Once upon a time, there was a boy named Liam, and he lived in the Forest all by himself. He had to, because he was a poor but deserving woodcutter’s son, and the Fate who lived in the Cave at the end of the forest told him that poor but deserving woodcutter’s sons should live in forests by themselves so they could meet a lovely princess who needed help and then they’d fall desperately in love and then he’d be a prince. As she’d said this last she had looked him up and down, shaken her head a little, and taken a long drink from a black bottle. Liam hadn’t been very sure about all of it, but he likes helping people, and he doesn’t mind living in the Forest, except that it’s lonely sometimes.
His father comes every week to pick up his loads of wood and to mutter an, “All righ’, son?” and shuffle around the fact that he’s sent his son to live in the middle of the Forest by himself. Liam could take the wood to market himself, of course, but there are so many people there, and they all look at him a bit oddly, and last time he tried he’d made a fool of himself with the prices and somehow he felt even more lonely with the crowds of people than he did just with him in his hut.
So he stays at home, with his goat Esmeralda and his raven Ambrosius that he’d brought up since he was just a hatchling, and if he isn’t particularly happy, he convinces himself that being content is almost as good.
This particular Firstday, he eats his breakfast of bread and goat’s cheese, hitches himself into his cart, and goes off into the Forest, ax over one shoulder. He’s had his eye on a grove of rowan trees the past week, and today feels like a good day to fell one or two. They’re not too far from his hut, either, which is splendid, because lately it feels like he’s had to walk miles to find groves with trees growing thickly enough that he feels they can spare one or two trees.
His father thinks him mad, he knows, for being so ‘bloody choosy’ about which trees he took, but his father hasn’t lived in the Forest all his life. Working in it, all alone, every day, you begin to get a sense that things are watching you, beyond the creatures and the Sun herself looking down. He’s sometimes gone to notch a tree and then stopped, turning for no reason he could discern to mark one nearly identical in its stead.
Today is no different - he leaves his cart just outside the ring of trees and steps towards the first tree in the circle, hefting his ax easily over one shoulder before he pauses. Not this one, then. He turns to the next, and then the next, and the next, feeling somewhat puzzled. He’s never had an entire grove of trees feel so - so resistant to being cut down. His ax falters, but he steels himself. He’s got a living to make, the same as anyone else, and this once, perhaps he can ignore the feeling. He raises his ax again and angles it for the first notch.
He’s within a handbreadth of striking deep into the tree when he cries out, ax flying from his hand as he falters back. For a moment he thought he had seen a boy’s face in the tree, eyes wide with terror. His own eyes widen as he takes a cautious step forward again, empty hand outstretched. “I’ll not hurt you,” he says as soothingly as he can, “I’m sorry if I gave you a fright.”
There’s nothing, for a moment, and then a slender figure slips from the tree, standing in front of Liam with his chin held high. “I wasn’t frightened,” he - they? she? - says, defiant, “No more than you would be, seeing someone about to take an ax to your legs.”
“To your -” Liam breaks off, mystified. He had an aunt who claimed to have met Dryads, but no one has in ages and ages, that Liam can remember hearing of. “Are you - are you a tree-spirit?”
“I am,” the being says, head still at that proud angle. “This is my grove, and I’ll thank you to quit it at once. We’ve enough trouble as it is.”
“I’m really awfully sorry,” Liam says earnestly, “I wouldn’t have, not if I’d known.”
The Dryad looks at him for a long moment, and then says slowly, “No, I don’t believe you would. I am Zayn Son-Blanche, protector of these trees. By what name go you?”
“I - I’m Liam,” Liam stammers, “Son of Geoff. I’m just a - well - a - a woodcutter. I’m sorry,” he apologises, feeling suddenly awful about his work, “I didn’t know there were people living in them.”
“You have not felled my cousins, else I would have heard of it long since.”
“Oh.” Liam considers this. “Then - not all trees have - have people like you in them?”
The Dryad’s head tilts again, and it is perhaps amusement in his tone as he says, “Among our people, I am accounted a prince, but even so, no, not all trees have people like myself in them. Though,” he adds, sorrow clouding their eyes, “there are not many of us now, by any reckoning. Your people are over-eager in their exploration, and our land and people wane, and our power with it.”
“Oh,” Liam says again, but this is clearly not enough, so he adds, “I’m really awfully sorry.”
The Dryad - Zayn - seems to focus on him again, and he smiles. “The fault lies not with you, Liam, but I thank you for your sorrow and for leaving my grove untouched. If ever you have need, send for me, and I will assist you if I can.” He bows, the motion reminding Liam of the way the Forest bends gracefully to the winds and the winds themselves seem to dance with the branches and leaves, and Zayn turns to step back into his tree.
“Wait,” Liam’s taken a step forward almost before he realises it, and when Zayn turns back, inquiring, he says, “If it’s not - I would not be an imposition, but - is there aught I can do? To help?”
Zayn’s voice is weary as he says, “I fear no one but the king himself could help us now.”
And between one blink and another he’s melted back into the rowan tree as if he never stood in front of Liam in a man’s likeness at all.
Perhaps things would’ve gone back to normal, and Liam would have lived a long and not particularly happy life and died of old age, watched over by Esmeralda the fourth.
Except when Liam’s father comes that week, he asks his usual, “All right’, lad?” and silently shifted Liam’s latest load to his own waggon, but instead of heading back to the village, he hesitates. Says awkwardly, “Heard there’s bandits about. Fae, like as not. Taken the King’s second son. Might do well to stay close to home for a while, eh?”
Then he nods farewell like always and turns to go.
“Wait,” Liam says, because this is more news than Liam usually gets in a year, “Wait, da, what - have they set a ransom for him? Has His Majesty sent anyone to retrieve him?”
His father looks at him, surprised, before he answers diffidently, “Reckon he’ll send men, aye. Take ‘em ages t’ get here, though. Forest being so far from th’ Cair. Boy’ll be dead, like as not.”
The lives of the people in Londinium have always been so far removed - geographically and emotionally - that in some wise Liam can’t blame his father for his disinterest. When you’ve mouths to feed and winter ahead to worry over, having the energy to spare for the spare son of a king you’ve never seen is hard.
But also - Liam can’t help but think of the little lad, scared and all alone, and the guards who won’t come in time.
He goes back to his hut, very thoughtful, and the next morning he loads enough bread and cheese for a week into a pack, fills both water skins, and lets Esmeralda out into her yard. “I’ll be back soon,” he promises her and Ambrosius, and, thrusting his ax through his belt, sets off.
His way takes him through Zayn’s grove, and no sooner has he wondered if he’ll see the Dryad again than the slim form steps out of the tree ahead of him.
“Where go you filled with so much purpose?”
“The king’s son is captured,” Liam tells him, “And his men too far. I am closer - I may yet be in time.”
Zayn’s eyebrows rise. “A worthy cause indeed,” he says, but his voice has turned cold. “This king’s son may see fit to reward you richly, should you succeed.”
Liam stops, surprised. “I - oh. I hadn’t thought of that.” He brightens. “I could ask him to help you! He could - declare the Forest a protected land, belike.”
Zayn’s head tilts, and his eyes on Liam are thoughtful where they were cold as winter’s frost scant seconds ago. “Belike,” he says, softly. And then, abrupt. “You are a good man, Liam Geoffson. Though there is little love lost between my kind and the Sunblessed, I will come with you, if you will have me. It may be you will need a companion, for my cousins tell me there were a full three dozen men come through their groves to the north not two days since.”
“Oh!” Liam says again, and then, feeling like a simpleton, hastens to add, “I mean - that’s really lovely of you. Can you - is it safe to -” he hesitates, not sure how to ask if Zayn can move, but he seems to realise what Liam is trying to ask.
“The Forest is greater than you realise,” Zayn assures him, “And so long as I have wind, water, and soil, I will be well.”
“That’s good, then.” Liam settles his pack more firmly across his shoulders. “Which way?”
Zayn is a wonderful traveling companion. He know so much about the Forest and, Liam discovers, being so far from...everything...hasn’t stopped him being exceedingly well-informed about the rest of Albion.
Liam had known, in a distant sort of way, that King Robert was ill and that his heir, Gregory, had been acting as regent. He hadn’t know that Gregory had been slowly rounding up any Fae he could find and locking them away in cells with bars and bands of cold iron.
Zayn has lost many good Trees, hauled away to the Cair and never heard from again.
“But why?” Liam asks as they rest by a brook, Liam breaking his fast and Zayn merely sitting with his feet in the water, the hurrying edies and shadows turning them rootlike to the eye. “What purpose does it serve?”
Zayn shakes his head slowly. “That, I cannot tell. I have heard whispers on the winds that say the Sea Wolves come from the North in ever greater numbers, and it is at the king’s son’s bidding that they come. They like not the Fae, and it may be he means to treat with them and hopes to lessen their ire by giving them land swept free of us.”
“But that’s not fair.” Liam’s eyebrows furrow, thinking of Zayn forced from his tree, the Fate from her grotto, the rest of the Fair Folk stripped of their homes. “It’s your land! And for the Sea Wolves -” Liam spits contemptuously, “fie for shame that Prince Gregory should give even an inch of Albion over to them! He should be shamed to have any consort with men who keep thralls with no terms for freedom. Were King Robert in his right mind, Gregory would not dare.”
“Do you regret our mission?” Zayn asks.
Liam pauses, struck. “Do you know aught of this second son? Wait -” He puts out a hand, forestalling anything Zayn might have said. “Wait; no. That shouldn’t - I still want to rescue him, if I can.” He looks up to find Zayn’s eyes on him, clear hazel set brightly in the dark, smooth face.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Liam finishes, firm.
“Well then,” Zayn smiles, “let us be on our way again.”
They’ve walked only another few furlongs when Zayn suddenly throws up a hand, head cocked and his whole body frozen like a hare under the eye of a wolf.
“Bandits,” he mouths, and holds up five fingers. Liam pulls his ax from his belt and grips it tightly.
They steal quietly through the trees until even Liam can hear the laughter mixed with heavy thuds and the occasional muffled sounds of someone screaming.
Forgetting caution, Liam flings himself through the trees and into the clearing.
There are five men indeed, all heavily built with long beards and faces swarthy from exposure to the sun and winds and rain.
They have what is clearly a Sidhe locked in an intricate web of cold iron. Liam has never seen a Sidhe before anymore than he’d seen a Dryad. They’re tall, with a shock of white hair that rises straight off of their head and reveals angular features that would be beautiful were they not frozen in a rictus of pain.
With a wordless cry, Liam charges the man closest to the Sidhe. He lays him out with one blow of the ax butt and spins to the meet the next. The man’s knife snaps on the sturdy oak of Liam’s haft and Liam slams a fist into his jaw contemptuously.
“Behind you,” Zayn’s voice comes from behind him, breathless, and Liam twists aside just in time to evade a knife being buried between between his shoulder blades.
Zayn thrusts out a hand and there’s an odd shimmer in the air. A second later the man who’d nearly killed Liam gives a hoarse shout as he tries to move his feet and simply can’t. Zayn meets Liam’s eyes and there’s dark satisfaction in his eyes before he, too, is spinning to meet the next attack. Liam lets Zayn hold him fast whilst he dispatches him with a thrust of a discarded knife.
“I have the last one,” Zayn says, calm, “Let zir out of the iron, quickly.”
Liam nods, turning quickly to the heap on the ground and cutting as swiftly as he can through the oddly strong mesh covering the Sidhe.
The figure comes awake with a cry, some of the wild terror that had been in zir eyes clearing as the mesh leaves zir skin. Liam steps back quickly. “Easy, easy, friend, you’re all right; they’re gone.”
Zir eyes focus on Liam and ze gasps, flinching back and then quickly pretending ze hadn’t. Ze scrambles upright. Zir limbs are really - too graceful to be human. Just a handbreadth longer than a normal man’s, and the cheekbones too angular to be anything but Fae. Ze moves like a gust of wind would blow zir into the treetops, but when Liam offers a hand to zir the flesh is solidly cool beneath his fingers. “I am Liam, son of Geoff.”
“Harold, Prince of the Autumnal Court, second child of Queen Anne.”
There’s a slight noise from behind them, like the thud of a rotten branch giving way at last, and when Liam turns, there is no sign any men had ever marred the peace of the forest. Zayn is stood a little apart from them, lounging against a tree, his arms crossed neatly. He nods serenely at the prince. “Hazza.”
Liam looks between them. “Do you know each other, then?”
“Can anyone really know someone who will desert you at the slightest provocation without a word of warning in advance?” Harold asks, voice light enough that it takes Liam a moment to realise what zhe’s saying.
“We have just saved your life,” Zayn points out mildly.
“I believe this fine young man saved my life,” Harold says, turning such a devastating smile on Liam that he feels himself flushing to the roots of his hair. “So kind of you, truly. And may I just say what lovely eyes you have.” Ze runs the hand still lax in Liam’s grip idly up his arm and before Liam can even blink the entirety of the Sidhe is draped over his back and zir breath is warm in Liam’s ear. “And so strong!”
“Harry,” Zayn sounds exasperated now. “Stop glamouring the mortal. We’ve far to go yet today, and we haven’t the time for your games.”
“Everything may be a game to you, Zayn, but some of us have no need for glamours to keep attention. Where go you in such a rush? Surely there is time for me to express my appreciation and gratitude?”
“Um, we - we go to rescue the king’s son,” Liam manages through the sudden heaviness coating his tongue, “His guards be too far, and there are rumours it was done by - by Fae.” Has Harry always been so - so beautiful? Zir eyes are like deep beds of forest moss, and zir hair looks so soft, as though Liam could bury his fingers in it and just -
The weight on his back disappears abruptly. Liam drags his eyes up to see Zayn with a hand on Harry’s collar, looking very fierce. “Enough! I’ll not have you use him as another of your playthings. And you talk to me of desertion!” He scoffs. “As if you weren’t chasing everything that moved well before I thought of coming home. Release him, Harry.”
“Oh, very well,” Harry says sulkily, and Liam staggers. He feels suddenly very wide awake indeed, and rather like he could eat a large deer all by himself. He blinks and shakes himself. Zayn is still scowling at Harry, who looks not at all repentant.
Feeling rather awkward, Liam shifts from foot to foot. This ends up making matters worse, as both of their attention at once snaps to him.
Zayn opens his mouth to say something, hesitates, and closes it again. Harry is frowning, but it doesn’t seem to be at Liam. “Zayn,” zZe says, “Fae?”
Liam glances at Zayn, who seems to understand at once. “Of course,” he says, letting go of Harry’s collar and turning away a little, running a hand over his face. “Of all the craven, earth-vexed, fawning codpieces, Gregory is the foulest.”
Harry’s face is solemn. “He means to thrust the blame upon us, then.”
“Aye, and use it to stir good beings to wrath against us. There will be nowhere safe for us in Albion, if he succeeds.”
“Zayn,” Harry moves swiftly, capturing both of Zayn’s hands between zir own, kneeling so ze is looking up into the Dryad’s face entreatingly. “I - I regret my harsh words of before. Surely thou knowest there is always a place for thee in my mother’s court. She’ll think not on our history.”
Zayn reaches out a hand, running his thumb gently over Harry’s too-sharp jawline. “Well I know it, my friend, but Albion is my home. I’ll not turn tail and run from the likes of Gregory, not while so many of my cousins are yet here.”
“I’m sorry, I - don’t mean to interrupt. I’m afraid I don’t quite - do you mean it’s not fair-folk that have the prince?”
The two Fae turn to look at him again, both a striking tableau against the crisp colours of the Forest, and then Zayn is moving, glancing up at the sun and then reaching for Liam’s pack. “No time, now; I’ll explain on the way. We must reach the prince before he is killed. Harry, do you come?”
“Aye, I will. If the regent succeeds, it means death for many of my people as well.” Ze grimaces. “Though I love not the Sunblessed.”
“Quickly, then. Another thousand thousand paces and we will be nearly upon them.”
It’s really truly not fair, Liam thinks sourly, that his companions are at once possessed of god-like beauty and stamina. He is breathless, focussed almost entirely on dragging in his next breath, and they sound as though they are merely out for a stroll through a king’s garden.
“Gregory has hired the Northmen to kidnap his brother,” Zayn explains, the weight of Liam’s pack over his shoulder seeming to slow him not a whit. “And spread a rumour that it was our folk who did it. When he is found dead, there will doubtless be traces of a Fae nearby - belike that was what they wanted Harry for - and we will be blamed. He can use it to wipe us from the whole of Albion and use hired mercenaries to do it.”
“And give them land as part of their reward,” Liam pants,. “Aye, ‘tis diabolical indeed.”
Harry throws up a hand, halting them. Zir face is set, a far cry from the expression that had greeted Liam earlier, even though earlier ze’d just been captured and tortured. Liam realises with a horrid shock that if the prince is already dead, in a matter of weeks both of these Fae will be fighting for their lives and their homes. He shifts nervously, gripping his ax haft more tightly.
A dozen men, Zayn signals, and two prisoners.
Then, tTo Liam’s surprise, they both look to him. He steels himself and whispers, “Harry, if you’ll - attract their attention, Zayn can come from the left and I from the right. Zayn, can you get the prince and the other to safety?”
There’s a faraway look in Zayn’s eye for a moment and then he shakes his head, grim. “They’re both bound with cold iron.”
“Right. Right, well, then I’ll - get those off and we’ll hope there was a reason they used cold iron and they can help us right away. On my count.”
Harry steps calmly into the clearing and crosses zir arms, somehow giving the impression of lounging in a fine receiving room despite zir elegant coat being all torn and muddy and being instantly surrounded by sharp iron in every direction. “Good even, gentlemen,” ze says, and zir words are suddenly the most enticing thing Liam has ever heard. “Now, wouldn’t you like to put those weapons away? Surely you would be more comfortable with your various...knives and things...over by that rowan tree, yes?”
For a breathless second Liam dares to hope this will be that easy, but those hopes are dashed when one of the largest and most unkempt of the men shakes himself. “Alfr,” he spits, “Take him.”
Harry smiles at him pleasantly. “Not a him, actually.” And then ze’s moving, a quick-silver flicker moving so swiftly it’s nearly as dazzling as zir glamour, but then Liam has no more time to watch, for he has his own foes to face. He can sense Zayn somewhere to the left of him, wielding branch and leaf and wind to devastating effect, but his own focus is on reaching the two forms lying motionless on the far side of the clearing.
Naturally, the Northmen’s focus is on stopping him from doing so, and he’s bleeding heavily from a gash over one eye and favouring one leg by the time he crashes gracelessly to his knees by their sides. He kept the knife one of the men had tried to kill him with a minute before, and cuts frantically at the netting - the same as they had used on Harry - covering the two figures.
He hasn’t got the slightest idea which one is the prince, so he’s simply working on the closest person to him and gets the mesh halfway finished when the figure suddenly comes awake, pushing his hands away. “It’s all right, I’m here to help,” he begins, but cuts off as the boy scrambles backwards, bright blue eyes taking in the situation at a glance.
“No, help Louis, leave me, I’m fine, get Louis out!”
A peculiar kind of loyalty to a prince no one seems to have even known the name of, but Liam obeys the peremptory order nevertheless.
The reaction when he and the servant boy finally clear the rest of the mesh from the prince’s skin is far more...eruptive.
The prince gives a wordless cry, and his pale blue eyes are covered over by a golden sheen. There’s a sound like an entire castle has just collapsed on top of itself, and when Liam dares to look, the sea wolves, to a man, are dead where they stood and the prince is stood panting in the middle of the clearing, fists clenched and that inhuman gold still clouding his eyes.
“Louis,” the servant says, ignoring Liam and an astonished looking Zayn and Harry as he runs to the prince’s side, “Louis, I’m safe, it’s all right, you - you took care of them, look, here, I’m well, I promise you.”
Slowly, Louis’ head turns to meet the boy’s, and the glow begins to fade from his eyes and he stumbles. The servant catches him, hands tight in the other’s shirt.
“Niall,” the prince mumbles, “Niall, I’m sorry, I couldn’t - they’re dead?”
“They’re dead,” the boy - Niall - says, voice soft, “We’re safe, I promise. Easy, my friend.”
The two of them sink to their knees, light and darker heads close together and hands clasped, for the space of another breath, and then Niall rises, gently freeing his hand from Louis’ grasp and coming towards Liam. “We are in your debt,” he says gravely, bowing a little, “what is your name, good lord?”
“I’m - Liam. Just Liam, I’m not a - not a ser or anything. We - we heard Prince Louis was captured, and -”
There’s a noise from the boy still sprawled on the ground that sounds almost like laughter, and when Liam glances over, the prince is indeed laughing into his sleeve.
“Peace, Louis,” Niall says, sounding fond. “No wonder that he should think so. Well you know my brother keeps all word of me from any who might challenge his plans.”
And, oh. Niall’s the prince. Liam feels - very stupid.
“Your highness,” Harry breathes, suddenly beside Liam, and sinks gracefully to one knee, dropping a kiss on one very brown and dirty hand and managing to at once glare at Liam and look charmingly up at Niall from under zir lashes.
“Your highness,” Zayn says stiffly, sounding considerably less charming.
From the ground, Louis blows a raspberry.
Niall laughs. “Just Niall will do, thank you. And your names?”
“Zayn, of the Forest, and Prince Harry, of the Autumnal Court, your - Niall.”
“Not actually your Niall,” Louis says lazily, “My Niall, though.”
“Louis.” Niall says again, still fond, but exasperated also. “I apologise. We are both in your debt.”
“How - came you to be captured, sir?” Liam kneels, not for the reason Harry had, since that moment seems a bit past, but to clean the blood off his ax on a nearby tussock.
“Do you know, it was the oddest thing,” Niall says thoughtfully. “We’ve hunted those woods for years and never had one bit of trouble, have we, Louis? And yet the one Secondday I mention to my dear brother where we planned to go, we’re abducted by Sea Wolves and promised that our throats would be slit as soon as they brought us far enough into the Forest.”
“I told you we ought to have gone berry picking instead,” Louis says, still flat on his back on the ground, and not seeming to care that he’s laying in blood and what is probably at least three different people’s entrails.
Niall ignores this. “And imagine them taking the precaution of binding us with cold iron, even though no one, not even the court physic, knows of my or Louis’...gifts.”
Zayn’s eyebrows have been climbing steadily higher as Niall speaks, and here he interjects, “So you - you knew. Of your brother’s plan?”
“I - suspected.”
“Should have let me kill him,” Louis says.
“Louis, if you’ve got nothing productive to add, perhaps you could clean up a bit?”
“I don’t have to do what you say,” Louis grumbles, but gets to his feet.
“Isn’t he - your servant?” Harry asks.
Without turning around, Niall closes a hand around Louis’ wrist, arresting the motion of his hand to - do a spell, presumably. “In theory,” he says pleasantly. “Louis, please do not turn our new friends into amphibians of any kind.”
“But he’d make such a lovely newt,” Louis says, glaring at Harry.
“Not a he,” Harry smiles, all sharp teeth and eldritch beauty, “and I think you’d find it harder to turn me into a newt than you think.”
“I’m afraid it’s absurdly easy for Louis to do anything,” Niall sighs. “He’s the first Mage born in a hundred years.”
“He still -” Harry begins, and then yelps as Zayn’s elbow digs into zir ribs.
“Forgive zir,” Zayn says smoothly. “Sometimes I think as you do, Lord Mage, that ze would make a very fine newt, but fortunately, ze has zir uses elsewhere.”
“Oh?” Louis looks at Harry.
Harry does absolutely nothing to stop this blatant looking over, tossing back zir hair and examining zir cuffs with an air that can only be described as preening.
Niall coughs gently. “Not to cut short this beautiful moment, but perhaps we could move to somewhere a trifle less...covered in entrails?”
Liam drags himself upright, somewhat surprised to find that he’d been sitting, and immediately staggers.
“Are you all right, Sir Liam?” Niall is suddenly by his side, brows furrowed and one hand under Liam’s elbow.
“It’s - just Liam,” he manages, the edges of his vision going a bit wobbly and dark, “not a - not a ser, your highness.”
He sees Niall’s eyes widen, and hears him shouting for Louis, and then his legs are giving way beneath him and the last thing he sees is the canopy of leaves overhead spinning into a swirl of green and gold and he wonders vaguely if Zayn’s green and gold tunic and breeches are actually part of him and made of leaves and sunlight or if they’re just clothes like Liam’s.
He wakes to a pair of light blue eyes staring into his, and he groans, blinking hard against the too-bright sun.
“He’s awake!” the boy announces, and then to Liam, “finally. You really should have told me you were injured, you know.”
“There was blood,” Liam points out, “on my face.”
“There was blood,” the boy - Louis, Liam remembers - mimics, “everywhere. How was I to know it was coming from you?”
This is a fair point, so Liam subsides.
“Liam!” And Harry’s there, crouched over him with zir hair swinging forward into Liam’s face. Improbably, it smells like honeysuckle and not like blood and viscera. “You’re awake!”
“I literally just said that,” Louis complains. “It’s like you don’t even try to listen to me.”
“Louis, you really must curb this instinct to make everything about you, darling. Liam was deathly injured!”
“He really wasn’t. He had a head wound. They always bleed a lot. He’s perfectly fine now.”
“I am?” Liam tries to sit up, and to his surprise, can do so quite easily. The clearing is back to being green and dappled with sunlight, with no sign that any slaughter had taken place. Louis looks the same, minus carnage, and Harry has found a new outfit from somewhere. It’s some kind of patterned cloth in red and gold that shimmers in a way that Liam had thought only water could. Zayn and Niall are holding a conversation in hushed tones on the other side of the grove.
Louis looks at Harry smugly. “See? Perfectly fine.”
“You still couldn’t know that, he could have -”
“Absolutely not, and I’ll thank you not to tell me -”
“Excuse me for caring about my friend -”
“You literally just met him! Today!”
“Please,” Liam breaks in, alarmed. “Please don’t - Thank you, Louis, for your care of me, and Harry, I would be honoured to be your friend, if you’d have me.”
“Hold, if you’re going to be his friend, I’ve just as much a right as you do. More, as I’ve just healed a great bloody hole in his head.”
“You just said -” Harry begins, and Liam interrupts again before things can grow any more heated.
“It would be my honour to have both of you for friends! Please, I’m not - it’s not worth fighting over.”
Harry looks at him in surprise. “My dear Liam,” ze says, “everything is worth fighting over.”
Liam can think of no reply to this that isn’t insulting to someone, so he says nothing at all, and thankfully at this juncture Zayn and Niall appear to notice the rest of the world exists and come over.
Zayn is glowing. Quite literally - there’s a soft halo to his dark skin and a few green leaflets appear to be wending their slow way from underneath his sleeves to twine lovingly between his fingers. He appears to notice Liam staring and ducks his head, seemingly abashed, but he’s smiling nevertheless as he says, “It’s good to see you looking so much better, Liam. Louis, you’re a marvel, truly.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Niall’s face is suffused with pride, as though it had been himself who had done such a wonder and not his servant-mage.
And Louis, to Liam’s surprise, instead of crowing exultantly about his prowess, flushes crimson and mutters something under his breath about how truly, it was nothing, and anyone would have done as much.
“Liam,” Zayn says, settling gracefully cross-legged on the grass, “What purpose you to do next? Will you return to your part of the Forest?”
“Well,” Liam says, feeling awkward, and glancing very quickly at Prince Niall before looking away again, “I - I had thought - that is, if his highness would have me, I would - I would be of service, if I could. It would be an honour, my lord, to serve at your side.”
“Oh, gods,” Louis groans. “Niall, you’ve got another one.”
“Hush, Louis,” Niall says, more sharply than Liam has yet heard him, and says to Liam, “The honour would be mine, Liam, but I cannot in good conscience allow you to throw in your lot with me without knowing just how desperate straits we are in.”
Liam opens his mouth to protest, but Zayn leans forward and places a warning hand on his knee and he suddenly feels very warm all over, like someone has just moved him into a patch of full sunlight, and he obediently keeps quiet.
“Zayn has been telling me of the injustices his people and Harry’s have faced these past two years as my brother grows in power. In truth, the Sea Wolves are but the latest in a long line of malfeasance by my brother. He taxes the people beyond what the land can bear and takes children in place of payment. I have done what little I can to release them from service, but I fear it is only a matter of time before they begin to be set to work for the men of the north.”
“Can your father do nothing?” Liam bursts out, and is treated to such a venomous look from Louis he’s astonished that he doesn’t expire on the spot.
“My father,” Niall says, voice calm and lips set, “has no more than a fortnight to live. Even our best physics can do nothing for him.”
Liam does not ask if Louis has tried. The quick-silver expression of anguish on his face is answer enough.
“I had an inkling my brother would seek to have me out of the way before his passing, so there would be no dispute over the throne, but I had not thought he despised the Fair Folk so much as to seek to wipe them from all Albion. He cannot be allowed to do this.”
“If he doesn’t know Niall is yet alive,” Zayn says, eager, “we have an advantage. If we go to the five kings and convince them that Gregory is not fit to be king and Niall should take the throne in his stead.”
“How many men can you field?” Harry asks, looking to Niall.
“No more than a hundred at present,” Niall says grimly. “I cannot trust that all my men are loyal to me and to Albion and not their own greed and therefor my brother.”
“A hundred and one,” Liam says, and feels himself flush as they all look to him, but holds steady nonetheless. “If you will have me, I would be your man still.”
“And I,” Zayn says, still with that glow suffusing him.
Harry grimaces, smoothing zir hands down zir still-impeccable clothing as ze says diffidently, “I suppose myself, as well. If I must.”
“You really don’t have to,” Louis groans. “Like, really truly and honestly, please don’t.”
“Louis,” Niall scolds, but he’s smiling, and the tense atmosphere is broken.
And then Liam’s stomach snarls, audibly reminding him it’s been hours since he’s had anything to eat, and everyone laughs. Zayn volunteers to take Louis and find them something to eat, and Harry announces ze is going to go bathe, despite being completely pristine so far as Liam can see.
Left alone with Niall, Liam feels oddly shy. To go from his quiet life in the depths of the Forest to consorting with Princes and Fae-folk - it’s overwhelming enough without the added pressure of the oppression and desolation of an entire group of people.
“Could we - seek help from Rome?” he ventures, before the silence can stretch too long.
Niall shakes his head, looking suddenly very tired. “There is nothing left of Rome in Albion save callused chins and pieces of red crest on the wind. The last legion pulled out well nigh two years hence. My father had a message from Honorious that we should look for no aid from Rome ‘gainst the Sea Wolves. No, our only hope is to rally enough of the tribes to our cause.”
“Have you a plan?” Liam asks, adding wistfully, “I would I had more to offer besides my arm and my axe, but I have been too long on my own in the Forest to know aught of the tribes.”
“I spoke at some length with Zayn,” Niall says, letting himself fall back and cushioning his head underneath his arms. “He has family all over Albion, and means to ask them to pass on news for us, and tell us ahead of time which way the kings lean. Harry has promised to ask zir mother for permission to use the mirror roads, and of course, we have Louis and yourself. A goodly company, methinks.”
“Aye,” Liam says, thoughtfully, “and surely will God grant us success, our cause being just and our fight honourable.”
Niall turns his head to look at him in some surprise. “I had not thought to find another follower of Jesu so far from Rome.” And then, more hesitant: “Think you our cause just?”
“Surely it cannot but be so, for we fight to save lives and for those who cannot help themselves.”
“Aye, there is good sense in that. Fighting for those who cannot help themselves,” Niall repeats softly.
There is a noise, and they look up to see Harry has rejoined them, hair sodden and dripping, clothed in a loose tunic and breeches that manage still to look fit for a Queen’s court. “And what say you,” ze says, dropping easily to lay beside Liam, “of those who say my people are an abomination unto God and should be driven as the devils were into the sea or used only as are beasts of burden?”
“Fie for shame to those who say such things,” Liam cries hotly. “Are you and yours not all God’s creation, even as are we? God created nothing evil, and those who say so have read the Chronicles wrongly indeed. My Lord,” he appeals to Niall, “surely there are but few who would so distort the words of God?”
“I fear Harry is right in his saying,” Niall says solemnly. “There are many who fear what they do not understand, and so are quick to condemn. My brother is one such, and he has many followers that think even as he does.”
“It hasn’t helped,” a low voice says from behind Liam, and he twists to see Zayn with Louis beside him there, laden with the fruits of the forest, “that our people have grown increasingly wary of contact with the world of man, and keep to ourselves. As the king says, all beings fear what they do not know, and we have given them little to know of us these past hundred years. Fear of Rome kept us quiet and men cut down our sacred groves and dug out our barrows and planted barley beside the straight lines of Rome’s roads that cut through our mirror pathways, and as our might lessened so did man’s respect for us and fear grew in its place.”
There is silence for a long moment, and then Louis says, “Well! We have some roots and berries and things if anyone would like to wash down this cheerful conversation.”
“These are serious times,” Niall begins, and Louis stuffs an apple into his mouth.
“Time enough for war councils when we’ve got a council,” Louis admonishes. “Enough. Eat. It’s been a long day for all of us, and we should be far from here by nightfall.”
“Niall,” Louis says, coming into the tent and dumping his pack by the entrance. “I’ve three more for you.”
Niall looks up, ready smile of welcome dimmed a bit by the hardship of the past few months. It’s not at all how Louis pictured a rebellion being - for one thing, there’s a lot more discussion of where to put the latrines than he’d imagined - and he worries for Niall, kept so constantly busy with the ordering of the men and movements of Gregory’s armies and the ever growing threat of the sea wolves advancing upon their most easterly ranks. He makes a note to check in with Zayn and Harry and Liam and see if they can’t between them force Niall to take a damned break.
“Gawaine, son of Lot, and my brothers Gaheris and Agravaine, my Lord King,” Gawaine says as he drops to one knee, followed by his brothers.
Louis flops onto the pile of furs to the right of Niall, reaching idly for an apple from the bowl kept filled with fruit against the king’s need.
Agravaine looks horrified, but honestly, if he hadn’t learned on the ride back that Louis does exactly what he wants, he won’t last long in this fight. Mostly because exactly what Louis wants is in truth what his liege lord wants, though he’ll deny it til the day he dies. Niall, though, has never once questioned his loyalty. It might anger him, being taken for granted, but the unconditional faith of the most powerful man in Albion is not something to be taken lightly, and Louis would never mistake trust for being presumed upon.
“Be welcome. You come from Cymru?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And what reason have you for joining our fight?” Niall is leaning too heavily on his table, Louis notes, worried, and beckons to one of the serving lads, whispering a request for a heartier meal to be brought and the rest of the council gathered.
The brothers stand at Niall’s motion, and Louis is intrigued to note that Agravaine and not Gawaine is the one to step forward, one hand gripping the hilt of his sword tightly as he says, “Sire, we are beset by enemies from the east and the west alike, and our father is in his dotage and listens only to his Fate, who whispers nothing but ill tidings.”
“So.” Niall looks to the other two. “And you also feel this?”
“And do you swear to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to be faithful in love and in friendship, and to uphold justice so far as you may know it?”
“We so swear,” they say in unison, and Niall embraces them, kissing them heartily on both cheeks and calling one of the runners to take them to a tent.
“That was well done,” Louis says, standing and slipping a hand beneath Niall’s arm. It trembles in his grasp, and he frowns.
“They will be loyal?” Niall asks, letting Louis help him to the furs.
“I would not have brought them had I not thought so. Gawaine is as great a fighter as any I’ve seen - belike more than you,” he teases gently, “and the other two fiercely loyal to him and to their land. There is no guile in them.”
“There is, perhaps, some small guile,” Niall says, and Louis stiffens. If he has missed something and made them free of the camp -
But Niall raises a hand. “Peace. Nothing of note. I wonder, Louis, that you did not mark it yourself.”
“If you are going to bedevil me,” Louis begins, but Niall is laughing, and it is so good to see it smoothing away the worry lines he had begun to think permanent that he subsides.
“Nay, old friend, give me leave to have this small victory. Did you not see fair Agravaine is no man?”
Louis’ mouth is open. “I -” He stops. A few select memories of the past week rise before his mind’s eye and he feels himself blush. “Gods and Furies, Niall, we bathed together!”
“In truth? Perhaps there is no small magic in that family, then, to hide such a thing from your all-seeing gaze.”
Niall may mock, but already Louis is turning this over in his mind, how he could have missed such a thing. Perhaps Harry should test, to see if the glamour is of the Sidhe, and if there is aught else that they were hiding. If he missed this, belike he’s missed -
“Louis,” Niall interrupts, placing a hand on his arm. “Easy, easy, I do not think they mean us any harm. Indeed, it may be they are like Harry, and wish to be betwixt and between, or all a woman. I’ll not have you cornering the poor thing and outing them to the whole company.”
“Niall,” Louis protests, “if they mean you harm -”
“I am as well protected as any king can be, thanks to you. Ask Harry to speak with them if you must, but I am firm on this point.”
“As indeed you are on all points,” Louis grumbles, but he subsides.
Niall settles back against the furs, badly disguising a yawn. “And now tell me of your journey.”
“I will wait for the others,” Louis returns. “I’ve no wish to tell the thing again, and I am wondrous empty. I feel my back has begun to meld itself to my front for lack of anything to fill it.”
The flap of the curtain rises, and Zayn and Harry duck in, arguing as usual. Liam follows them, ever-present ax still strapped to his back and a look of tolerant amusement on his face.
Zayn stops mid-word as he catches sight of Louis, and Louis scrambles to his feet, arms spread.
Beaming, Zayn steps into them. “We had begun to think you dead!” He says, into Louis’ neck, “What, the greatest Mage of all time couldn’t be arsed to send a raven or scry us?”
“Language, my Zayn, there are children present,” Louis laughs, pressing his nose into the hollow of Zayn’s throat and inhaling deeply. Zayn always smells like fresh sunlight and new earth.
Harry gives him a very rude and anatomically impossible gesture, and Liam just smiles. Truly, how they’ve managed not to corrupt this boy yet is a miracle straight from the Fates. Louis pulls back from Zayn and holds out his hands to Harry.
“Hazza, lovely, looking resplendent as ever. Broken any hearts lately? By the way, I need you to interrogate someone.”
“I’ll wager that’s not how your king put it,” Harry laughs, but ze takes Louis’ hands, swaying into him for a quick brush of lips. “And no, a certain tree spirit of our acquaintance keeps me on too tight a leash for that.”
“Liam,” Louis says, warm, because he can’t not; as frustrating as he may find Liam’s stalwart nobility, it’s nearly impossible not to like the lad.
Liam’s hanging back, like he’s still not sure where he fits with them, so of course Louis rolls his eyes and tugs him in for an embrace as well. “How went the skirmish with the Belgae?”
“Nay, Louis, if I could not hear your report, you’ll not hear Liam’s. Here is Cade with our sup - we will eat and then we will talk of war only when the last drop of wine is gone from our cups.”
“Whatever you say, Sire,” Louis bows, mocking. “Your word is law.”
“Is it?” Niall raises an eyebrow. “Who would have guessed.”
Harry has been acting as seneschal, with an entire array of frighteningly competent women beneath zir, all of whom refuse to be glamoured either by Harry or by any one of the bright young things who just happen to need new armour or better linens or a sword blessed by one of the Fae.
Louis trusts no one but himself with Niall’s safety, but he, grudgingly, admitted that the security of the whole of the camp is perhaps spreading himself too thin (literally, as it’s some of his essence that goes into maintaining the magical barricade surrounding them) and has delegated the task to Liam to oversee, helped by his second, an enormous mountain of a man also named Niall, who is the son of a Sidhe and a Human, and therefore possessed of the necessary abilities to shoulder the bulk of the strain.
He’d put up an tremendous argument, that first month, when it had been the five of them and a scant two dozen men in their following, about being the chief ambassador to the tribes. He’d pointed out, quite reasonably he thought, that he had the sharpest tongue and shortest temper of any of them, and would be sure to offend far more than offer honeyed words.
Zayn had pointed out that most of the tribes valued honest words and clear speaking, and Louis’ manner of speaking would do more to endear him to them and their cause than otherwise. Louis countered that he needed to be here, protecting the king. Harry had cheerfully volunteered zirself and Liam to take over the mainstay of the aegis, and when Louis had opened his mouth to object, Harry had hastily added, “You aren’t doubting our devotion, I hope?” and Louis had looked at Liam’s open, earnest face, and blithely said that no, of course he wasn’t. And then Niall had taken him aside and told him, quietly, that there was no one he trusted more with this, and he knew Louis would do his utmost to win the leaders to their cause.
This, Louis had no answer to, for in truth his main work was to tell people of Niall and win them to his cause, and he possessed no doubt at all that any who saw Niall or heard even a little of him would be instantly secured as loyal vassals.
(Niall always protested whenever any of them called him king, nevermind high king, intending for all the lords to keep charge of their lands but Louis and the others all resoundingly agreed that before the end nearly all the kings would be mad to see Niall as anything but high king of Albion.)
Thus Louis has been kept busy, out of the camp more often than in, these past three lunar cycles, travelling to the Corieltauvi and the Iceni and the smaller tribes and those men who claimed no tribe, but kept to themselves, tucked away into the hills and knolls and making a living out of the earth. These were the ones he had most success with - many of them had feared the coming of the Sea Wolves with no protection of kith or kin or chieftain's name, and it was well nigh a hundred all told who travelled the mirror paths with Louis through the barrier into Niall’s camp. They brought their families, women and children alike, and many of the women took up arms alongside their men, the children glad of the others’ company safe in the innermost circles of the encampment.
Zayn, always found sitting in the warmest patch of sunlight to be found, often with one or two curious children about him, had cautioned them against using Niall’s true name.
“If Gregory thinks him dead, he will merely think one of the chieftains is amassing his own men, and may think little of it until we are grown strong enough to truly challenge him. We will name him Arthur, from the old Cymric word for king, and keep his true name close against the day he resumes his rightful place.”
“It will be the more easily done,” Niall had added wryly, “for few knew my name before by Gregory’s own design.”
It was Zayn who sent Louis daily messages by Liam’s raven Ambrosius, telling him of which way the tribes were leaning, advising him to go first to the Iceni, for they had still the blood of Boudica in them, and moreover would be among the first to fall to the Northmen, and if they gained the Iceni they gained also the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni. The Corieltauvi, being so close to Londinium and Gregory as they were, would sooner hold true to the promises of their liege lord, no matter how Louis pleaded with them to consider their likely fate should Gregory give the Sea Wolves free reign.
And it was Zayn who held open the mirror paths for the warriors of the tribes to come through, turning a journey that should rightly have taken nearly a sennight into merely two hours’ march. There they were met by Harry and screened quickly against spies and assigned tents, which were laid out according to the Roman pattern, with the barracks laid out in neat rows behind the king’s tent in the middle and, at Louis’ insistence, the council tent adjoined. Niall had suggested merely combining the two, to save on space, but Louis had looked incredulously at him and then at the entire plain and told Harry to make sure Niall had at least one place where he’d not be called upon to do aught but rest. The hospital was beside the king’s tent with the latrines in the far back corner, by the stables. Liam was in charge of drill. Well, Niall was in charge of drill, but a fortnight in, when they began to number more than a scant two dozen, Liam had stepped in one morning when Niall was called away to attend to a message from Isca Dumnoniorum, and when Niall came back, it was to find Liam running drill as smoothly as though he had done it all his life.
(Liam had confessed to Louis later that he’d been creeping out well before dawn and putting himself through the steps Niall had shown them the day before, over and over until he was literally doing them in his sleep.)
When the last drop of wine was drained from their cups Louis leaned back against the furs and crossed his feet at the ankle, looking expectantly to Liam. “The Belgae?”
“All well,” Liam sits upright, still, reluctant to lounge as do the Romans and equally ill at ease with Harry’s preferred seat - halfway in someone’s lap, using them as a living chair. Currently, half zir body is in Zayn’s lap and zir head in Louis’, blatantly angling for a hand in zir curls. “We were easily victorious, and Bevan has sworn fealty to his majesty.”
Louis looks to Zayn, who nods.
“We had them dispersed among our ranks; ten men for every one of ours. An they think of rising up, we’d have them down before they could draw breath.”
“Seventeen. Ten of theirs and seven of ours.” Liam pauses, his distress visible. “Aife among them.”
Louis makes a soft, involuntary sound. Aife had been one of the first to come to them, and Louis had recruited her personally. “A brave and most splendid warrior. May her soul be at rest until we are joined again. Her child?”
“Lynet has taken her in,” Harry says quietly.
“Did we -”
“I took the liberty of taking from our war chest to succor any need she may have,” Harry confirms, curls falling into zir face.
“Good. Thank you, Hazza.”
“Of course. And Lynet is one of my best - she’ll be well cared for.”
There’s a long, solemn pause, and then Niall says softly, “Your news, Louis?”
Louis shakes himself. “Right. Yes. Cymru stays aloft from the fight, save the three who come on their own behalf, and not their king’s. The Corieltauvi also hold fast to their leige-lord.”
Niall nods, looking weary. This they had expected.
“What provision have we made for the Iceni, if they will ally with us?” he asks.
Louis leans forward, clasping his hands together in front of him. “Already they have sent warriors, but they are wary of pledging fealty to your majesty. They fear if the Sea Wolves come they will be overrun and you’ll not come to their aid.”
“Who leads the Iceni? Antedi still?” Zayn asks, brows knitted.
“He does, though in name only. His daughter, Cottia, is queen in truth. She is fair, but proud, and likes not to bind her people’s fate to a stripling’s war.” Louis’ mouth twists wryly. “Her words, not mine, my lord.”
Niall waves this aside. “Think we our numbers enough to guarantee safety for her people?”
“We cannot guarantee anything, sire, not at present. We are strong enough for small skirmishes, and we number nearly two hundred, but we have not yet been matched against anything but border tribes and outlanders.” Liam looks ill at ease to be the one saying so, but he doesn’t waver in the telling of it. “Half the forces are yet unblooded, and the time until they are tested in full combat ‘gainst the Northmen grows short.”
Niall is silent for a long moment before he looks to Zayn. “How long have we until my brother thinks us a threat?”
“I have heard no whisper on the winds yet, and no word that he knows of Louis’ travels. Yet my people nearest Londinium have been silent this past sennight, and no word comes for miles around his castle. I have not yet asked my cousins to venture closer, but -”
“Tell them they must not,” Niall interrupts, firm. “I’ll not ask such a risk of them.”
“Sire -” Zayn begins, but Niall shakes his head.
“Nay, friend, enough of your people have been lost already. I will not have more of them on my conscience.”
“Niall,” Louis says, his voice low, and he does not look at Niall as he speaks. “By the end - you may not have a choice.”
The long summer days were growing ever less long, and it was often and again that Zayn or Louis or one of the others, as the skirmishes grew into battles, had need to force Niall to a rest. He would push himself near to breaking point and past it until he was but a breath from collapsing where he stood, and even more as they received word that the king his father had at last succumbed to his illness and slipped quietly into death. Niall had taken the news quietly, but when Louis had gone after him, he had found him with his face buried in his knees, one hand blindly petting at one of the camp dogs. The beast was licking anxiously at his hands and what it could see of his face, whining off and on. Louis had lowered himself to sit beside Niall and without saying a word, pulled Niall into an embrace that lasted as long as the sobs had shaken Niall’s frame.
(“He was not kind,” Niall had said, later, in the privacy of the darkness, “but he was fair and even handed. A man of level judgement, in truth.”
“I am sorry.”
“Gregory poisoned him, I think.” Niall’s voice was empty. “I could not bring him to even entertain the idea that it might have been so.”
Louis said nothing for a long moment. “He is at peace now. And you are king in truth.”
“Please God he may grant us victory on the morrow, and the day after, and the day after, and then it may be so.”
And Niall’s God was not Louis’, but he murmured a quiet ‘Amen’ nevertheless.)
They had no new recruits, though those they had were by now blooded indeed. Plead though Louis might, those tribes nearest the Wall saw no need for any battle or fight - after all, what was a new ruler to them? Their hunting trails were untouched and their fields were ripe with a harvest that needed to be gotten in, and there were always new babes being born and old ones dying; so was the way of the world, sa? Rome had made no new trails north of the Wall, and neither would the Sea Wolves. The Brigantes would have none of the southern fighting.
“It is ill news,” Harry had murmured when Louis had come back, the news a heavy burden slowing his steps home, and zir face was drawn as zir hands moved busily rolling bandages. “They have many valiant warriors. Many of the Summer Court live among them and will choose as do they.”
“We must press on,” Niall had said, grim-faced. “Brigantes or no, we have no other recourse.”
Now, Louis pauses as he walks from his tent to meet the other Niall - Niall Breslin - watching the warriors as Liam runs them through drills. They’ve come far in the past five months - spurred on in no little part, no doubt, by the ever-growing realisation that failure to pay attention will render them dead. Liam raises his sword in greeting, and Louis waves in response. It’s odd to see Liam without his ax, but whilst an ax works well for Liam’s height and build, the more slenderly built of their army do far better with a sword or pilum. They lost nearly two dozen people, in the last battle. The Corieltauvi they had expected, but they were no sooner routed than a wave of Northmen had taken the field, fresh where Niall’s troops were weary, and Louis had had to throw up a hasty shield and Zayn open a mirror path else they would have lost many more. They had gotten safe away, but Gregory knew for certain now, if he had not before, that they had a mage powerful enough to hold off a battalion of Sea Wolves on their side, and Fae besides.
There’s a noise to his right, and Louis glances over to see Breslin step up beside him, arms folded across his massive chest, frowning at the drill. “They’re slow, today.”
“Aye,” Louis agrees, “Not recovered from yesterday, I’ll warrant.”
Bressie grunts in acknowledgement. Then, head tilted a little but still gazing at the warriors, says, “We need a better plan, for if yesterday happens again. We lost too many.”
Louis opens a hand, inviting him to say more.
“There are more of us, in Albion. Betwixt and betweeners, who belong not to the Fae nor to Man. I had speech with young Agravaine earlier this morn, and they agree. You may know -” he slants a look at Louis, sideways, “- they have no little magic, in their family.”
“I had some suspicion it was so,” Louis says, non-committal. If it would not make Agravaine ill at ease, he is sure Niall would bedevil him over that incident far more.
“They suggest we look to the Fates.”
“The Fates?” Louis echoes, startled. His knowledge of the beings is limited to brief glimpses of the ancient one King Robert had had as advisor. What became of her after Gregory took the reins of power he never thought to wonder. He knows Liam had known one, that she had set him on the path that led him to them, but then, that is their purpose. To sense the ways of destiny’s hand and give tongue to it when they deemed it meet. “To what purpose?” he asks, and then chuckles to himself. “‘Purpose’, aye, there’s a double meaning in that.”
The corners of Bressie’s mouth turn up, but he turns quickly serious again. “Their father’s Fate has him in the palm of her hand. It was she who forbad any should come from Cymru to join us, and swore great harm should fall on any who came despite her warning.”
Louis pauses. “Can they lie, think you?”
“Aye, there’s the crux of it,” Bressie says ruefully. “That they know the ways of destiny none can deny, but if they choose to twist it for their own ends - a kingdom is a weighty thing to throw into that balance.”
“It was well thought of,” Louis admits. “I will tell Agravaine so, when next I see them.”
Breslin nods. “And now?”
“Now,” Louis says grimly, “I call the others for council. Come you to the king’s tent in two marks, and bring Agravaine, an you see them.”
Breslin taps his fist to his chest in acknowledgement and Louis nods back before heading for Liam. One of Liam’s leftenants sees him coming and salutes, one fist to her chest as she says something to Liam. Liam turns, his smile of greeting fading quickly as he takes in Louis’ expression. “Have you need of me?”
“Aye, in the king’s tent. Have you seen the others?” It’s an odd thing, Louis reflects to himself, that there could be so many meant by that vague ‘others’ and yet they all understand perfectly who is meant by it. How quickly they became a unit, the five of them, brought together by choices and chance.
“Zayn I know is in his clearing, resting from yesterday. Harry is most likely with the babes, and Niall,” Liam grimaces.
“The hospital,” Louis sighs. Always Niall does this - the day after a battle he seeks out the bereaved, if they be in the camp (and sends letters by raven if they are not) and grieves with them, promising they’ll not be left destitute by their loss, and then visits the hospital, sitting with the wounded and pulling laughter from them and asking after their farms and families and hunting trails - gently coaxing pleasant memories to the forefronts of their minds rather than the horror so lately witnessed.
“I’ll fetch Zayn,” Liam offers. “And Harry, if you like.”
“Going to a meadow and a tent of little ones who adore you. Aye, a true sacrifice on your part, soldier.”
Liam merely grins cheerfully at him, and Louis thinks wistfully of the days when Liam would have jumped to offer for the hardest chore and stared at Louis with awe in his eyes as he did it. They’ve corrupted him indeed. Louis blames Harry.
Niall is sitting cross-legged on the floor by Jesia’s bedroll, the smile on his face mirrored on her own despite her heavily bandaged shoulder. As Louis lets the tent flap drop, the morning sun’s rays catch on the flaxen of Niall’s hair and turn it briefly bright gold. Niall turns round and sees Louis and nods at him, one side of his mouth pulling higher into a warm smile.
Louis crosses over, smiling at Jesia. “How are you, lady?”
“Well, I thank you. Healer Meloy says I should be up and about within a sennight, and he is hopeful I’ll yet have use of my arm.”
“That is well indeed,” Louis says sincerely. “I am afraid I am come to take your jester away.”
She laughs, waving her good hand. “Already he runs low on jests. Take him and be welcome.”
“I will visit again,” Niall promises, and slants a glance at Louis as he adds, “Belike by then I’ll have drollery to your taste, lady.”
With another laugh she waves them on, and Niall presses a kiss to her uninjured hand and says again he will return soon before following Louis to the entrance.
Louis holds open the tent flap for Niall to duck under it. “Nothing of immediate urgency,” he says in response to Niall’s unspoken question. “But Agravaine put something to Breslin I think we should consider.”
Pulled from his meditation, Zayn settles cross-legged to Louis’ right as the others filter into the tent, followed by a visibly nervous Agravaine and Zayn’s second, Breslin.
Niall fixes them both with an inquiring look that’s perfectly mild, but still manages to make Agravaine flinch back a little.
“You had something to share with us?” Niall prompts, and Harry, on Zayn’s other side, leans forward, a stray white curl falling into zir face as ze says kindly, “Out with it, pet; we none of us bite.”
On Niall’s left, Liam shoots Harry a slightly incredulous look, a mirror to the one Zayn’s giving zir. Harry sits back, grumbling, “It’s a nice kind of biting.”
Ridiculous as ze is, it does seem to have eased Agravaine’s nerves, and they laugh a little before saying eagerly, “It’s about the Fates, your majesty. Every king - or queen - has their court Fate, yes?”
“All the human ones that I know of,” Niall agrees, looking to Harry, who nods as well.
“So.” Agravaine presses their lips together briefly. “In my father’s court, it is she who makes all the decisions for him - my father the king has no say, not even in his own household.”
“I say this not to discredit your story, Agravaine,” Bressie says, frowning a little, “but sure and my own gran ran our village, for all my da was chief. Old women are in truth the power behind every man, aye?”
“She’s no old besom,” Agravaine says, fierce, “but a young and comely lady, who dazzles my father with her figure as she bewilders him with honeyed words and tells of woes that will surely come an he does not heed her words. When we left she -” they break off, face flushing a shade darker in discomfort. “We are to have a half-sibling before Samhain.”
There is silence for a long moment, around the circle, and then Louis says, “They can lie, then. Or else twist the truth so to meet their ends that the finer points of it make but little difference.”
“Nay,” Zayn says, brows knitting. “There is a difference. Long have our people gamed with mortals in this wise, saying one thing knowing full well it would be taken as another, yet not breaking their word.”
“Why then can Louis lie?” Liam asks, sounding bewildered. “Is he not Fae?”
“And who is it who says I’ve told an untruth?” Louis demands, indignant.
Everyone looks at him incredulously. “Louis, yesterday you told Liam if he didn’t give over the last honey cake you’d turn him into a swallow.”
“And so I may have.” Louis’ nose is upturned as he sniffs haughtily.
“You told Gawain that Harry would be horribly offended if Gawain didn’t embrace zir whenever they met.”
“Harry is a delicate flower! Everyone knows this!”
“You told me,” says Niall flatly, “that you would spell my guts into gremlins if I spent another moment in the hospital tent.”
“You have no way to prove that wouldn’t have happened!”
There’s another silence. Then Bressie says slowly, “So - can he lie, or no?”
“Louis, what colour is my hair?” Harry asks.
“Green,” Louis replies promptly.
They all look to Harry’s shock of white hair.
“So he can -” Liam begins, but Agravaine bursts out,
“What does it matter?” They flush holly-red as everyone turns to look at them, but say nevertheless, “I - your pardon, my lords, but we trust Louis, do we not? Whether or no a mage can lie is of little consequence for us. Meeter for our council is how we can use the Fates to our advantage - and indeed the rest of the Fae as well. Why is it you have so few here?”
“We -” Niall and Zayn both speak at the same time, trading glances before Zayn nods, ceding to Niall.
“I’ll not take any but volunteers,” Niall says, quietly but very firmly. “Too many of your people have been hurt already.”
“My lord, they would fight for you.” Agravaine leans forward, their eyes dark with passion. “An you gave them the chance. Please. Let us at least ask.”
Niall bows his head, struggle clear on his face.
From beside him, Liam says softly, “The hearts of kings are in the hand of the Lord.”
And Zayn adds, “We have just as much if not more to lose if the Northmen come. Agravaine is right, my king.”
“Is it right, think you,” Niall says, low, “For a human to lead Fae? To take their oaths? Did I do right to take yours? Or Harry, or Breslin’s, or Lot’s sons?”
Zayn sees his own helplessness mirrored on Louis’ face, and on Harry’s and Liam’s. They cannot tell Niall he is wrong to wrestle as he does with such questions, for if he did not, he would be less than the man they swore allegiance to.
But before any of them can answer his question, there’s a scream, sharp and piercing at first, and then dwindling into the low, throbbing undulation of the tribes’ sorrow.
Without even a look from Louis, Liam is on his feet, ax drawn and held in readiness as he swiftly exits the tent, the rest of them at his heels.
Ilse, one of Harry’s invaluable aides, is bent over Liath, one of Zayn’s. His mother was an aspen from the eastern reaches, and his father a charioteer from the Corieltauvi. Zayn kneels swiftly, putting a hand to Liath’s shoulder. “Liath,” he says, gentle but urgent, “What is it?”
“The southern groves.” Liath looks up, human tears streaming from his bark-brown eyes. “My lord, the Dryad captives - they set them alight and forced them into the brakes and the villages. They are all lost, bodies and trees burned to ash, and any that were spared by chance killed by grief-blinded villagers and then they themselves thrown on the ashes of their brothers and sisters.”
Zayn feels as though some Ettin has stretched out his hand and caught the sun, squeezing her to nothing and leaving him frozen and dead, root and branch. “You are sure?” he forces himself to ask between lips gone numb, but even as he does so the winds are bringing him word of the same, sorrow in every brush of their tendrils against him, turning him colder still.
There’s a broken, horrified noise from beside Zayn, and feeling as though his very sap has turned to stone, he turns his head enough to see Niall kneeling beside them, the tears on his face mirroring Liath’s. “Zayn,” he says, reaching a hand, “Zayn.”
Zayn turns his head away, speaking to Ilse. “Take him to the hospital, and have someone stay with him. See that he has plenty of water, and food if he’ll take it.”
She nods, bending over Liath and crooning softly to him as she helps him up. Zayn stands, turning to Niall, still knelt at his feet, and tries not to think of the significance of this. “My king,” he says, stiff, “May I be released for a time?”
“Of course,” Niall says, voice as raw as Zayn feels. “Take as long as you need. If there is aught I can do, you have but to ask.”
Zayn dips his head in an approximation of a bow, and turns to make for his clearing, needing the sun on his bark and his winds for company, to root himself in the good clean earth and wait until his anger withers and dies and falls away and his desire to take a human life for all the lives of his people with it.
He closes his eyes, letting himself become still, pulling in air and the sun and feeling the winds play mournfully in his hair and lichen. He gradually becomes aware of another presence, not intrusive, but warm at his back, although whether they’ve been there for hours or only seconds he could not say. He breathes in, deeply, and tastes honeysuckle and summer storms. “Did Niall send you?”
Harry moves, lithe, to settle cross-legged in front of him, worried green eyes peering into his own. “I didn’t know if you’d as lief be on your own, but just in case -” ze shrugs, hands palms up. “I - can be quiet, on occasion.”
“So many dead,” Zayn whispers, broken, “So many saplings that will never see another spring. Harry -” He turns, despite his long-ago resolution to never again trust the wiley crown prince of the Summer Court, seeking the warmth of another living being as the first crocuses of spring seek the warmth of the sun.
Harry catches him, zir hands sure and steady, solid feeling in a way Fae in general rarely are and Harry zirself never is. Ze holds him tightly, pressing kisses gentle as a summer’s rain to bits of Zayn’s face and body as they become visible.
But, as a wise Fate once said, all things wither, and that means tears also, and once the tears have stopped flowing, it is still left to decide what to do.
“Niall must take any oaths our people wish to make,” Zayn says. “This cannot be allowed to go on. No more of our people may be permitted to perish by this man’s hand.”
“I am of the same mind.” Harry’s usually impish face is serious. “And if there truly is a Fate at the back of this, they, too, will pay for their betrayal of our people and the very land itself. Sunblessed Robert’s line may have been called; Sun-shunned they will call him at the end.”
Zayn nods, and then, following some puca-like impulse, presses a fleeting kiss of his own to Harry’s mouth. “My thanks, lordling,” he says, but the diminutive is soft, unlike the derision of anon.
When they arrive back at the council tent, Breslin and Agravaine have gone, and Louis and Liam are deep in hushed conversation in one quarter as Niall frowns over their maps in the other. They all look up as Zayn and Harry enter, and Niall moves at once to Zayn’s side, reaching a hand to clasp his shoulder, worried blue eyes peering into his own, asking a wordless question.
Zayn covers his king’s hand with his own, bowing his head. “I am well, my liege,” he says quietly. “Your concern is - appreciated.”
“Of course,” Niall says, pressing Zayn’s shoulder briefly before moving back to his table and addressing them all. “It has been too forcibly brought to my attention that I cannot afford my scruples in this war. I will take any oaths your people wish to swear to me, and will in turn swear to them to do all in my power to restore order and justice to Albion. We must stop my brother before he sets loose the Sea Wolves upon our land and our peoples. Liam, I would have your thoughts as to the best course through -” he halts, head turning towards the entrance.
Zayn hears it as well, the sounds of scuffling and Niall’s guards arguing with someone.
“If you refuse to let me in, Calan, you’re going to be the one explaining to his majesty why there’s a fresh pile of dead bodies on the outskirts of camp!”
Niall goes at once to the entrance to the tent - only to stumble back, flat on his back on the floor with one woman on top of him and one beside them, looking faintly embarrassed.
Louis is on them at once, pulling Niall and the woman apart and glaring not very subtly at the latter.
“Easy, Louis,” Niall says, “All’s well. My apologies, my lady, for your rude entry. Ilse, what news?”
Ilse courtesies, still a little flushed, but she recovers quickly. “Majesty, this lady has news of Gregory.”
Looking keenly at her as she makes her own courtesy, eyes demurely cast down, Zayn frowns a little. There is nothing of immediate note in her slim form to make him wary, but yet -
“What are you doing here?” Louis demands harshly, despite Niall’s warning look. “If you mean ill to Niall I warn you I’ll not be so kind as in yesteryears.”
The lady flicks him a contemptuous look, and, purposefully, it seems to Zayn, lingers overlong in her courtesy, displaying her bosom to best advantage as she looks up through her lashes at Niall and speaks to him only and not to Louis. “I come to offer you my services, my lord.”
“He has no need of you,” Louis snarls. “Go back to your benighted tower and bedeviled ensorcellments.”
“Harsh words indeed, my lord mage.” The lady’s voice is smooth and pleasant to the ear, and as she rises and turns toward them, Zayn sees Harry startle, zir shoulders going stiff. “Have you no pity for one whom you so cruelly shut away for a year and a day?”
“You tried to kill the King, Morgana,” Louis says bluntly, and it’s Niall’s turn to start in surprise.
“Aye, and had you not stopped me, I would have killed Gregory as well, and then we wouldn’t be in this situation at all, now would we?”
“We cannot trust her, my lord,” Louis says, urgent, turning to Niall. “I know her of old.”
“Lady,” Niall says, “can you give us any proof you will keep faith with us? Of why you wish to help us ‘gainst my brother?”
In an instant her face changes, lovely features distorting in an expression Zayn is all-too familiar with, on his own face and the faces of his people.
“He has taken that which is precious to me,” she veritably snarls, “and thinks to cow me - me, Morgana of the Isle, to hold her safety over me and force me to do his bidding, as if I were some stripling o’er awed by a new trinket and not the most powerful sorceress of the Age.”
“Well,” Louis says, deliberately provoking.
“Louis,” Niall says, quiet, but Louis subsides at once. Niall turns to Morgana. “We accept your offer, my lady, and I promise you we will do all in our power to rescue your friend.”
Morgana makes Liam nervous.
Well. To be both fair and completely accurate, she makes everyone nervous, except perhaps for Niall and Louis, but that’s just because Niall treats her with a kind of absentminded courtesy and Louis is far too busy devoting all his energies to being incensed with her to be nervous.
She has this way, though, of looking at one that makes you remember all the things you did or thought about doing in the dark under a witch’s moon. If Niall’s eyes on you make you long to be the soul of honour, hers make you all-too aware of how far short you fall.
Unfortunately, Liam is called upon to liaise with her far more often than he thinks is just or fair. After all, he’s just a normal human. Shouldn’t it be Zayn or Bressie or Harry or someone with an ounce of magical blood in their veins? But no, it’s Liam who gets stuck in a tent with her for hours trying to find a way into the Cair that won’t bring hordes of Northmen and guards and death for any Fae still in the dungeons.
Louis had been the one to give him his marching orders, clapping him cheerily on the shoulder and wishing him joy of it, but Niall had been the one to make him stay, thanking Liam for his service and telling him he was sure they would find a solution eftsoon with his finest tactician and the most powerful sorceress in Albion at work on’t.
And, well. Liam was stuck with it, then, wasn’t he.
His powers of higher thinking weren’t exactly helped by the constant snarling from the Lady Morgana over what an idiot he was and how could he possibly think such a thing would work and if he could be arsed to remember there were innocent lives at stake until he snapped and told her she wasn’t exactly contributing much either, and if she cared so much for innocent lives perhaps she could stop belaboring the point and actually focus on her part.
She’d sneered at him, but bent over the map she was attempting to enchant to show where the enemy was positioned.
Beyond the problem of getting in, though, is the problem of getting out again. There’s really no way to know the actual number of prisoners, and though Morgana is mostly concerned with getting her charge out, Niall made it clear they wouldn’t be abandoning anyone also there, so they are having to factor in an unknown amount of people with unknown powers and the outdated information Niall and Louis were able to give them about the Cair’s layout and defenses.
Morgana sighs heavily. “If I had known Niall would insist on being so noble about all of this I would simply have cloaked myself and Elaine in shadows and stolen us away.”
“Why didn’t you?” Liam asks, blunter perhaps than he should be with someone who leaves crackles of intensity like lightning in her wake, but even a grass snake will strike if pushed too far.
She looks at him, lofty. “I need not explain myself to forest urchins brought on to salve a weak king’s conscience.”
“Did Louis do something to you?” Liam asks, ignoring the forest urchin comment. There’s nothing offensive about the truth. “So you can’t use all your power?”
“As if he would dare,” she scoffs. “Even with my powers bound I could outstrip him, soft fool that he is.”
“I thought he locked you in a tree?”
The look on her face could freeze the hot springs of Aquae Sulis.
“He did not lock me in a tree. He temporarily bound certain of my gifts to ensure I did no harm to his precious king - and we see where that has left him. Dependant on my help to further his enterprise.”
“Hang on,” Liam begins, because that doesn’t sound right at all, but she ignores him, continuing:
“And furthermore, I have solved the thing.”
“You have?” Liam brightens at once, leaving off the argument to bend over the map with her.
“If we go underneath the wall,” she says, illustrating with a finger as she does, “foregoing the problem of getting through the defenses we can open a passage through the mirror ways and let in a small force, enough to free Elaine and get her to safety.”
“And the rest of the Fae,” Liam reminds her.
She waves dismissively. “Yes, yes, of course.”
“Well, then, ‘tis most splendid news. I’ll go and tell -”
“I will go and tell the king,” Morgana interrupts him, sweeping out of the tent so grandly and swiftly that Liam can only stare after her in surprise.
He looks about himself, at the mess and detritus of their labours, and sighs and goes to find Harry. Ze is in the hospital tent, ripping linens apart and rolling them for bandages and speaking to Guinhefar. Ze looks up and smiles as Liam comes in. “Ah, the finest tactical mind in Albion! We are honoured indeed by your presence.”
“Go to, Haz,” Liam answers good-naturedly. “Mind thy tongue or I’ll mind it for thee.”
“So?” Harry’s brows arch. “How soon thou hast grown familiar with us. This be Louis’ influence, I’ll warrant. ‘Thee’ and ‘thou’s and nary a ‘my lord’ in sight and an offer to look after my tongue all in one!”
Liam hesitates, struck and wondering if belike he has grown too familiar with one who, by all accounts, is a great lord of zir people, but Harry clearly sees his malaise and says quickly, “And it likes me well, aye. What brings you, Liam?”
“Art injured?” Guinhefar asks, forehead knitted in concern and Liam hastens to reassure her, “Sure and I am well, lady, I thank you. I came simply to give you word that the Lady Morgana and I have hit upon a scheme that we hope, by God’s grace, will give us entry and escape to Gregory’s dungeons with no loss of life.”
“Why, this is great news indeed!” Harry attempts to clap, seemingly forgetting the rolls of bandages in zir hands and looking at them in some confusion before shrugging and tossing them aside. “Hast told the king?”
“Lady Morgana appointed herself the conveyer of the news.” Liam grimaces a little. “She gave me no time to say yea or nay.”
Harry laughs. “She is a force unto herself, in sooth.”
Liam nods, and then bites his lip, considering. “Harry,” he begins, slowly, “you need not answer, but - have you had dealings with her before?”
Harry looks as though ze is about to speak, and then checks zirself, glancing at Guinhefar. She smiles at both of them and rises gracefully, arms full of bandages. “I’ll go make the rounds and start on the evening meal.”
“I did not mean - “ Liam says hastily, but she smiles at him again, freeing one arm to pat his cheek.
“There are things I do not need to know, lordling, and indeed am easier for not having the knowledge. I’ll leave you be.”
Harry makes her a small bow as she departs, Liam still looking after her astonished at the address. ‘lordling’ is not ‘lord’ and yet it is still more than a poor woodcutter’s son would ever rate. He is pulled from his reverie by Harry reaching out a hand to wrap gently around Liam’s wrist, tugging him to sit next to zir.
“I have known of Morgana for a full three decades,” Harry begins without preamble. “She comes from a long line of folk strong in magic, tracing back even before the birth of Christ. Some say they are descended from the Witch of Endor herself. Vivienne, Morgana’s mother, learned the dark ways at her mother’s breast and taught her own two daughters in turn.” Harry grimaces, fey features turning sharp and cruel for an instant. “There...is talk the eldest murdered her own mother, jealous of her younger sister’s natural gifting.”
Liam rears back, an awful, shivery sickness stealing over him. Harry’s hands tighten on his own, and he glances down, startled to see they are still linked.
Ze continues, thumbs rubbing soothing circles over the backs of Liam’s own, face still drawn and tight. “She believed this would give her power on a scale far greater than any sorceress before her - and perhaps she was not mistaken, for tis certain her power grew great. But any blood magic requires sacrifice, and when she tried to kill her sister also she found she could take no harmful action against her without it coming back upon herself ten-fold. Therefor she could never truly be named the greatest sorceress in Albion, for her sister yet lived and she could do her no grievous hurt.”
Harry falls silent, for enough of a time that Liam gathers his courage and admits, “I don’t understand.”
Harry looks at him, the light catching on zir too-sharp cheekbones and glinting from luminous inhuman eyes, and, save for zir gentle grasp of Liam’s hands, he almost would have been afraid.
“When Morgause found she could not kill her sister by magical means, she bethought her of mundane. She went to the king, Robert as it was then, and told him that her sister meant him and his son harm. In the same wise, she told her sister that Robert had heard of her prowess and, fearing lest she grow too strong, intended to have her done away with, thus meaning them to be each other’s destruction and leave her as powerful as she had meant to be from the first.” Harry pauses. “This, though I did not know it until two evens ago, was when Morgana met Louis.”
“When she tried to kill the king,” Liam breathes, understanding coming over him all at once.
Harry nods. “The former, that Morgause tried to have her sister killed and that Morgana had tried to kill the king, is common knowledge in the Fae courts, but that Morgana should have failed was news none of us could at first countenance - I misdoubt any could have foreseen Louis, much less that his powers would be more than a match for hers.”
“Then Louis did do something? To curtail Morgana’s power?”
“That, I cannot tell. I have not asked him - nor is it meet that I should.”
“But surely we have need to know? If we are to defeat Gregory -”
“She would not speak of it, and I’ll wager Louis will not either,” Harry says, zir manner such that Liam knows the matter is closed.
Liam ducks his head, feeling a trifle abashed, but the next instant Harry is smiling at him, all gentle stillness and tranquility. “T’was well thought of, though. That is how a tactician ought to think.”
“Oh!” Liam turns away, feeling his face grow hot. A cool finger turns it back again, Harry’s eyes heavy-lidded and zir mouth as red as a hawthorn’s berries, and ze says, soft, “I should very much like to kiss you, Liam, an you have no objections.”
“I -” Liam begins, and then stops, “I - but what about - Zayn?”
That soft mouth curls into a laugh. “Zayn and I are - complicated. I promise you, though, such an act between us will dishonour no one. Anger, possibly, but only because I’ve had your mouth first.”
Startled, Liam looks up, wetting his lips nervously.
Harry groans. “Liam, an you love me, desist or say I may kiss you.”
Giving up on making sense of anything and cognizant only of the coolness of Harry’s hands on his face and neck and the luminous green of zir eyes so close to his own, Liam murmurs an assent that an instant later is buried beneath Harry’s mouth on his own.
Liam has never before been kissed - what chance was there, alone in the forest for all his youth and too mindful of his role in Niall’s camp to take advantage of anyone who might have been willing? - and therefore he has nothing to weigh it against. He had always thought it seemed a sloppy business, ill-conceived and generally wetly done, and could not imagine why so many people seemed to take such pleasure in it, but as Harry’s lips move purposefully over his own, trailing from his mouth to his jaw and the underside of his ear he finds himself revising that opinion in short order indeed.
“Harry! Hast seen - oh!”
Liam pulls away from Harry so swiftly he nearly falls from the bench, heat suffusing his body like a fever in midwinter, but Harry seems completely at ease despite zir kiss-bitten lips and tousled hair, scowling at Louis.
“Fie, Louis, for shame, charging in like a wild bull with no knock or call.”
“Aye, shame on me for not knocking before I entered the camp’s hospital tent,” Louis says with marked sarcasm. “Another moment and you might have gotten him down to his smallclothes.”
“Louis!” Liam goes impossibly more red. “I - we weren’t - you -”
“Easy, lad, no harm done. ‘Tis none of my concern who you close with, so long as I am spared your passions.”
“Hast never loved, Louis?” Harry lounges back on the bench, serene as a well loved pet at a mistress’s side.
“Women delight me not - no, nor man neither. Full twenty seasons I’ve lived and loved with no need for such -” he waves a haphazard hand. “I content me with my own hand as needed and not even thy lordship’s charms may move me.”
“Strange indeed,” Is Harry’s sole comment before ze asks, “You had a purpose in joining us, I trust, beyond setting poor Liam so hotly ablaze I fear he will never recover.”
“Oh, aye.” Louis’ mouth twists. “My lord the king asks for you both. He means to mount a rescue from Gregory’s castle tomorrow.”
It is a great pity, Harry thinks, that there is such a thing as war. And evil brothers. And Louises who interrupt just when you’ve finally - finally - tasted Liam’s mouth, which is far too tempting in the normal way of things without being kiss-reddened.
Ze tears zirself away from such pleasant recollections and attempts to focus on the - oh yes - plan of action that is doubtless going to end in misery and pain if ze is any judge.
Their council of war is somewhat hampered by Lady Morgana’s insistence on not only being present but also pacing up and down, spouting frequent reminders of all the many and varied horrible things Gregory could be doing to the prisoners at this instant.
Niall, despite possessing the patience of Prometheus, is beginning to twitch whenever she interrupts with yet another too-vivid scenario. Louis, glowering in a corner, seems on the point of throwing himself bodily upon Morgana and dragging her away when Harry steps to her, taking her arm gently. “Lady, would you be so good as to assist me with a matter?”
Her fiery look tells him she is all too aware of zir artifice, but she comes easily enough outside the tent. They walk in silence for a short time before Harry asks quietly, “What will you and Elaine do, once you are safe?”
Morgana slants a glance at zir, and ze focusses on keeping zir expression free of anything but polite concern and attention.
“Go back to my ‘benighted tower and bedeviled ensorcellments’, of course. Did you not hear your precious Mage?”
“Louis holds fast to slights and insults offered to those he loves,” Harry says mildly. “I myself have no quarrel with you, and have heard much of your gifts.”
She snorts, an odd sound from one so elegant. “Flattery, now, to loosen my tongue and tell you of my plans. Lordling, I invented such wiles.”
“I could compel you, if that would sort better.” Harry can feel zirself going “full Sidhe”, as Louis mockingly puts it - the thin glamour ze wears around humans wearing thinner still and zir full Fae heritage coming through, turning zir sharp and other-wordly.
Powerful as Morgana may be, she would be no match for a prince of the Sidhe with zir full intent bent upon extracting information, and she must know this, for with another glare, she says, “I mean no harm to you and yours, Prince. I have no base quarrel with mortals as a whole - once my revenge has been visited upon certain maggots, I will content me with the safety of my ward and you will hear of me no more.”
“Why, that would be a pity indeed, lady. Fates know Louis needs someone to needle him.”
“All this and you would wish for me to stay?”
“Why not?” Harry stops, turning to look her full in the face. “Niall will need a court of people loyal to him, when all this is over. An Enchantress such as you would be a gift indeed. And you know he would sooner die himself than allow a child to come to harm, so you would have no need to fear for Elaine.”
“He is foolishly noble.” Her words are dismissive but her face is thoughtful. “I - shall think on’t.”
“Lady Morgana! Prince Harry!” An out of breath Cade reaches them. “The king requests your presence.”
Niall is leaning heavily against the table as they enter, looking wearied beyond words. Louis is looking very grim and Liam determined. Zayn’s face is unreadable.
“Well?” Morgana asks.
“Liam will take ten men and head the rescue party,” Niall answers, his voice very low.
“A mortal?” Her gaze flicks to Liam and then to Louis. “Why not send your Mage?”
Arms crossed, Louis raises his eyebrows. “Yes, why not send your Mage? A sensible question, my lady, and one I’ve proffered myself.”
“Louis cannot go,” Liam says quietly. “If he should fall into Gregory’s hands, his loss would mean the loss of our entire enterprise. If I am taken - as you pointed out, my lady, I am only mortal. I will be no use to him, and no great loss to Niall if -”
“Bite your tongue!” It’s Zayn, angrier than Harry has ever seen him, even when Harry left him the first time these many summers ago. “I’ll not stand by and listen to you denigrate yourself in such a fashion! You are valued and loved here, and your loss would be loss indeed - not only to our cause but to me -” His voice breaks and he turns away for a brief instant, whirling back again to glare at them all indiscriminately. “If we have treated you so ill that you would believe -”
“Zayn,” Liam looks horrified, hands outstretched towards Zayn. “Please, I did not - I only meant - strategically -”
“Zayn is right,” Louis says, mulish, “Strategy can go hang. It should be me.”
There’s a great clamour of outrage and under the swell of it Harry looks numbly from one friend to another, wondering - ze has lost people before, of course. The Fae worlds are not kind nor gentle, and for zir to worry so over a motley collection of people ze has known not even a year - ‘tis so strange indeed, that though the truth of it stand before zir bold as runes carved in stone, ze can scarce countenance it. Ze looks to Niall, who is stood with his head down, hands gripping the sides of the table as though it be his only support. Ze crosses to him, bending to ask, “Is it really so dangerous?”
Niall raises a shoulder in a defeated shrug. “We have no way of knowing how much the castle has changed since I was last there, nor how many men Greg will have guarding the dungeon. It may be easy as finding a dropped acorn in the fall or difficult as stealing a dragon’s first clutch. All Zayn’s family there is” - he swallows visibly - “gone, and there are none other I would trust to tell us rightly.”
“But for retrieval - surely we can open a mirror road and retreat if it goes ill.”
“We cannot risk leading any back to our main encampment. And I cannot deny that Liam is right. An we lose Zayn we have only one who can open the mirror paths. We cannot lose you or we would risk war with the Sidhe and all the summer court. If we lose Louis we give Greg access to the most powerful Mage that Albion has ever seen and our chance to finish this goes with him.”
“You cannot think Louis would betray you,” Harry protests, shocked. Ze has more than once wished ze had the same level of easy trust and affection so clearly present between master and man.
“No, of course not. But even the most honourable of men has his breaking point, and if Gregory indeed has children captive -” Niall looks at Louis, still arguing fiercely with the others, and then back to Harry. “Louis had five sisters. It is not in him to stand idly by and allow babes to be hurt if he has aught in his power to prevent it. Liam volunteered, and ‘tis certain he is logically the one we can most easily spare.”
Harry carefully does not ask about the past tense. “Then we must do what we can to make sure he is well supplied and stand ready to lend him whatever aid we may.”
“Harry! You cannot mean to say you approve of this!” Zayn is angry still, looking from Liam to Harry and back again. “Tell Liam he cannot sacrifice himself for us in this wise!”
“You all speak as though my death were a certainty!” Liam sounds angry himself, fists clenched at his sides. “Do you think so little of me and my men that we must needs falter and perish at the first sign of trouble?”
“Nay, ‘tis not that -” Zayn turns at once to placate him, but Liam waves him off, bowing stiffly to Niall.
“With your permission, my king, I will go tell my men.”
“Liam -” Niall begins, but Liam’s face is so uncompromising he simply sighs and waves a hand. “Go, then.”
“You will let him go?” Zayn demands. “With not even myself or Harry as his second?”
“Enough, Zayn,” Niall says, sharper than Harry has ever heard him, and his face is lined beyond his years. “Think you I delight in this? I love Liam as my own heart’s son, but his is right! I must think not only of my people here in this camp but also across all Albion, and yours as well! Liam is a full puissant warrior and so are his men also. If it comes to combat we must have faith that they will prevail. God’s wounds! What would you have me do? Leave your people and mine to rot in a tyrant’s dungeon? What sort of king would that make me, to leave innocents captive that I might not chance losing one dear to me? You’d scorn to follow such a man, and rightly so! Ask me no more on the matter for I am sick to my heart.”
He turns away, one shaking hand running over his face, calluses catching on the three day growth on his jaw. Louis is swiftly by his side, bending over him and murmuring something in a low voice. Niall waves him off, shaking his head, but Louis snaps his fingers, a goblet of cool water appearing between them that he presses on Niall until he quaffs the whole.
“I - spoke out of anger, Sire. You have the right of it, in truth, and I am sorry for my words.”
“Belike there is one more in need of your penitience than I.” Niall’s voice is quiet again, but Zayn winces as though struck.
He nods the next instant. “I will go and make amends. Have I - have I your forgiveness, my king?”
“Granted, with all my heart.” Niall reaches out, clasping one hand to Zayn’s neck. “You were but anxious for your own, and I cannot fault you for that. He is blessed indeed to have you as his champion.”
Bowing, Zayn hurries out. Harry watches him go, looking over questioningly to Niall, who simply waves zir ahead.
Ze follows more slowly, needing time both to think and time enough for Zayn and Liam to make their peace. Ze knows the weight of a crown - ze was born to it, as a Queen’s son, but with Gemma before zir, the main of the responsibility fell to her. The formalities of course ze knew, but such burdens as lay upon Niall’s brow render zir own few duties lighter than dandelion silk in comparison.
Harry rounds the corner, tugging thoughtfully on a stray curl, and pauses before Liam’s tent. Ze hears the low murmur of voices within and hesitates before conjuring a wisp and sending it into the tent. Real magic, beyond glamours and the like that come easily to a Sidhe, were skills ze never truly mastered, but a simple wisp is well within zir capabilities.
“Come in, Haz,” Zayn calls from within, and Harry obeys, ducking inside to find both Dryad and mortal sitting cross-legged, hands clasped between them.
“I did not mean to interrupt.”
“You’re a welcome interruption.” Zayn smiles at zir tiredly. “I fear I weary our Liam with cosseting.”
“‘Tis not that -” Liam begins to protest, but Zayn quiets him with a kiss.
Harry raises zir eyebrows. Ze may have been first to taste Liam’s mouth, but Zayn has ever moved swiftly in such matters. Slow to give his trust, perhaps, but once given he gives also affection as easily as breathing. Harry well remembers the breathlessness that came with being the centre of such focussed attention.
Liam sees zir looking and blushes fiercely, expression going from dazed to ashamed in an instant.
This, of course, will not do at all, so Harry hastens to sit beside the both of them, looking a quick question at Zayn before leaning in for a kiss of zir own. It’s been far too long without a proper exploration of the...particular delights involved in kissing a Dryad. The primary advantage being no need to come up for air, for Zayn produces enough for both of them, something Harry has only ever experienced with merfolk.
A few long moments later ze pulls away, looking with no small satisfaction at Zayn’s addled expression and lips bitten dark green. Ze looks to Liam complacently. “Zayn and I are...old friends.”
Liam looks much astonished, but manages to say: “Very good friends, it would seem.”
Zayn laughs, a sound Harry has heard far too little in recent memory. “Friends, and rivals at times, and now - who can say? Perhaps we have needed a third with us.”
“And you - but surely you cannot mean me?” Liam looks all amaze, as though he is not one of the best and most patient men Harry has ever known. “You would want me for a - a third?”
“Aye, and why not?” Harry leans forward, letting zir fingers trail just under the edge of Liam’s tunic sleeve. “We could do no better among men - save perhaps for the king himself.”
“Louis would kill us both if we were to try,” Zayn laughs again before his look turns serious. “I’faith, Liam, we would be honoured if you would have us.”
Liam looks at once overwhelmed and joyful before his face turns stern. “I yet must lead the rescue.”
“Damn.” Harry pouts in a way ze knows emphasises the fullness of zir lips and, when Liam’s eyes fall to them, leans in, whispering, “We’ll just have to give you extra incentive to come home to us” before ze closes the gap.
“Well.” Liam fidgets with his sword belt, adjusting the lay of it unnecessarily and avoiding looking at either Zayn or Harry. “I guess this is - goodbye, then.”
“Not forever,” Zayn says, fiercely. “You promised us. You’ll come back to us.”
“Of course he will,” Harry puts in, looking at him with such visible affection that Liam feels himself grow warm.
“Well, then.” He says again, and nods to Breslin that he’s ready for the mirror road to be opened. As it opens before them, and before he can lose his nerve, he takes two quick steps forward and kisses first Zayn and then Harry full on the lips, turning from their dumbfounded expressions to embrace Louis and Niall.
“God go with you,” Niall murmurs in his ear, and Liam thinks he can see traces of tears in his eyes.
He has no time to wonder at it, though, for there is only so long the way will stay open, and they must make haste. He gestures to his men and, one hand on his sword, steps forward.
Taking the mirror roads grows no less wyrd no matter how many times he traverses them. The wavering images on either side suggest hundreds of possible pasts and futures, sidling along as he walks, always lurking at the corners of his vision but sliding away if he chances to look at them straight on. Well versed in this travel, his men make no murmur, but his own hand tightens on his sword hilt.
Thanks be to God, the journey takes no longer than a hundred hundred strides, and the way closes with them in a dimly lit hallway. Torches waver into Liam’s vision and he draws his sword, bracing himself for immediate battle, as behind him he can hear his men doing the same.
The hallway, though, is empty. There’s a table beneath two mounted torches, dice laying upon it, and one of the chairs is overturned. Liam frowns, turning around and taking care to keep his voice low despite the barrenness of the hall as he speaks to Agravaine, his second on this business. “Did Morgana -”
But before he can finish his query the air is rent with a scream.
Liam has heard all his life the haunting sounds of mourning calls borne on the wind even as deep in the forest as he lived. He has heard the terrible shrill scream of a fox caught in a trap and the kree, kree of a mother goshawk that has lost its fledgeling to a weasel or stoat, and in the past moon cycles he has too often heard a comrade’s death cry as they fell beneath a sea wolf’s sæx. This cry is worse than all of these together, reaching down into his very soul and turning it to silt and his bones to water.
He gives himself a bare instant of horror before he steels himself, turning to Agravaine and giving them and the others a nod. “We follow.”
If he lives to be an old man, wizened and with no teeth left for his meat or hearing for his grandchildren’s laughter, he’ll never forget the sheer dread of that scream and the breathless malice that seemed to follow them as they walked the hallways in search of the scream’s origin. They passed no one, mortal nor Fae, the sound of their own muffled footsteps and the echoing memory of that scream the only accompaniment to their journey.
When they turned a corner and at long last saw another person, the incongruence of it struck Liam so forcibly he faltered back a step.
A woman stood at the end of the corridor, framed by cold light from an unseen window, hair streaming loose about her shoulders and melting into her dress, which seemed to Liam’s untutored eye far too flimsy for this time of year. Her eyes were very wide and blue as she looked at them, smiling a little.
Behind him, he hears Agravaine hiss between their teeth. He tilts his head, keeping his eyes on the lady as he asks, “Elaine?”
“Morgause.” It’s spit from between clenched teeth, and Liam feels his heart clench in response.
He’s no mage nor Fae nor even long-versed in the sword. ‘Gainst a sorceress feared by even Morgana - what chance have they? Nevertheless he grasps his sword, bracing for what devilry she may send their way.
Her eyes, though, are on Agravaine behind him.
“I am no daughter, and none of yours in any wise,” Agravaine steps forward and Liam glances at them, alarmed they’ll provoke her unduly. “I should have known you were behind this. What, do you collect kings as chattel? And what of the child you carried?”
“Why, your brother is home safe with your father my husband. You are kind to inquire.”
“Devil’s spawn,” Agravaine spits. “I should run you through where you stand.”
“Agravaine -” Liam warns, for as justified as their anger is, they have a task ahead of them still.
“Yes, listen to your leash holder,” Morgause says, her eyes flickering over Liam without much interest. “Surely you have a maiden in distress to be rescuing?”
“As though you plan to let us,” Agravaine says, scornful.
She makes a strange gesture, as though throwing something heavy at the wall behind her, and a doorway opens up where a moment before there was only solid stone, and they hear again that scream. “Be my guests.” She steps aside, leaving the way clear.
And it’s a trap, of course it is a trap, but what choice have they? Liam looks behind him and sees steady resolve in the eyes of his warriors, and with an eye to Morgause, steps through the doorway.
As the last man comes through there’s a high tinkling laugh and Morgause’s voice floats after them - “Take her and welcome - if she will let you.”
Heart pounding like a hare trapped in a well-laid snare, Liam leads the way on - on until they come to the end of the passage and into a round room with a small figure crumpled against the far wall. Throwing caution to the four winds, Liam drops his sword and rushes forward. “Elaine,” he says, reaching for her, “Elaine, we’ve come to take you home.”
And then she lifts her head and turns to look at him and he stumbles back, aghast.
She cannot be more than twelve or so summers old, with fair hair and wide blue eyes like most children of Albion, but where her skin should be child-soft and smooth it’s covered in hard scales like a snake’s, and beneath her simple brown shift are the legs of a goat, not a human. She swings her head back and forth, like a snake searching for prey, and Liam makes an involuntary movement. She hisses at him, and he sees her tongue is forked.
He swallows hard, and then, gentling his voice, tries again. “Elaine? My name is Liam. I’m a friend of your - of Morgana. We’ve come to take you to her. Can you come with us?”
Elaine makes no reply, but every muscle is tensed, eyes flickering from face to face. She shows no sign of having understood his words.
“Sir,” Kel speaks from behind Agravaine, shifting forward a little, “Should we - search for other prisoners? We have a duty -”
“I know,” Liam cuts her off, not taking his eyes off of Elaine. “I - why would she do this? She’s only a child.”
“She has no thought for anyone but herself and causing pain to others.” Agravaine spits on the dirty cell floor. “My lord, we cannot abide here long. The sorceress knew we were coming, and doubtless will seek to bar our way back. It may be we must fight our way out of the castle ere we may take the mirror roads.”
“We cannot just leave her.” Liam looks up, stricken.
“Liam.” Agravaine, with a wary eye to Elaine, crouches beside him, saying, low, “If Morgause knew we were coming, and where to meet us, how if she knows where the camp is? We must win free of the castle and warn the others, if they are not already engaged in pitched battle.”
Liam feels as though his heart must break in two, for Agravaine is right. They cannot risk all the camp falling to an unlooked for attack, but he cannot leave an innocent behind. He thinks, miserably, that if he survives this he is asking Niall for a demotion down to water boy, that he might never need make such decisions again, and then takes a deep breath. “Agravaine, take the squad and go back the way we came. If the door back is still open, take it. If not, split into twos and find a way out of the castle. God grant at least one set make it back to warn the others. If you find any prisoners do you take them with you. I will come as soon as I have convinced Elaine to come with me.”
Agravaine and Kel both look as though they mean to object, but Liam cuts them off with a look. He’s not spent the better part of a sennight with Morgana for nothing, and they both subside, tapping fists to their chests in acknowledgement and wheeling about, back the way they had come.
Liam settles on the floor, watching carefully to see how close to Elaine he may come before he begins to cause her more audible distress, a low moaning in her throat that threatens to turn into the scream that had so terrified them earlier. He tilts his head back, careless of the grime of the dungeon walls, and sighs. “God grant you peace quickly, little sister, for I fear every sword will be needed ere long, even one so clumsily used as mine.”
They have no warning. A scant handful of time after Liam and the others had left, Niall and the others are in his tent, heads bent over the war table, when Louis’ head jerks up. “Someone is attacking the barrier.”
Zayn and Harry’s heads come up as well, and Zayn looks - frightened. “I can sense - but no, this is impossible,” he mutters.
“Zayn,” Harry says, touching his shoulder. Zayn’s normally smooth skin is curling, warping at his knuckles and joints, and tiny leaves are sprouting, browning, and dying off of his hair faster than breathing. “Zayn, what is it?”
“No - no, they were dead, they cannot - they are dead, I felt them die!” Zayn pulls away from zir hand and runs headlong out of the tent. Louis is bent over, a hand to his stomach and one to his head, gasping.
“Harry - go after him. And find Bressie and tell him we are under attack. We may need both him and Zayn to help hold the barrier.”
Harry taps zir chest quickly and dashes after Zayn. Niall kneels by Louis, reaching a hand to cradle one side of his head. “What is it?” He asks, urgent, “Louis, who is attacking?”
“I don’t - know -” Louis bites out. “They’re - strong. Either they’re near as strong as I am or there are too many of them. Niall - I don’t know how much longer I can hold it. Find - have Morgana open a path. Get - the children and those who cannot fight to the Autumn Court.”
Niall nods, making for the door of the tent and shouting for Cade to find Morgana and bring her with all possible speed.
When she comes, she listens grimly as he explains and then nods. “It is my sister. I would recognise the stench of her magic anywhere. You will need more help. I’ll open the path and see them safely through and return.”
Louis or even Zayn would doubtless question her motives, but Niall has only space to be thankful for the aid before he is off again, sending any runners he finds to call for every able bodied warrior to arm and form ranks.
Between one breath and another Louis is by his side, still hunched over with his face drawn and beaded with sweat, but resolute nevertheless. Niall brings an arm around his waist, supporting him.
“We have not the men to win in pitched battle,” Niall says quietly.
“And no time to call for aid, even if any allies would answer,” Louis responds, just as quietly.
They look at each other for a long moment, and then Louis pinches Niall’s side. “Go on, then, into your armor. Or would you have us lose our high king to the first wayward arrow?”
“Always you forget which is the king and which is the servant,” Niall grumbles, but he obeys, glad now as ever for Louis’ presence and defiance in the face of oe’rwhelming odds.
When they reach the barrier, armor on and astride their mounts, the rows of warriors making silent way for them, Niall keeps his composure only by great effort when he sees what awaits them.
No trained masses of Albion’s finest, these. Hoards of sea wolves, some with lavish furs and intricate jewels bound into their hair and beards and others with nothing but a loincloth, and well beyond them, on a hillock, Niall can see Greg, seated astride his charger Alexander, with a few hundred of his own men surrounding him.
Far worse than mercenaries and the Corieltauvi, though, are what await them in the front ranks. This, then, Niall realises with a sinking heart, is what Zayn felt.
The prisoners had their physical bars and stones taken and exchanged for magical leashes and barriers. There’s nothing of compassion or warmth or indeed any sentience at all in the rows of blank eyes that stare directly ahead.
Louis swears, low and continuous, at Niall’s right hand.
They are all Fey; Dryad and Sidhe and the betwixt and between, and even with no magic of his own Niall can tell they are ensorcelled. The Sidhe especially seem more akin to the cold warriors of legend that would ruthlessly spit mortals on their swords and spears that Gregory would have all Albion believe they are than the compassionate, complex beings Niall knows they are.
He frowns, looking closer. The cold light he had seen in their eyes is - “Louis,” he murmurs quietly, indicating the warriors.
Louis sucks in a breath and his fists clench at his sides. In front of them, the barrier wavers and then steadies as the mage forces himself back in control. “She is a fool and void completely of even a minim of common sense! To use Aebh’s Mantle in such a way - fie for shame!”
“You know it, then?” Niall asks, urgent. If Louis knows of it, perhaps they may break it, and restore the captives to themselves.
“I - all touched by Fae or magic know of Aebh’s Mantle, but it is to be used for protection, that you may know your loved ones are safe and well, not for - this perverted control! It’s against everything -”
“Can you break it?” Niall interrupts.
Louis hesitates, looking torn. “If I try - I cannot know what else she has added, to twist it to her use. They may not be the same, even an I break her leash, and it will take much from me. I’ll not be able to hold the barrier in any wise, and Breslin and the others cannot hold it for long without me. Niall - some may die before I can free them. Certainly some of ours will perish.”
Niall is silent, wrestling with his own conscience. Above all things he longs for peace, for both mortals and Fae, but for there to be peace there must first be war. He thinks, for a wild instant, that perhaps if he but talked to his brother, they could bring an end to all of this with no loss of blood, perhaps - but even as he thinks so he sees a figure all in white stroll up the hill to stand beside his brother, easy as though she were simply observing a flock of sheep or goats and not thousands of beings standing ready to murder one another. No, there is no succor there. Is he willing to risk so many to save a few handfuls of Dryads and Sidhe? And Louis - this will drain him, leave him unprotected. Need he risk his - his mind skips over the word that comes first to mind, leaving him with the paltry ‘friend’ in its place. Then his eye rests on his own army, those who came to him from love, from loyalty, and those who are desperate for even-handed justice for their people. He owes it to them, also, to be the kind of king they can trust to treat even now-enemies with equity. If these were his own people enthralled, he would not hesitate, and so he cannot hesitate now.
“Do it,.” hHe says to Louis, and then turns to his warriors, raising his sword. “My people!”
He can tell Louis has done something, amplified his voice, and gives him a quick nod of thanks before continuing. “We did not seek battle, but now that it has found us, we have the chance to show our mettle! Stiffen your sinews; give yourselves over to your just cause. Give tongue to the grief and let sorrow give your feet wings and your arms the strength of Cúchulainn. Use mercy where you may, and if you may capture any not in their right minds, do so with all swiftness. Of a surety God is on our side, my friends! Be bold, be wary, and stand ready as the barrier falls! For Albion!”
“For Albion!” Comes back the roar, and at his side Louis adds, “For Albion, and for Niall, High King of the same!”
“For Albion, and Niall her King!” The roar comes again and Niall shakes his head a little before he turns to Louis, Eeith shifting underneath him as Niall tightens his reins. “Louis, before you do this -”
But Louis just shakes his head, that damnable half-smile quirking his lips. “We’ll have all the time in the world when the kingdom is ours, yes? I await your signal, my king.”
And to that, Niall can only nod, mouth gone dryer than dust as he checks his gear once more and then nods to Louis.
The barrier falls.
Battles are never easy nor swift affairs, and Zayn has seen his fair share of combat in his years, but this is his first fighting side by side with mortals against his own kind. He is grateful for Harry’s presence at his side, two sharp knives in zir hands and glamour thick enough to give even other Sidhe pause. Zayn thinks, grimly, as he binds another Sidhe with roots as thick as a man’s thigh and sends him to the back of the lines to wait for Louis’ attention, that this would be a great deal easier if they had free rein to simply slaughter indiscriminately as the other side is doing.
“Mercy,” Bressie pants at his side, “must needs always have worth, else what would we -” he breaks off, thrusting his longsword to the hilt through an unwary mercenary and allowing him to slide off the blade with a wide-eyed look of uncertain surprise in his blue eyes. “- what would we fight for?”
“How now, champion you mercy as you spit a man upon your sword?” Zayn says, grunting as he catches an ax blow on one arm and sends rot running from that arm through the ax haft and watches in satisfaction as it disintegrates in the mortal’s grip, leaving him for Maeve to finish at her leisure.
“These are mercenaries,” Bressie says, blocking with his buckler an arrow that would have lodged in Harry’s shoulder, and ze nods a distracted thanks as ze convinces another Sidhe that they are far too tired for a battle such as this and should find a quiet place to lay down for a time.
“They have no honour and no loyalty save to the lining of their pockets. And they enslave children.” It is with perhaps a touch more vengeance than Niall would approve of that Bressie smashes the hilt of his sword into another wolf’s face, crushing one side of his face entirely. Breslin spits blood from between his teeth and raises his sword, turning to face the next wave of adversaries.
As many as they kill or dispatch to the rear for Louis to remove their bindings, there seem to be a never ending stream of warriors facing them, all fresh and fighting fit, and Harry is beginning to weary. Ze has not fought in earnest for decades as mortals reckon it, and the few skirmishes ze was with the warriors for ze was with the medics and relief force and saw only brief snatches of action. To fight and use zir strongest glamours in the same breath is more taxing than ze could have believed.
Aebh’s Mantle is heavy on these poor souls, and Harry can spare only a breath to wish Louis good luck before ze must turn all zir attention once again to the battle before zir.
The man is no more betwitched than the crows circling the battlefield, and he grins, blood in his teeth as he takes in Harry.
“Always wanted to kill one of you dēoful sluts. Bet you’ll -”
“I think not,” a cool voice comes from behind Harry, and an instant later the man in front of zir is torn literally to pieces.
Harry blinks blood and other things ze is not thinking about out of zir eyes and turns to Morgana. “I could have handled it.”
She sniffs. “I was more efficient. Has your pet mortal returned with Elaine yet?”
“My -” Harry frowns. “Liam is not my pet mortal. But no, I’ve not seen him.” Presented with this new thing to worry over, ze glances at the castle, just barely visible in the distance. “Are they - can you tell if they’re well?”
“Obviously not, or I would not be asking you.” Morgana raises a hand, picking up five men on a strong gust of wind and sending them backward onto a spear someone had obligingly left standing point first in the muck. “Very well. Tell me if you see them.” She turns to go, and Harry spares time to exchange an incredulous look with Zayn before turning back to the battle.
Maintaining the barrier has been such a constant for so long that as soon as it has dropped Louis feels as though he could take on the entire army by himself, so full of life and power does he seem, but an instant later he bethinks him of the task that lays before him and holds himself back from using any power at all. Their warriors are well trained, and he must trust they will hold back the wave of attack until Louis can finish his own work. He loses himself in’t, hands and mind and magic bent with one will to the clearing of Aebh’s Mantle from the bodies before him. He rouses from his work only once, as he hears Niall’s distinctive voice crying -
“Pax! Peace and fair terms of service to any who will thrown down his arms!”
Louis curses Niall for a fool and himself for a greater one for following him and plunges back into his task, though not before casting a spell that will strengthen Niall’s voice that he might be heard all throughout the battlefield.
Time during a battle flows like a river in mid-thaw - not at all and then all at once and then hardening again to nothing. Niall could not swear to it whether they have been fighting for moments only or if the sun should be near to setting, and the grey cover of the skies ahead give no sign of which. He knows only the weight of his shield dragging at his arm and the burn on his calf where a stray arrow has lodged and the cries of his people dying around him.
He smashes into the next sea wolf, seeing the surprise in his eyes register as he recognises Niall before the expression is branded forever onto his face as Niall reaches under his guard and plunges his short sword under his ribcage.
He’s turning to meet the next attack when he stumbles, momentum thrown off by the fact that - there’s no one, ensorcelled Fae or oath-bound tribesman or sell-swords to meet him. There’s a breathless hush in the air that has halted even the most ferocious battles. Niall raises his eyes to the hillock where his brother has stayed himself, watching the battle, and sees now with him three more figures. A woman, all in white, that can be no other but Morgause, and then another, achingly familiar outline with a smaller one beside him.
Liam. And he found Elaine, of course he did - steadfast in this as in all else. How Morgause came to have them in her power he dares not imagine. Almost as in a dream, he makes his way through the inhumanly quiet crowds of beings who were not five heartbeats ago at each other’s throats, until he stands before his brother and his witch. Bareheaded, helm lost who knows how long ago, naked sword still in his hand, he does not let himself look at Liam or his small companion, looking fixedly at his brother. “What do you want?”
Gregory glances down at him from astride his horse, and sneers. “You dead would be an excellent beginning.”
The grandeur of his statement is somewhat ruined by his horse dancing nervously underneath him. Gregory kicks him in the side with a hard heel, eyes cutting down for a moment, and Niall realises he’s - uneasy.
Not because of Niall, surely - Gregory has the clear advantage of battle. Far more men and a sorceress powered by God only knows what devilry and Niall’s people burdened by the desire to free and not to kill.
“You’ve failed at that more than once,” Niall says quietly. “What makes you think this time will be any different?”
“I should spit you where you stand. Insolent pup!”
“Oh, hold your tongue,” Morgause cuts in, tossing her hair back over one milk-white shoulder. “You hate him and wish he’d been drowned at birth, you think he’s horrible and kicks younglings - it’s all so horribly tedious. Princeling, where is my sister?”
Before Niall can answer, there’s a rush of wind and Morgana is standing by his side. Her dark eyes take in her sister, Gregory, Liam, and focus at once on the small figure now clinging to Liam’s arm.
“What have you done?” Morgana’s voice is aghast. “What have you done?”
“Simply killing her and the others just seemed so...wasteful. You know, dear sister, how much I hate waste. You were forever leaving your trencher behind as a child; no great surprise you would not have thought of such a creative solution as I.”
“The fact that she is an innocent never gave you pause, I suppose.” Morgana is close to snarling, now, and Niall, for the first time, looks fully at the child.
Fair haired and large eyes - thus far like any other northern child, but there the resemblance ends, for her skin is as a serpent’s scales, and her eyes the slitted yellow of the same. Sensing their disquiet, she draws back a little, pressing farther into Liam’s side, and he bends over her, speaking in low, reassuring tones.
Liam. Niall feels a pang of mingled love and sorrow - he set Liam to this task, and should he not be pleased he has performed it so admirably? But his brother and Morgause have a knife to his throat as surely as birds fly south, for Liam will never leave Elaine to their cruelties, and Niall cannot ask him, and it is far too late to pretend Liam means nothing to him, for Morgause’s pale eyes have already marked his attention, and they gleam with malicious delight.
“So so so. This is a gift indeed - didst think so little of me, princeling, that you sent one of your own into the -” she glances slantwise at Elaine and laughs a little “ - viper’s pit?”
Niall says nothing, but he sees Liam looking at him pleadingly. Not for his own life, he knows, but for Niall to do justly by the child and the rest of his people.
“Perhaps we might come to an arrangement?” Morgause gestures with her first and fourth finger, and Liam cries out as he is bound with chains thicker than a yearling sapling and forced to his knees. “I will give you your boy, whole and unharmed, if you call off your Mage and allow these Fae to be driven out as they should have been long ago.”
“He is not mine,” Niall forces out over a tongue grown thick and clumsy with sorrow, and ignores the brief stab of pain in Liam’s eyes before he lowers his head. “His quest was none of my ordering, and his well-being no concern of mine.”
Morgause raises an eyebrow, reaching a hand down and tangling a hand in Liam’s hair, forcing his head up and stooping so that his eyes meet her own. “You are masterless, then, forest-born? Masterless and helpless but so noble, oh yes, refusing to leave an innocent child to the monstrous devices of the evil enchantress.”
Liam’s eyes flash fury, but he manages from between gritted teeth, “I came alone. The Lady Morgana promised a prize to any who brought back her charge, and my service to this bastard son gave me nothing.”
“So soon do your men disavow you,” she murmurs, letting go of his hair contemptuously and wiping her hands on a magicked square of linen. “See, princeling, they would do much better under my command?”
“Hold, Fate, that was not our bargain -” Gregory protests.
“Oh, hold thy tongue, thou prattling fool,” Morgause gestures again, and Gregory’s mouth is covered by some sort of film that no speech may escape. She says to Niall, almost confidential, “I can see why you liked him not for king.”
“Enough!” Morgana makes a gesture of her own, drawing herself up to her full height, and in full armor and flashing eyes, is enough to strike terror into the heart of a greater man than Niall. “Give me my ward, and I will go and trouble you no further.”
“You do not stay and fight for their cause, sister?” Morgause’s head tilts, a lock of hair sliding over one bare shoulder.
“What are the affairs of men to do with me?” Morgana does not look at Niall. “Give me the child.”
Morgause looks as though she is considering Morgana’s words seriously, and then she sighs, the sound full of world-weariness. “The problem,” she says, as though to herself, “is that it’s so hard to get good help these days. You really simply have to do everything yourself.”
So saying, she pulls two long daggers from seemingly nowhere at all, and Niall only has time to notice that the sun is glinting off of them oddly, as though they’re stone or flint and not iron at all, and then one of them is buried in his stomach.
He falls to his knees, breath rushing out of him in a sickening lurch.
“Niall!” Liam cries, lunging forward and straining in his bonds.
“Oh, so you do know him!” Morgause actually claps her hands together. “And I really almost believed you!” She turns and with a gesture so casual it almost seems dreamlike, drives the second knife through Gregory’s eye. He falls from his horse, soundless, blood a grotesque fountain that startles his poor mount, who bolts for the safety of his stable, leaving the king’s body crumpled on the ground beside them.
Morgause spares him not even a glance, strolling past the ghastly tableau. “Only the Mage left, now,” she says cheerfully, “Take your ward, and welcome.” She sets off down the hill, tossing back over her shoulder, “The transformation is permanent, by the by.”
“Morgana,” Niall says hoarsely, as soon as she is out of earshot. “Morgana, please.”
Morgana is bent over Elaine, hands running over every inch of her, as though to assure herself she’s whole and safe, if somewhat changed in aspect. She glances up, disinterested by the rapidly growing pool of blood under Niall or Liam’s increasingly frantic struggles to reach him. “What? Oh.” She gestures, and the chains fall from about Liam.
He rushes at once to Niall’s side, hands hovering helplessly. “I don’t - what do I - Niall, I’m so sorry -”
“Peace, Liam,” Niall raises one hand, streaked with blood - both his and others - to gently cup Liam’s face. “You did well. Perhaps ‘tis not a mortal wound.”
“It is, of a certainty, poisoned,” Morgana interjects, and Liam whirls on her.
“Do something, for God’s sake!”
“He is not my god,” Morgana says, calm, “and I agreed only to help in exchange for help retrieving my ward.” She pauses, seeming to reflect. “My thanks, I suppose.”
“Thank - my king is dying! If you had an ounce of true gratitude in you, you would save his life!”
“I already told you she is sure to have poisoned it,” Morgana explains, patiently, “And I haven’t an antidote.”
“Damn your eyes!” Liam swears, and all three of them look at him in surprise. Gregory doesn’t, because he has only one eye, and is also very dead.
It’s at this interesting moment that Louis appears - quite literally, stumbling out of thin air in front of them, pale and shaking as he flings himself to his knees in front of Niall.
“I felt my alarums go off -” he babbles, hands joining Liam’s in trying to stem the flow of blood, “I knew you were in danger, but I had not thought - you fool, you idiot, this is why you needed me with you, I knew you would do something stupid and get yourself half-killed -” he’s ripping off his shirt as he speaks, tearing it into long strips and starting to bind the wound. One of Niall’s blood soaked hands halts him. “It’s poisoned, Louis,” he says, gently. “Morgana says there’s no antidote.”
“What?” Louis stares at him, blank. “No, that’s - of course there’s an antidote, that’s horse shit, there’s always - you’re not going to die, Niall, you can’t - “ his voice is louder, rising even over the returning sounds of battle in the distance, “ - you’re going to be High King of Albion and usher in a new age of peace for Fae and Mortals alike, you’re not meant to die!”
“Louis,” Niall says again, and feels tears start to his eyes. Louis has been his first, his best friend. Since they were not twelve summers old and Louis was assigned as his manservant and proceeded to do absolutely none of his job and spent all his time complaining ceaselessly about Niall’s hair and clothes and the other inhabitants of the castle and exasperation turned to forbearance turned into amusement turned into affection, Louis has been by his side. The discovery of Louis’ magic had changed things between them not a whit - when Louis had knocked over a bucket of water and then stopped it in midair, he had simply stared for a moment at it and then at Niall, and then smiled, and the smile was full of unbounded mischief and the potential for discovery. “Promise me you will choose someone honourable to succeed me? No matter how difficult, you must - you must not leave my people in the hands of Morgause. Maybe -” he drags in a breath that seems wet, somehow, and that’s not right, is it? But this is important, so he presses on, “Breslin, belike. The people are not ready for a full Fae, nor a Mage, or it should be you, but Breslin is a good man, he would be - would be a good king.”
“Hush,” Louis says, as hot tears fall unheeded over their clasped hands. “Hush, Niall, you - you’re my king. I’ll have no other.”
“Tis no way to start a new era,” Niall says, trying for a smile. “Open insubordination. But I should have expected nothing less from you. My Louis.”
“Niall,” Louis chokes. “Don’t - please - hold on just a little longer, please, for me - Niall - Niall!”
His head has suddenly grown very heavy, and Niall drops it to rest on Louis’ shoulder. “Always so good to me,” he murmurs, the words sounding thick and garbled as they come out, ringing too loud and harsh to his own ear. “Louis - why’s it so dark?”
“It’s - the sun’s come out, Niall, finally.” Louis sounds like he’s crying, and that’s not right, Louis shouldn’t be crying. He’s the most joyful person Niall knows.
He reaches a clumsy hand to Louis’ cheek, frowning. There’s something - something he meant to say to Louis, had meant to say forever and a year ago, but never had. Why hadn’t he? All his reasons seem so foolish now. Childish, really. “Louis,” he murmurs, and Louis stoops lower, those cornflower blue eyes that Niall loves so much close to his own.
“I’m here, my king.”
Knowing it will take the last of his strength and caring not a jot, Niall strains upward enough that he can brush his mouth against Louis’. “Sorry, I meant to - earlier.” He can’t help but smile at the shocked expression on Louis’ face, even as his vision dims. It’s a good way to go, he thinks, as he hears Louis, above him, begin to swear. True to form. His Louis.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Louis says, grimly, as Niall’s eyes flicker closed. He leans forward, pressing both hands to Niall’s chest and closing his eyes. “You bastard, you’re not doing this to me. You’re not allowed to do this to me.”
He ignores the blood slicking his hands all the way to his elbows, ignores Liam’s sobs from beside him and Morgana’s cool disinterest as she peers over his shoulder. He ignores everything that isn’t the faint thread of Niall’s heart, still present beneath the slow slide of poison making its way to it. He sends tendrils of himself, his magic, that knows Niall well-nigh as well as himself, sends them searching, eyes closed as he envisions the magic seeking out the poison. No antidote? He’ll burn the strain with fire and lose every scrap of his magic in the process before he gives Niall over to death like this. His magic races eagerly into the deepest parts of Niall’s body, licking blue flames through the deadly poison, sinking himself so deeply into the other man he could not tell where he ends and where the king begins. He stays, hunched over Niall’s motionless form, for what feels like an eternity. He’s distantly aware that the clashes and screams of battle have come closer, but as he is he cannot tell if he would even notice if he were to take an ax to the head.
When he comes back to himself, it’s to see Liam standing over him, naked sword in his hand and covered in blood from his head to his feet, surrounded by corpses. Opposite them, seated on a fallen Sea Wolf, Morgana sits with Elaine by her side, calmly eating an apple.
“What happened?” Louis tries to rise and quickly realises this is perhaps not his wisest plan. “Niall!”
“Peace,” Liam tells him, smiling, “The king is well. He is hale and hearty and roundly cursing you for a fool.”
“Then where -”
“He went to accept the sworn fealty of the Corieltauvi and a non-involvement treaty with the Sea Wolves. What few remain.” Morgana rises, tossing away her apple core and looking consideringly at her hands for a moment before wiping them on her dress.
“Dead.” Morgana smiles, and it’s slow and cold and Louis cannot help a shudder.
“She made a mistake.” Morgana says simply, and her eyes fall on the small figure by her side, one hand smoothing over hair that - what in Hades, is curling up over her hand as though it’s no hair at all, but living things.
“I - see.” Louis sees not at all.
Liam smiles at him, wearily. “While you were - healing the king, Morgause rallied the enthralled Fae again to the attack. She ordered them to wipe out any Mortal or Fae that stood in their way, and not to stop until they fell dead where they stood. Between them and the other men and with you and Niall not being here - well.” He hesitates, looking as though he wants to rub at the back of his neck before remembering the sword still in his hand. “I held them off as long as I could, but then Elaine - oh, this is Elaine, by the way - got upset. I told Morgana to take her away from all this, but I suppose it’s good she didn’t, because - “
“Because we saved your sorry arses,” Morgana finishes, looking fondly at Elaine.
“Yes.” Liam looks uncomfortable, although it’s even odds whether it’s because Morgana swore in front of a child or because he thinks he should have been able to save them all single handedly. “Morgana - told everyone what you were doing. I didn’t, um, really understand it? What she said, or what you did, or - but anyway, Niall gave this great big sigh and sat up and you sighed and kind of. um. Fell over? And Niall started yelling a lot, but Morgana yelled at him not to be such an ass and he went off to show people he wasn’t dead, I suppose, and then Elaine said something to all the Fae Morgause enthralled and it was just like they - woke up? Like what you’d been doing, but a lot. Er. Faster. So, anyway, they were pretty mad, and Morgause tried to enchant them again, but it didn’t work. I still don’t really understand why not.”
“It didn’t work, my dear halfwit,” Morgana drawls, “because my imbecile sister forgot one of the first laws of magic. You cannot bind with blood and have it unbound in the next breath. She enthralled Elaine and the Fae with her own blood. Blood calls to blood. Like to like. When Elaine called them to throw off the Veil, they heeded her call. But when Morgause tried to take back control, the blood she put into them turned against her, and her blood boiled in her veins until she was no more.” There’s rough satisfaction in Morgana’s voice, and Louis cannot repress his shudder. Still, it all seems -
“Our losses?” He asks, urgent, because Liam is here, and well, but Harry, and Zayn, and the others -
“Brogha,” Liam says, “Cade. Gaheris. Lise. Tor. Ryls. Some fifty or so others; I am sorry, I cannot -”
Louis shakes his head, standing stiffly and relieved that his legs hold his weight, this time. “Harry will have the list. You need not.”
Liam nods, offering Louis an arm. “I will take you to them.”
All told, they had lost perhaps a quarter of their company - fewer by hundreds than the enemy, but still enough to bow their heads with grief despite the relief of victory. As Liam walks slowly with Louis back towards their camp, he sees far too many tear-streaked faces. There are also Corieltauvi standing in solemn clusters who bow their heads respectfully as the two of them pass. Louis nods back, looking a question at Liam.
“They swore fealty, and Niall will not hear of any other surety than their word,” Liam tells him, and Louis heaves a sigh large enough to blow a full grown oak from the ground.
“Of course he won’t. Ye gods and fishes; it’s more of a miracle he’s only died once so far.”
Liam startles, and Louis slants him a sidewise look. “I - I just had not - he was truly dead, then?”
“As near to it as makes no bones.” Louis looks very tired suddenly, and he leans more heavily on Liam.
They make their slow way forward, Liam increasingly worried by how little complexion Louis kept and how little of his own weight he seems able to sustain.
They both look up at the cry to see Harry bearing down on them, usually immaculate clothing covered in mud and blood and torn to bits but despite all that ze still manages to look as though it was a deliberate choice on zir part. Ze gathers Louis’ face in both hands and presses kisses all over it until Louis pushes zir away with a scowl even Liam can tell is manufactured.
“Isn’t your ardour somewhat misplaced?” Louis asks, sounding pleased despite his dour words. “After all, Liam is the true hero of the fight.”
“Mmm,” Harry looks Liam up and down and he feels himself flush underneath the scrutiny. “Trust me, he’s going to receive a large reward later.” Ze blows him a kiss and Liam thinks if his face grows any hotter he’ll set the forest ablaze.
“It was not because of me we won this battle,” Liam protests weakly, and then has to say it all over again a few breaths later, for Zayn spies them and after Louis is embraced and kissed and made much of they all three fall to praising him and (in Zayn and Harry’s case) dropping kisses about his person until he doesn’t know where to look.
“Liam.” They all look up to see Bressie standing there, leaning heavily on his spear, but smiling. “The king requests your presence in his tent at your earliest convenience.” He glances at the four of them tangled together and shakes his head a little. “I’ll tell him you’re all coming.”
Suddenly nervous, Liam runs a hand through his hair. Harry slaps at his wrist. “Don’t bother, truly. You are absolutely covered in I don’t want to know what, but spreading it about isn’t going to help.” With a moue of distaste, Harry plucks at zir own tunic. “Not like the rest of us are any better.”
“Quite honestly, it might be worth the blood in unmentionable places in exchange for our Hazza looking a little less than perfect, eh?” Zayn smirks at Harry, who pouts and then blows him a kiss.
“I’m afraid it’ll take more than that, darlings. Come on, then, we’ve got a king to see!”
“It’s only Niall,” Louis grouses, and Liam looks at him in disbelief.
Only Niall? He’s brokered a peace between tribes that have been warring for time out of mind and is planning to grant full land-rights to the Fae, ushering a new age of peace and prosperity for all Albion. He’s overthrown the seated king and bested the most powerful enchantress in Albion’s history, and done all of this while showing unprecedented mercy to his enemies with so little loss of life as to seem absurd.
Louis shifts, glances away under Liam’s scrutiny, and Liam realises with a flash of insight -
“I’m not.” Louis tosses his hair back from his face - or would, if it hadn’t been so sodden as to be impossible to move. “What possible cause have I for fear? I saved his life.”
“And risked your own in the process,” Zayn comments dryly. “But you’re right, of course; he has no reason to be upset at all.”
“And how know you what I risked?”
“I told them,” Liam says, edging them towards the hastily constructed tents.
“But you mustn’t be angry with Liam, darling,” despite the lightness of zir words, Harry’s eyes are solemn as ze leans in, pressing a long kiss to Louis’ cheek. “We were worried when you disappeared. We thought you’d - well.” Harry and Zayn exchange a long look.
“We had feared the worst.” Zayn finishes for him. “It gladdens our hearts to see you well.”
Louis flushes. “Enough. Bah, you are nothing so much as a bevy of old women with all your fuss.”
“I take that as a compliment,” Zayn retorts, “Wise, concerned, and venerated. Nothing to be despised there.”
“Perhaps I should rephrase - you’re all nothing but a lot of -”
“Ser Louis is here, Sire,” Breslin interrupts, mercifully cutting Louis off before he can say anything overly rash in front of. Ah.
Liam had expected Niall and of course Breslin to be present, but also present are several men he recognises as leaders of the Corieltauvi, the Belgae, the Dumnonii and a woman who can be none other than Cottia of the Iceni. Her hair is the colour of deep flame and her dark eyes flash as she takes in the newcomers. There is a man at her side, broad shouldered and clean shaven and with an arrogant tilt to his eyebrows and another man lounging, native-wise, at their feet.
Niall looks up as they enter, and Liam does not think he imagines the look of relief as his eyes rest on Louis.
For his part, Louis steps forward, letting go of Liam’s supporting arm and sinking gracefully to his knees at Niall’s feet.
In all the weary seasons the five of them have been together, Liam has never seen Louis treat Niall with anything but easy affection and light-hearted teasing. Concern at times, certainly. Mutual respect underlying their every interaction, of course. But never this level of acknowledgement of the true rank that lies between them.
Niall stops short where he had begun to come forward to greet them, face stricken. He stoops, shifting his sword out of his way as he tilts Louis’ chin up with one gentle hand.
The two look at each other for a long moment, the rest of the tent standing as silent and watchful as stones in a field, and then Louis turns his head just enough to kiss the king’s palm, eyes faltering closed.
Niall murmurs something too low for Liam to hear, hand sliding to cradle Louis’ head and its fellow rising to join it, and Louis shakes his head, the motion shaking free a few tears that had gathered heretofore unseen in his eyes.
Liam looks away, feeling suddenly ashamed that he has seen this thing that is so clearly not meant for any eyes to see. He feels a gentle touch on his shoulder and turns his head to see Zayn behind him, wood-green eyes full of warmth. On his other side, Harry offers a hand, diffident enough that if Liam wanted, he could pretend not to have seen it.
Something about the scene before them, though, makes Liam glad of the contact and heedless of any eyes that might be on them. He clings tightly to zir hand, leaning one shoulder back against Zayn, and feels a few tendrils of vine curl about his ear in response.
There’s a whisper of cloth and Liam looks over to see Niall straightening and Louis curled on the pile of furs to his right. He’s clutching at his middle, and Liam frowns a little. He’d known Louis was weak, but he had not thought he had an outright wound - but oh. Niall showing no sign at all that he had been stabbed and Louis weak and dizzy and guarding his stomach. Of course there would have been a price.
But Liam, looking at Louis as he watches Niall, thinks it is a price Louis would happily pay a thousand thousand times over.
“Liea, daughter of Brulla. Cade, son of Cadman. Einar, son of Hildir. Luana, daughter of Trevar. Beorn, son of -”
The list of the dead goes on, Niall’s voice steady as he reads all one hundred and eighty seven names.
One of Louis’ hands is tight around his tankard, and the other tight around Niall’s as he sits heavily, giving way to Toutatis, who will do honour to the Corieltauvi dead. The Sea Wolves have none left of their company to perform any of the rites of their people over their bodies, and so they loaded them all onto one of their own ships and with a word and a gesture Louis set it alight and sent it back towards their own shores.
He cannot keep his mind from straying back to a sennight ago, when he had knelt for the first time before his king and his first and his best friend and the way Niall had bent over him. Most of all the words breathed into his ear, the cadence of them like unto a bard’s song: “I dreamt my love came and found me dead//And breathed such life with kisses in my lips//That I revived and was an emperor.”
Louis had been glad his head was bowed, that no one might see the flush that started to his cheeks. Niall had released him with a brief caress and an order to lie down, for the love of all that was holy, before he fell over in a dead faint. Out of habit, Louis had retorted that Niall couldn’t tell him what to do, and then swayed so alarmingly he was glad of the proximity of Niall’s bed of furs.
But there had been discussions and talks and deliberations and a fortnight and Louis yelling at rather a lot of people later they are finally, blessed, alone. The pleasanter side of being king is the sheer number of furs and pillows you are allotted, and as the king’s - whatever it is they are to each other, Louis intends to take full advantage, luxuriating in the massive bed and keeping Niall idle for as long as his considerable wiles will serve him.
Louis has spent so long cataloguing the lines of Niall’s body by sight that it seems still a breathless wonder that he is allowed now to touch as well. He trails careful fingers over the scar on his knee, healed now but still standing out ugly and red against the smooth gold of Niall’s skin. It hadn’t even been a sword or arrow that had done it - a stray dog, lured close by the smell of their roasting meat on one of their hunting trips, and made cruel by misuse and hunger.
Niall had tossed him a thigh and the dog had snatched it up, retreated some ways into the woods and watching warily for more. Niall had turned to wipe his hands on a spare tunic and the dog had darted forward to grab more. Niall had flinched away too quickly and the dog had attacked.
Louis hadn’t known how to heal - no spells or incantations, and the best he could do was simply to repeat the same spell he used for mending clothes with increasing desperation as Niall bit his tongue clean through in an effort not to cry out.
The wound had closed, eventually, though it still gave Niall trouble on wet days, and they had taken the dog home. Naturally.
“Louis,” Niall murmurs, and Louis hums quietly in response, leaning forward to press a kiss to the knee before him.
“Louis, I fear I am selfish.”
“Yes,” Louis says, “You have, at the end of a fortnight of running yourself ragged on the behalf of everyone from the newly orphaned children to the chief of the Brigantes, at last consented to go to bed before sunup. I’m telling the council.”
“No, I - Louis.”
And there’s a timbre in his voice that makes Louis look up, and at the expression on Niall’s face, he sits up at once, moving up the bed and proffering a hand. “What, sire?”
Niall takes his hand, but his grip is tentative, and his eyes are downcast. “I have not been honest with you.”
“Hast a wife away in the hills?” Louis asks, trying to coax a smile, “Or - nay, five children, and two wives to them.”
“There are - not like to be children.” Niall says, still not looking at Louis.
“It is an indisputable fact I am no woman,” Louis agrees, frowning.
“No, that is not - that is, I mean to say -” Niall’s free hand clenches and releases, clenches and releases, clenches and - Louis lays a hand atop it.
“You wish to get a woman with child?” He asks, quiet. It turns something in his stomach, sick and hard, like venison sat too long in the sun, but if Niall needs this.
“No, that is - it’s the opposite of that!” Niall jerks both hands away from Louis, running his fingers through his hair until it stands on end like an unruly hedgehog.
“You wish to get me with child?” Louis is truly lost, now. “Niall, not even magic -”
“I have gone about this all wrong.” Niall draws in a deep breath, and then another. “It is - even if you were a woman, I could not - I do not -” he gestures, somewhat helplessly, to his body. “I love you as my own heart’s blood, but there is no -” he breaks off again, but this time Louis has got it.
“There is no fire for me within you.” Louis’ voice is quiet, empty, even to his own ears.
“Yes. No. It is not - it has ever been thus.” Niall is reaching for him, pleadingly. “Please, beloved, there is not - I burn for no one. The strongest love potion in the world would change my aspect toward you not a whit.”
“It is - have you asked a physic?” Louis asks, a little halting. If there is something wrong with Niall, something they can fix - but Niall is shaking his head.
“It is no malady of the body. Ever I have been so - I have no desire for laying with any as men do, but I lack nothing by it. My heart loves as it ever does, and my duties do not suffer.” Niall pauses, wetting his lips. He lowers his gaze again to the blanket as he says, “It is only - of late, that I have regretted that I am so. It is selfishness itself to take kisses from your lips and embraces from your arms and you all the while unknowing that I am broken.”
“Hush,” Louis says fiercely, because as bewildered as he is, he will never be confused on this point. “Banish such thoughts at once! Fie, for shame, my lord. You are no more broken than any other being, and I’ll stake my kingdom on that.”
“Thou hast again forgot who wearest the crown,” Niall says, very dry, but Louis waves him off with a lordly air.
“Such details are beneath us. More to the point is the question of whether I wasted my best kisses on a reluctant recipient.”
“No, I -” Niall flushes to the tips of his ears. “The - they were - very lovely.”
“Well, and so.” Louis sniffs, trying not to seem too pleased. “Not selfish of thee at all, my Niall. We need only take note of what is lovely and what likes you not, and all will be well, yes?”
“You are not - you do not despise me?”
His voice is so wondering and filled with such underlying hurt and he still does not look at Louis, so Louis sets two fingers gently under his chin and raises his head.
“I have loved you since you looked at the starving, soot smeared urchin who tried to steal your purse and told him he need never be hungry again. Only by your command will I ever go from your side.”
Niall closes his eyes, tipping his head into Louis’ hand, and Louis gathers him close. “We have not gone through fire and through water and a deep place to break apart in the meadows,” he says quietly. “To love every twist and turn of you is my privilege and my honour, my king.”
“Louis.” It’s only one word, broken and sounding as though it was dragged from a throat of broken glass, and then Niall is astride him, and Louis thinks of nothing else for the rest of the night.
Niall sets both hands to Liam’s shoulders, affection clear in his full smile and every line of his body. “Rise, Ser Liam, and be welcome to our company.”
He finishes the ceremony with a hearty kiss to both of Liam’s cheeks and one to his forehead.
Liam stands, looking overwhelmed and pleased all at once, and looks over to where Zayn and Harry are stood by the dias, Zayn raising his glass in a proud toast and Harry, naturally, blowing him a kiss.
By Niall’s side, Louis is beaming, taking advantage of his position to pull Liam in for a warm embrace, whispering something into his ear that makes Liam flush a dark rose before he releases him to Zayn and Harry’s arms.
The two of them had declined any sort of title under Niall - Harry because ze insisted ze already had a title and it was quite enough to be going on with, and Zayn because he kept saying he was going back to his forest and what need had he of titles there? And yet every sennight he seemed to find yet one more thing that required his attention - the resettling of many of his kinfolk, the re-outfitting and making habitable the living quarters in the castle, and, of course, plenty of distractions by way of Harry and Liam.
Louis, as High Mage, of course already had a title none had held in hundreds of years, and besides which teazed that as Niall’s consort he was surely entitled to the High Queen position. Niall had calmly offered to make it official, which led to Louis staring at him, mouth agape, for a good few minutes before tackling him to the ground and running his fingers all over Niall’s most tender spots until he was shrieking with laughter and promising to rescind his offer.
Niall awarded Breslin and the Cymru brothers and Guinhefar the Healer all titles and set them and a few of Zayn’s kindred as liaisons with the Fae, to bring him word of any mistreatment on either side and sat them also upon his council.
The council had been his secret wish since he had first realised how poorly the country was run. A group of beings chosen some by himself and others by joint accord of his people, gathered every new moon to discuss the needs of the people and guard ‘gainst threats from both within and without the land.
There was much murmuring at first when he had dispensed with the old council chamber - a fusty room behind the large audience chamber with a throne upon a dias and rows of chairs before it, as though his councillors were children waiting to be taken to task or set to learn a history. He instead ordered the long hall cleared and caused a large table to be made and set therein, and ‘round it placed chairs engraved with all the names of those who joined. His own chair was no different from any others, and his name was writ plainly upon it, for he wanted it to truly be a gathering of equals. His birth he could not help, but with what privilege he had he meant to use to lessen the weights on others and not add more to the burdens already upon their shoulders.
There was much to do - fields that had gone unsown throughout the long months as the warring factions trod blood into the ground that should only have cradled new life, bridges that had fallen into disrepair, warring bands of brigands that had used the confusion to steal and pillage with no consequence, and of course the tension between the Fae and Mortal beings as they sought to find their footing in the new order.
Zayn and Louis spent long hours poring over maps and arguing over irrigation and Liam quietly organised those who wished still for active duty into a city guard that cleared the hills of those who preyed on the weak and Harry was everywhere those first few months, visiting ailing and poor of both sides with a cheerful laugh and a toss of zir curls and such winning smiles that many an argument was settled before it ever came to Niall’s court.
Morgana had taken her charge and vanished into the hills. Louis muttered darkly over it, predicting all manner of dire things, but Niall was content that she should keep to herself and let them to sort themselves out as best they might.
Niall himself was kept busier than he had been during even the worst of the war, and damnation, but if he had known being king involved so much signing and shuffling of parchment and listening to old men protest that such and such a thing had never been done in his father’s time, he would have washed his hands of the whole mess and run away to Egypt.
(“No, you wouldn’t,” Louis says, hand warm in Niall’s hair, carding gently through the golden strands.
“No,” Niall sighs, “I wouldn’t.”)
But when he feels himself ready to simply order the next person to the dungeon who says to him, “But your majesty, your father -” Harry or Liam will appear and drag him to the lower city, and as he walks through the narrow streets and sees a tiny Dryad playing a skipping game with poor Ilse’s child as their mothers look on and chatter over the washing, he feels a sense of wonder that he has been allowed to have this, to see what God hath wrought in his lifetime. Niall Sunblessed, they are already beginning to call him, harkening back to his father’s finest days, before the poison began to take his mind and body from him.
All the same, when he is old with more grey than gold in his hair and must needs concede to his advisors’ pleading and cast about for an heir, he thinks his fondest memories will be of the five of them all safely closed in his rooms, wine-warm and laughter-flushed. Harry, Niall, and Zayn twined in a tangle of limbs on his and Louis’ bed as Liam and Louis wrestle on the rug in front of the fire until Louis pretends to give in, going limp in Liam’s grasp, and then twisting out as soon as Liam let up and pinning Liam to the floor, crowing in triumph.
Nights where they stay so late talking about nothing in particular until they fall into slumber one by one and his poor shocked manservant finds five abed where he expected one (they still cannot convince the man that Louis is, indeed, Niall’s bedfellow on a regular basis. he seems to be labouring under the delusion that Louis is simply needed to cast spells and enchantments over the king and the king’s bed on the daily).
His time as king will end, and perhaps the tribes will fracture again and fall to warring amongst themselves. Perhaps the Sea Wolves will come again, and this time they will be too weak to halt their sweep over the land and Albion will be as much theirs as the tribes’ and they will take wives from even the Brigantes and the next king will be tall and raw-boned and flaxen haired. Perhaps the Fae will retreat entirely to the other side, travelling to the world of Mortals only rarely and all the sacred groves will become nothing more than a distant memory and fall into legend.
All bodies must at some time give up the ghost and depart for a distant shore, and Niall can only hope and pray in the time God has granted him he has done something good and worth the telling.
He will live, and love, and enjoy the peace in his time.