind Liam.

“It’s her power. She can sling around plasma,” Zayn explained, missing a step in the fog and landing face first in the low-powered plasma. “Careful on that. Doniya!” His voice echoed through the tower.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sound so loud, Zayn. Great job,” Louis said.

“That was so sincere,” Liam said to Louis.

“Don’t get used to it. Once Zayn gives you his anti-Lou potion, you’ll be as stone-faced as the other boys,” Louis countered, avoiding Liam’s eyes.

“I don’t use it all the time, Lou. Just when Niall tells me you’re gonna be more mischievous than usual.”

“‘More than usual’? Lads, if anyone is mischievous here, it’s the one who has broken every sort of law in this kingdom.” Louis stomped on a stair and tripped Harry’s leg.

“Hey,” Harry lamented, falling down two steps. “I’m an innocent bystander. Leave me out of this.”

As they reached the top of the stairs, the room opened into Princess Ruth’s quarters. Two girls huddled in a corner while a burly blonde man yelled at them as he tried to climb in the window. The younger brunette in the room stood and shot a purplish-blue fireball before cowering back in the arms of the princess.

“This is Princess Ruth’s quarters,” Liam said. “But that’s Princess Nicola.”

Recognizing the brunette, Zayn rushed over, dismissing the danger of the room.

“Zayn!” Doniya shouted, wrapping her arms around her brother for the first time in years. “How did you find your way back?”

Zayn released his sister and huddled under the table with Nicola. “Can we explain the rampaging man in the room, first?”

Nicola sighed and cringed as another ear-shattering scream from the man shook the room. “It’s terrible. All the knights have—is that Liam?”

Liam waved from the doorway, the lot of them waiting for the man to tire before storming into the room to hide with the maidens. Once they all made it, Liam addressed his sister again with a tight embrace. “Good morrow, Nicola. I would introduce you to everyone, but more pressing matters present themselves. What’s gotten into Marcus?”

“Oh, Liam. Winston has taken over their minds and locked the rest of the family in the dungeon. He’s using his powers to control everyone. Look at Marcus’ eyes. That’s not Marcus in there. We tried to escape and I’m uncertain where they went, but Sheeran and Ruth have Safaa and Wali.”

“Well, I’m glad you have fought valiantly thus far. And I’m glad you’re okay,” Liam said, caressing Nicola’s face.

Nicola refused to smile. “Liam, we can’t allow Winston to destroy Wolverdien. We have to take back the castle.”

Niall reached over Liam to shake Nicola’s hand, his eyes sparkling. “It’s an honor to meet you, and that is what we aim to do,” he said. “Although we could use your help.”

“Oi, keep your eyes to yourselves, that’s our sisters, and we’re in danger.” Liam said, separating Niall’s hand from Nicola as Niall’s brain reloaded and he went limp. “Oh, Niall! Was he…?” he trailed off, looking at Zayn for confirmation.

“Niall’s fine. He’s a foreseer,” Zayn explained to Nicola and Doniya. “He’ll come to in a moment,” Zayn said, cuddling Niall’s exposed limbs back under the table where they were hiding.

A loud roar came piercing out of the blackness of the stairwell as Julian leapt at Marcus and the two crashed against the bedposts.

“Good to know we’ve got him on our side,” Louis said as he stood up to watch Julian and Marcus battle.

“Doni, can you slip him up so that they fall out the window?” Zayn asked, muddling together a bright red paste from materials in his robes.

“Oh, look at you, Zayner! You’ve a master potion-maker! But yes, I believe I can. Do you think they’ll both fit through that window?”

“If they don’t, I’ll make sure they do,” Louis said, beaming.

“I don’t think charm will weasel anyone out of a window, Louis,” Zayn said, reaching for a bottle near the window and dumping the red powder into it. “Look away!”

The explosion confused both Julian and Marcus and they toppled out of the window. Liam and the others watched, reactions split in horror and glee. Zayn, Harry, and Liam ran to the window. The two knights lay in a hedge. Julian was back to his human form, collapsed on top of an unconscious Marcus.

“Are they hurt?” Nicola called out.

“They’re… not dead. You’re going to need a gardener for that bush, though,” Harry said.

“Least of our worries now, Harry,” Zayn said, turning back to his sister and the Princess.

“A fall of that height will knock Winston out of Marcus’ head,” Niall said, standing to dust himself off before helping Nicola up. “You’ll have him back in no time.”

“Can we just throw everyone off a roof, then? Problem solved, everyone’s free. Jump off the roof,” Louis said. He helped Harry and Doniya to their feet and admired Doniya’s wrists, the source of her power. “What a fantastic power you’ve got. Your brother just makes drinks.”

The rest of the group collected themselves and walked over to the far end of the room, where a tapestry once covered a hallway to the rest of the royal chambers.

“It keeps you from dying of Breslin’s brews, yeah. Be thankful,” Zayn said, continuing into the hallway, followed by everyone else.

The hallway was thin and long, but Liam recognized Sheeran’s ginger mop of hair ahead. Liam opened his mouth to say hello and then rethought it, turning to Zayn. “Sheeran’s got to be controlled by Winston’s side for sure.”

“Is your sister?” Zayn said, pointing at the far end, where Ruth sat, her wrists encased in metal behind a set of bars.

“Ruth and Sheeran had been courting behind the king’s back,” Nicola said, grimacing.

Liam waved his sister away. “I don’t want to hear any more. Winston hadn’t taken over the knights in my care. Where is Xander and them, anyway?”

“Winston got them outside your quarters,” Harry said, apologetically.

Liam’s face fell. “Alright, what’s this with Ruth and Sheeran?”

“No, no, nothing scandalous, Liam, just… I believe we can trust Ed, over everyone.”

“Sheeran’s eyes don’t look like that, Nicola,” Zayn said, recoiling from his former training partner. Sheeran turned towards them, his eyes dead and vacant like all the others before him.

Liam nodded. “Niall, what did you say about Winston’s powers?”

“Winston’s a puppeteer. I sensed it on one of the knights in the hallway. You used to think he was too powerful, well, he’s even stronger now. Got almost every knight in these walls under his power,” Niall said.

A piercing sound emitted from Sheeran as a chair in front of Niall tore itself in half and fell apart. Niall looked back at the others. “This one’s got razor air?”

“Yes. And whoever you are, you will be the next target,” said Sheeran.

“Liam! Watch out!” Ruth yelled from her prison behind Sheeran. Liam leaned to his left as a piercing breeze swept by him and crashed into Louis. It nicked the side of his face and shoulder and he fell immediately. Nicola manipulated the flowers outside the window to wrap around Sheeran.

Liam rushed to Louis’ side. “Tomlinson, are you alright?”

Louis groaned and sat up, a hand to his face. “Alright, alright, I’m fine. It’s just my cheek, yeah.” He moved his hand to study the blood on it. “And a lot of blood.”

“Zayn, help please,” Doniya shouted.

“You stay here. You’re going to pay for whatever you did,” Zayn spat at Sheeran before turning his attention to Louis.

“We’re losing people faster than Winston’s side is,” Harry moaned, curling around Niall.

Niall pressed a kiss to his lips. “It’s alright, Haz, We’ll be okay in the end. I promise.”

“Well, I’m not dead, lads!” Louis said with an offended tone. “I’m still in the fight, yeah? You can’t keep Lootin’ Lou out of this. I was born for this.” He sat up and found himself looking right into Liam’s eyes.

“I can’t lose you, Lou,” Liam said, shaking his head.

Louis tutted. “Hey, hey, again, enough with the emotions! I’m alright. Get me up, let’s go.” Liam pulled Louis to his feet. “Anyway, look at these two,” he said, gesturing at Harry and Niall. “Are we fighting a monster or should we leave you two for the bed?”

“Leave us,” Niall said with a chuckle.

Harry pulled away from Niall and frowned at Louis. “You got your moment.”

“Yeah, well, I’m the hero of this story, right, not you. Come on Haz.” Louis walked over to Sheeran, still trapped in Nicola’s vines. “Sheeran is it? How about you deal with us? We don’t want to hurt you, and I’m sure you don’t want to hurt us. Open the locks on the princess’ hands and we’ll help you get free of what’s going on in your head.” He glanced back at the group, but they only stared back. “Alright, let’s try this again. Do you want to help us?” he continued, asking Sheeran.

“What Sheeran wants does not matter. Only Winston,” Sheeran growled in a voice not his own.

Louis raised his eyebrows at that. “Lad’s more powerful than my charms. I don’t know if I can get through to him.” He retreated to join the others.

The piercing sound came again and slashed towards Ruth. She ducked with her metal shackles and the razor air attack clanged against it, breaking two of the bars. Ruth wiggled the bar and escaped, running to Liam.

“Is this all supposed to be working, because it doesn’t seem like any of it is,” Zayn said, growing annoyed.

Niall guffawed at that. “Here, let me,” he said, raising his hand to Sheeran’s forearm. “No. No, I’ve got nothing. He is important to Winston, though? We should not let him out of our sight.”

“Real winner, that,” Louis muttered.

“I don’t see you trying anything,” Harry said defensively, following Liam down another hallway. They all continued, Zayn carrying Sheeran on his shoulder and Liam carrying Ruth. Niall stopped at a balcony to look out into the training grounds and flashed on a growing rosebush. Zayn marveled at how much had changed in five years, and how much had not. Harry pointed out a rare mushroom that he could use for baking.

As Harry continued on about the mushrooms growing in Castle Wolverdien, Niall interrupted. “We’re going to need to get down there. Ruth, can you help us?”

“Have the prince put me down first, then maybe,” Ruth said as she thrashed about on Liam’s shoulders.

“You can’t walk with those metal cuffs on! I’m doing you a favor!” Liam argued, but put his sister down. Ruth moved her hands in a circular motion and a familiar woosh sounded above Niall as a wormhole opened.

“Oh no, not these again,” Louis said, stepping away. “I’m still getting over the last time.”

“Oh, Ruth’s wormholes! Always good fun. Can you do them within the grounds now?” Liam’s eyes crinkled in excitement.

“I’m not sure if it will work over long distances, but perhaps I can get us into mum’s quarters.” Ruth said. “That’s…. where Winston set himself up.”

Louis balked. “Again, no one decided to share this information before I got hurt, wonderful.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t hurting much?” Zayn turned on Louis.

Liam chuckled. “Oh, that’s not what I heard from him.”

Louis glared back at Liam. “Can you not use your powers against me at this moment, prince, much appreciated. Anyway, into the garden we go, yeah?”

Ruth’s wormhole powers were not as strong as Nicola’s florokinesis, so the group followed some vines into the castle garden, where large metal doors lay across from them.

“The king’s private quarters,” Ruth announced.

“Well, it’s a beauty, I’ll give it that. But we’re just gonna have to knock it down, right, Harry?” Louis said, standing triumphantly at the base of Nicola’s generated vines. Nicola tied Sheeran to one of the stone columns in the middle of the garden.

Harry shook his head. “These doors are too thick. I wouldn’t be able to get through it at my skill level.”

Niall turned to Ruth. “Wormholes?”

Ruth was already focusing on the door. “I’m trying, nothing is budging.”

“Might have a power dampener on his side, then. Can’t get a read on anything myself,” Niall said, taking a long look around the garden. It would have been easier with an actual offensive power, but nothing Niall flashed on gave him the impression this battle would be easy.

A scream emanated from above them and they looked up. A tiny brunette flew into the yard, followed by two large knights, both wearing the same dead and vacant stares as Sheeran.

“Waliyha!” Zayn and Doniya exclaimed at once.

“Anyone want to tell me her power now or just when it’s past being useful,” Louis mused. Zayn poked at Louis’ cheek. Louis winced. “Just because it’s not a big wound doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, Zayn,” he said, hovering his hand over the wound.

Waliyha landed and looked around at the crowd. “Zayn? Liam?” She hobbled over to Doniya as the two knights who followed her landed across the yard.

Doniya sent out a plasma blast and sent both men crashing against the chamber doors. She gasped. “Actually thought that might not work,” she said, gathering her younger sister in her arms. “Were you out there fighting them all alone? Where’s Saf?”

Waliyha looked down and took a deep breath. “I tried to stop them. She’s with Winston inside.”

Zayn pushed Niall and Liam out of his way, his voice rising. “Winston’s got Safaa inside? With the royal family? Stand aside, Lou, I’m murdering everyone with just my potions.”

Liam grabbed onto his shoulders. “I know you’re mad, Zayn, but you have to remember these men are not well. We can’t go killing decent men.”

“I don’t care if they’re decent, Liam. If they hurt Safaa they’re going down,” Zayn said, shoving Liam’s hands away.

Niall walked over to the chamber doors and examined it. “Winston can take over your limbs and body, he can take over your mind, but for some reason he’s only taken half the knights. Why?”

Louis stepped back. “Does this Winston have something like my powers?” He had only ever used his powers to get out of situations to live another day. Using charming to take others’ goods when he didn’t need them felt wrong.

Nicola rest her hand on Liam’s shoulders. “You’ve been gone a long enough time. Winston’s kept mum and dad trapped in there, feeding off of their energy and powers. Cowell, too. I know you trusted him when you were in training, but…”

Liam didn’t want nodded over to Zayn. “What about his parents? And the stables?”

Doniya stepped forward. “They’re all in the dungeons. One of Winston’s Order is a space manipulator and they have most of the people trapped in another wormhole. They can fit as many people as they want in there.”

“O’Brien can manipulate space,” Liam said. “He was the one who ambushed us at the castle sides. He took Daniel and Xander.”

“Pardon, but, having only just traveled in a wormhole for the first time this morning, I feel it’s not that comfortable for actually living in for long periods of time,” Louis said.

“That’s correct. It’s like being banished but not knowing where to. It’s driven some of the best people I know mad.” Doniya tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Me dad’s in there, too.”

Zayn spoke up. “Is that where Safaa is?”

“I don’t think so,” Niall answered, peering into a small window in the wall. “This Cowell guy’s got someone small in that cell over there.”

“You even get names! That’s a great power you’ve got,” Liam praised, his eyebrows raised. “Useful for advising, if you’d like the job. I imagine there’s an opening once we’re done here.”

Harry turned to Doniya, his face lighting up. “Maybe between the two of us we can get this door open. Niall, stand back.”

Niall moved out of the way as Doniya and Harry blasted the door with their powers. The hinges and metal glowed brightly in the heat, the wood sparking and lighting. But just as suddenly the doors were cool and unscathed.

“Well, it was a nice try, Harry,” Zayn said, trying a smile.

Just then, the doors swung open and Winston walked out, flanked by two other knights, their hoods covering their faces.

“Stay back, maidens,” Liam said, unsheathing his sword for the first time.

Doniya raised her eyebrows. “Did he say ‘stay back, maidens’? You realize we’ve been in this castle by ourselves all this time? This one thinks he can just take over all the knights, but he forgets we trained just as hard. It’s not our fault father refused to let us don armor as well.”

Nicola and Ruth laughed. “Yeah,” Nicola said. Ruth blocked a fire attack with her metal cuffs and they melted off, leaving his wrists red. “‘Get the girls back’ but you forget to get Ruth out of her cuffs when you’ve got a powered person who could do just that. Unbelievable.”

“I can’t concentrate on small bits of metal,” Harry said, taking offense. “I might burn your wrists off.”

Doniya shot a blob of her plasma at the knights, knocking one of their hoods off and she saw it was Cowell. The other knight, Corden, took the chance to shoot a crystal-formed icicle at her but Doniya ducked in time.

“Oi, you watch it, Cordo!” Nicola cautioned, sending shrubbery at Corden.

The piercing sound echoed yet again and Harry rounded on Sheeran to disorient him before the razor wind did harm. Cowell countered Harry’s attack and focused his energy back on him, hitting Harry in his neck with the blast. Harry collapsed from heat exhaustion, grabbing at his throat as he went down.

Niall ran over to him, using all his might to drag Harry into the safety of the royal chambers. Zayn threw a flash bomb potion into the room as a diversion.

The royal chambers were bare, save for a large bed intended for the king and queen and a small table and chair off to the side. A couple of prisoners sat cowering in the corner. Zayn ran over to his sister and held her through the bars. “Are you okay, Saf?” Zayn said, patting her head, in an attempt to make sure she was really there.

Safaa sniffled and smiled. “I’m okay, Zayn. But… they took mum and dad. And also my friends.”

“I know, love. I know I’ve been gone for a while, but we’re gonna get you out of this, okay. Everything will be okay,” Zayn said, throwing Safaa a kiss and returning to Harry in the center of the room. He pulled a vial out of his robes and concocted a silvery-blue potion for Harry while Niall helped him back to his feet.

“You alright, Haz?” Niall said, his voice thick with concern.

Zayn stood up and stared at him. “He looks okay.”

Dazed, Harry nodded. “‘M throat ‘urts,” he gasped.

“It’s alright, I’ve got you,” Niall said, holding onto Harry as he walked him over to the bed.

Zayn turned back to the battle in time to see Cowell flung through the air and crash through the small window Niall had seen earlier.

Louis ran into the king’s quarters. “We’ve got knights falling from the sky! This is the last thing I expected from today.”

With a wail, Waliyha landed at Louis’ feet.

“Wali! My goodness, what are you doing?” Zayn said, running over to pull his sister away from the battle.

“Zayn! Put me down, I sent myself flying! I’m just not good at landing yet.”

“Zayn, leave her alone, there are more important matters at the moment!” Liam said. He and and Doniya were battling a knight with heat beams. One beam flew past Doniya headed straight for Louis, who was too busy marveling over the king’s magnificent quarters to notice.

“Tomlinson!” Liam shouted, diving in front of the searing beam.

Louis turned around in time to witness the force pummel Liam into a stone wall.

“Liam!” Louis shouted, the color draining from his face. Liam’s body crumbled to the floor. Louis stood frozen in fear, thinking of the afternoon his family’s camp was raided. “No…not again,” he said softly, as Zayn pushed past him to Liam’s side.

Waliyha soared back into the air, dragging the heat beam knight and Niall with her. Niall leaped around the castle walls with Waliyha and the knight, deflecting the heat beams to various outcrops of rock.

Louis gulped and forced a laugh so loud everyone turned to look at him. Doniya, Ruth, and Nicola looked up from where they were tying up one of the knights, and Waliyha lost her concentration on Niall and sent him crashing to the floor.

“Look at this prince!” Louis said. “He gets all of us to the castle to help out and he’s sleeping on the job! A tiny beam like that can't hurt that much. Come off it, prince. Get up.”

Zayn did not laugh with Louis, instead shaking his head solemnly. “Louis, no.”

“He’s just joking! Come on, you know fire,” Louis said, his voice wavering. “We’ve got Hazza at the pub all the time.”

Liam was not responding to Zayn’s techniques. Louis’ grin slowly faded.

“Zayn, he’s not moving,” Louis said, his voice breaking finally. “Why isn’t he moving, Zayn?”

Zayn shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m trying, Lou.” Louis helped Zayn pull Liam into a sitting position. He opened a vial of potion and trickled it through Liam’s lips.

“Zayn, you’re gonna drown him like that, give it,” Louis said, lunging for the potion.

“Get off, Louis! I know what I’m doing, alright. He’s not responding.” Zayn slapped Liam’s cheeks for a bit. “Come on, Liam! Drink it, drink it!” Zayn demanded, forcibly rubbing the liquid along Liam’s mouth.

“Liam, please,” Louis said, falling to his knees next to the prince. He touched his hand to Liam’s armor, but his fingertips sizzled in response. “Oh,” Louis said, pulling back his hand. “Can’t even hold him now with this heat.”

Harry appeared at the door of the king’s room, his throat still red from the earlier attack. “‘E never called ‘m ‘iam,” Harry whispered to Niall, nursing his broken arm across the garden from Liam.

“I know,” Niall said, his face steely. Harry picked up Niall and went back over to where Liam lay. “Is there anything we can do?”

Zayn looked up and shrugged. “He’s not responding.”

A small moan escaped Liam’s lips, burbling along the spilt potion. Then a cough, and Liam sat up.

“Woooo!” Louis shouted, tears freely falling down his cheeks. He fell onto Liam, kissing him. “Ugh, Zayner,” Louis complained, pulling away from Liam. “This potion is disgusting. And this leather is still hot,” he said, holding his arms away from Liam’s armor.

Liam opened his eyes and smiled. “Just the leather?” He looked around and added, “What are we still doing in here? I thought you’d have saved the castle by now.”

Louis maneuvered around the armor and held Liam’s face in his hands. “Can’t do it without you, innit,” he said, sniffling.

“Uh, Liam, we’ve got some bigger circumstances taking place,” Doniya said, glancing over Louis' shoulder.

Louis’ smile was immediately wiped off his face. “Winston.”

A snide voice called out to them. “The Castle doesn’t need saving. It needs an honest flushing of little worms that refuse to govern the land properly.” Winston strode towards them, a billowing black fabric all around him. It was impossible to tell where one item ended and the next began. He seemed to float in an abyss. “Well, what an impressive sight. The entire orphaned royal family and pathetic loser villagers come to hunt me down? How lovely.”

Zayn stood up, leaving Liam’s potion in Louis’ hands. “Yeah, here’s a present,” he said, throwing a green bottle at Winston. Winston swatted it aside and it broke at his feet, where it began to eat up the grass and soil, trapping Winston in quicksand.

Winston looked down and back at Zayn. “You’ve learned over the years, well done. I thought all that smooshy romance blooming between you and the prince would push all the wit out of your brain. I stand, quite literally, corrected. And yet, you know nothing about what my powers can do,” he said, grinning. With a flick of his wrist he sent Ruth and Nicola up into the sky and released them.

“No!” Waliyha cried, zooming into the sky to save the princesses. “I’m tired of messing about with you,” she said, back on the ground. “You’ve made a mess of my family, and of Ruth’s, and we won’t stand for it.”

“Wali, no,” Ruth shouted, attacking Winston with a thorn bush. Winston stumbled but puppeteered a knight right at Niall, crushing him against the stone. A loud popping noise was heard and Niall screamed in agony.

“Nialler…?” Louis questioned, jumping to his feet from where he was still tending to Liam.

Niall slumped to the floor, holding his arm. “My arm. I can’t feel my arm,” he sobbed. His face reddened in his agony.

“Zayn, help our poor Niall, yeah?” Louis said, pushing Ruth and Nicola into the royal quarters.

Zayn pulled out a bottle for Niall. Niall chuckled. “Bet you didn’t think we’d need you so much here.”

“I work in your pub, Niall, you always need me,” Zayn said, smiling at him as the blonde drank up. “Does it still hurt?”

Niall hissed in pain. “Yes, but I can feel it mending already.”

“Alright, rest next to Liam; we’ll be back for you two,” Zayn said. He shoved Doniya and Waliyha next to Niall and Liam. “And you two stay here, defend them while you can. We’re gonna deal with Winston.” He kissed the top of his sisters’ heads and rounded on Winston.

“Right, where do you guys get off telling us what to do?” Doniya said, grabbing Waliyha’s hand. “Ruth’s got these two, we’re the ones with the attack powers, yeah?” Waliyha grinned at her sister as they joined Louis and Harry at the center of the garden.

“Zayn, I think I got it. Give me flash bombs!” Waliyha said.

Zayn chucked a glass orb at her, and she directed the orb right into Winston’s face. Harry sang long enough to heat all the molecules in Winston’s body until flames engulfed him. From across the courtyard Ruth opened a portal and Winston tripped into it. They all watched carefully as the flames subsided and the portal blipped out of existence.

Louis toed at Winston’s robes that were left behind. “These are proper robes. You could get a lot for these. You know, when they’re cooled off a bit.”

Ruth and Nicola watched as the knights around them slowly shook off Winston’s hold. In the middle of the garden, Sheeran screamed at the pile of robes. “What’s that next to me? Did you melt Winston?”

Ruth ran over to untie Sheeran, giggling. “Well, it was Winston, but he’s gone now.”

Sheeran’s eyes went wide. “You killed Winston?”

“It’s not as though he didn’t deserve it, the man was cruel!” she teased.

Liam shook his head. “No, he’s not dead. Ruth just shoved him through a dimensional dungeon.”

“Alright there, Prince?” Louis said, reaching for Liam’s arm and pulling him up.

“I believe so,” Liam said, although his voice sounded exhausted. Liam reached for Louis’ arm and frowned. “Hold on, what’s going on there?”

Louis sighed in defeat and pulled up his sleeve to reveal the scar forming from his forest battle with Corden.

“When did this happen?” Liam said, grabbing hold of Louis with both hands.

Louis looked up to the sky, as though the purplish hues would send him patience to deal with Liam. “I may have gotten myself hurt saving you in the forest once?” He smirked at Liam.

“When you tended to me? That day? I didn’t even realize you were involved in the fight. Why didn’t you say?” Liam said, examining the scar closer. It extended from Louis’ elbow to his wrist, a smaller slash giving it the appearance of an arrow.

“Nothing to worry about now, is it? I’ve got you. Could lop off both my arms for that.”

Zayn winced at the pain in his own side. “Niall, Harry, can you two help me with the—”

Niall and Harry were also entwined in a passionate kiss.

“Oh. Yeah? Alright, then,” Zayn said, smiling at his sisters. “Defeat the evil usurper and everyone starts celebrating immediately. Let’s go free Safaa and our parents.”

Harry pulled away from Niall and looked around the garden. “Uh, one thing, Niall, how do we know we can trust these knights? They still look angry.”

“Manipulation only works when the targets are in the same space,” Niall said, wiping his mouth. “With Winston in another dimension, he can’t take hold of anyone here, unless he comes back.”

“Why can’t we just be proper rid of him?” Zayn yelled from inside the quarters.

“Because murder is not part of the Payne family decree. Life is important and I won’t have evil punished with evil,” Liam said, crowding Nicola and Ruth into a hug.

“Can I just say, I think evil is still a pretty great motivation. I’ve done so much that I’m not proud of in my time, one more count would not be farfetched,” Louis said, his voice rising at the end and smirking.

“Good thing it’s not your call, Lou,” Niall said, cracking up loud enough to echo through the castle garden.

^^^^

Finding the portal dungeon was difficult but Zayn and Louis were finally reunited with their families.

Louis cried until he couldn't as he held his sisters and mother tight. Niall, Harry, and Liam watched in silence, unwilling to interrupt as the years of misery were undone minute by minute.

“I thought you were gone for good, mum,” Louis said between hiccups. “And the twins were so young. And I was all alone,” he said, burying his head back into his mother's shoulder.

“You did well, love, it's alright. We're together now,” Johannah said, wiping away her own tears.

Liam finally stepped forward, hugging Zayn and Doniya at his sides. “Mrs. Tomlinson, we'll be putting out a decree that all these prisoners will be pardoned. The king and queen will be abdicating the throne and I will be ascending as early as tomorrow.”

“Your Highness, thank you,” Johannah said. “And thank all of you for your efforts in saving us.”

“Your family and Zayn's are subjects of Wolverdien. We'd do anything to reverse the pain that Winston has caused our subjects,” Ruth said, hugging Nicola tightly.

“You also needed the castle. You needed to win that back,” Harry interjected.

Niall chuckled and tackled Harry with kisses.

Harry and Niall would announce their betrothal back at Mulling Over, in the midst of celebrating the defeat of Winston.

^^^^

Mulling Over filled to the rafters with people. Specifically, it filled with knights of the Order due to a decree by King Liam.

Niall and Harry sat next to each other at the bar, Niall’s arm wrapped in a sling. They were busy debating Harry’s performance at the Nix Festival.

Zayn had taken up singing with Breslin by the hearth, saving Harry’s voice for the festival—and the pub from explosions. A few patrons had encircled the pair and were swaying along to the songs. The guests of the night, Louis’ family, danced as well, laughing heartily.

The pub door opened. A brightly dressed lady with round eyes and a warm smile peeked in. “Hullo? Sorry, I don’t know if I’m in the right place. I’m looking for—“

Niall leaped off his seat to greet her. “Hello, lass, who might you be?” The lady reeled back at Niall’s enthusiasm.

“Gemma!” Harry shouted, launching past Niall and into her arms.

“Hi, Harold,” Gemma said, smiling into his shoulder. “I brought you some of those iced cookie buttons you love.”

Niall yanked a potato sack out of her hands, poking his nose inside. “They smell lovely.” He looked up at Gemma. “Your sister is lovely, Haz. Did you make all of these?”

Gemma smiled at Niall. “You must be Niall. Harry’s told me much about you lot here. Although, I see two strapping men over there singing, which is Breslin?”

Niall waved Zayn and Breslin over and they left the boisterous crowd to the dance. “This is Zayn and that there’s Breslin. This is Gemma. She’s Harry’s sister!” Niall said, biting into a pastry and flashing. “Whoa,” he marveled.

Zayn smiled at Gemma, interrupting Niall. “It’s a pleasure. We’ve heard some things about Sanctus. It seems nice. Uh, I’ve been caring for your brother when he’s been here, so I feel like we have a lot in common.”

Gemma nodded, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “Feels like you have to throttle him to restore your sanity and order to the world?”

Zayn huffed and nodded back. “Not in so many words?”

Harry frowned at Gemma and Zayn. He preferred to think everyone thought he was lovely to have around. “Excuse me, Niall, I’m going back to the bar,” he said, taking Gemma’s bag with him.

“Harry, wait…” Niall said after him. “Wait, Gemma, do you know you’re a chronomanipulator?”

“A what?” Gemma said. Zayn and Breslin groaned.

Liam and Louis watched everyone mingle from the walkway, Breslin and Zayn’s loud singing disrupting the sleep of many of Mulling Over’s boarders. Liam’s chest was wrapped in bandages, but his skin was already scarring from the heat attack at the castle. Louis touched his fingers to them, following the arches in the wrinkled skin. “This sounds mad, but if you look at these, they sort of make a row of arrows, see? Liam, it’s like we’ve both got arrows.” He raised his own scarred arm to Liam’s chest.

“It’s because we were destined to be,” Liam said, kissing Louis’ shoulder.

“I’m not dignifying that with a response, love,” Louis said, holding back laughter and leaning in to kiss Liam.

When they parted, Liam’s whole face was smiling.

“You know, if you’d told me when I saw that carriage explode, that I’d end up here, in love with the prince and watching my family dance around a pub, where they were welcomed and fed like proper people, I’d have said you were mad.”

Liam kissed Louis’ forehead. “Well, it turns out I am mad; just in love as well.”

“No, no, I don’t think you’re mad at all. In fact, I think I’m the best decision you’ve made,” Louis chuckled, turning around to kiss Liam even deeper.

^^^^

And so begins—for a love like this can never truly end—the tale of Liam and Louis, Kings of Wolverdien.

And they lived together forever. Happily.