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One the Other

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WE two boys together clinging,

One the other never leaving,

Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,

Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,

Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,

(excerpt from We Two Boys by Walt Whitman)

 

 

 

 

It was simple. Akielos needed a break from the fighting. There was no reason more valid to take a break than to allow the Veretians mourn their king in peace. That they would not do the same for Damen's family if tragedy struck was beside the point. Akielos was meant to be better than that.

“The ceasefire holds,” Damen said, again. “We have no reason to resume yet.”

“It is ours. Delpha is ours.” Kastor said, casting his hand over the sandbox on the table. “What reason more do we need?”

Damen glanced at his father Theomedes. His father the King. But his face was blank as an empty page. That meant he agreed with Kastor. Or it meant he was letting Damianos, for he was always Damianos during political talk, make the decision. He had been doing that all too frequently lately – giving Damen a taste of ruling.

Though to Damen it felt more like a test he was destined to fail.

“They are grieving,” Damen said. “The King of Vere is dead. It would be honourable to --”

“They were not honourable when they took Delpha all those years ago. They were not --”

“History,” Damen said. “This is now.”

“The King of Vere is dead. The Crown Prince Auguste rules now.” Theomedes said. “I hear he is quite capable.”

“Capable,” said Damen. “We know he is capable. He destroyed us at Sanpelier. Every time he rides out from behind the fort, we lose more and more good men. But that was before the father died. We won't attack during a funeral.”

“We?” Kastor leaned forward, hands flat on the knife-scarred table. His face was fierce, familiar. “Are you in charge now?”

Quite suddenly, Damen felt a twinge in his torso. Right on his long-healed scar. “I would prefer not to fight. That's all I'm saying. It is...disrespectful to attack during mourning.”

“Vere would not afford us the same respect.”

“Aren't we here because we are better?” Damen asked. “Is that not why we take Delpha back? So it can be ruled honestly instead of --”

“Son, you should get some air,” Theomedes said. “Go for a ride. “

“Good idea.” Kastor smiled. “Wouldn't want the cub losing his temper now.”

 

Damen stalked off. It was the hardest thing in the world to keep his temper in check around his goading older brother. He knew that was just Kastor's way and he knew that he would endure it graciously, because he would be the one on the throne and that is what kings did.

Or perhaps what family did. He could not imagine his father allowing insolence around him. But for all that Damen was the heir, he was also the younger brother. There were habits you did not forget so easily.

The mood has lightened in the camp since news of the death of the old King of Vere. White flags raised. Injured muscle given time to ease and sliced skin allowed time to knit itself back together.

Damen was not one for lying around the dirt ground no matter the circumstance. He took a serviceable horse and struck out East from camp. It was quite safe, while détente reigned, to venture further. Although, really, Damen always felt safe.

He hadn't been bested in a fight in some years. His strength was unparalleled. People bowed to him. Servants fought for the honour of washing his clothing. He had heard families were clambering to send their children to slave training just for the chance to serve the prince.

How could he not feel safe?

Damen spurred the horse faster and thick mud splashed and coated his muscled thighs. There was a clearing he had found, where the ground was smooth and the trees high and a small stream flowed right through the centre. Practise arenas were one thing, but sometimes Damen needed to wield his sword in preparation alone.

He tied his horse to a stump a little ways away so not to spook it when he began practise drills. Sometimes he forgot himself. Sometimes trees hit the ground and rocks were smashed into the air.

The clearing hadn't really been a clearing at all when Damen found it when they first rode to Marlas. It was just the bank of a stream. It was no different from any other place in these woods and fields, except that if you knew what you were looking for you could see some Artesian ruins crumbling the distance. Once upon a time, these lands had all been part of one kingdom. Ancient history.

Damen had taken just two steps from his horse, when he heard the murmurings. Odd. No-one else had ever passed here at the same time. Nomads and traders were naturally avoiding the area. Camp followers stayed in camp shadows.

Veretians did not cross the lines.

With his hand on the hilt of his sword, Damen took another step. It couldn't be more than two people, he deduced. If they had horses, they were quiet.

Perhaps it was two fellow soldiers, sneaking off for some ... relief. They did not all have access to slaves or money for whores. Certainly, Damen could not judge them for wanting to forget themselves in the pleasure of another. He was no stranger to that desire.

But he was the Prince and this was his clearing.

He peered through the trees.

He was right about it being just two men but wrong about everything else. Their clothes were not Akielon – they wore high collars and fitted trousers and the only skin on show was their fair hands.
The language was not Akielon. The sun-spun blond hair pressed together was not Akielon.

Nor were the engaged in practise or coupling. They were crouched over the small flowing stream, attempting to catch fish with their bare hands.

Damen waited, watched, until the larger one pulled his hands from the water and emerged with a sliver of a silver fish. Nothing worth eating. Nothing worth showing off. But he could sense triumph all the same.

“Now what do we do, Laurent?” The taller one asked in Veretian. Damen felt his heart thud in his chest. The blond hair was quite famed, now that he thought about it. The fine clothing was not the sort you normally saw in the woods.

Twin golden circlets shone amongst all that blond hair.

Damen had never seen the former prince, current King of Vere before. But he knew another who had been born to rule when he saw it. The set of his shoulders. The angle of his head. The unhurried way he spoke.

“Put it under uncle's pillow?” The response was high, clear.

“Throw it back.” Auguste let the fish slip from his hands and it splashed back into the stream. “You can come out now, observer.”

The boy, Laurent, spun around when August spoke. Damen stepped forward.

“Our Brother of Vere,” he said. “Forgive my intrusion.”

“Brother?” Laurent repeated. He managed to load one respectful word with endless derision. “He -- that's the Akielon prince? He looks like something from the fighting pits.”

“Hush.”

Damen held his hands up. “It's all right. Beside a shrimp, I can see how my size would be intimidating.” Two spots of colour bloomed on the boy's cheeks. He was still young enough to feel embarrassment, then. Damen had learned, with Kastor and with the soldiers, that it was better to bear insults with humour. Especially when they did not matter.

This was not the time for joking though. “I am sorry for your father,” he said, bowing his head at both princes.

“You'll be sorrier for crossing our lines,” the boy snapped.

“Have you come to parley, Damianos?” August asked. “Or is this a warning? Our reprieve is to end. You Akielons do like to give advance notice, after all.”

“Neither,” Damen said. “I came to – why have you crossed the lines?”

“We have not,” Laurent said. “Auguste, you should take him. Give the old king something to fight for.”

“I assure you, your brother could not take me.” Damen smiled.

“He is the best fighter in Vere.”

“I am not Veretian,” Damen said. “Listen, I shall leave you. I know this is a difficult time and --”

“Wait,” Auguste said. “We have truly crossed the line? My map was quite clear.”

“Dumb brutes can't read maps,” Laurent said.

“You should not speak of your brother like that.” Damen spoke sometimes before he thought. It was a problem.

Laurent disregarded Damen with a vicious little look. “He is lying.”

Auguste blinked, and slowly changed his stance. Damen realised this would be the first time he had backed down from a fight. He would not beat the King of Vere in front of his younger brother in the dirt in the woods. There was no honour there.

“I-”

Auguste held up his hand and both Damen and Laurent fell silent. That is what Kings can do. Damen heard it, too, then. The shuffling. A cough. The slip of a sword from a sheath. He said, with his eyes, these men are not mine. Auguste understood, because he was a soldier too. And by the stricken look on his face, he was not prepared either.

“Go,” he said to Laurent. But Laurent stayed in place, his blue eyes wide. He seemed to Damen almost curious.

Not that it mattered. They were on them, then. Twenty men, that Damen could see. Tight. Accomplished.

Wearing Akielon clothing, the badges of Sicyon, and the notched belt of the bannerman Makedon.

“Halt!” Damen said, angling his body in front of the Veretian princes. He was in charge here.

And he really did not want the hassle of a diplomatic disaster.

The men surged forward.

There were more than twenty. Much more. Fifty, perhaps. A practiced, well-oiled squadron.

They did not halt.

Damen spared only one glance at August and got to cutting them down. As much as he did not care for destroying his countrymen, this was his duty. They attacked, they disobeyed. You draw a sword on a royal and you die.

The Veretian Princes were merely catching fish.

Damen did not struggle to dispatch any man brave enough to cross him. But most were focused on Auguste. It made tactical sense for Damen to fall in beside Auguste and fend them off together. August fought well. His smooth manoeuvres easily overcame Makedon's mens's strength.

But Auguste was distracted by the boy, who had not ran, who held a sword that looked little more than ornamental. Auguste's moves were good. He was a King. But they were not moves of a winner. Everything he did was designed to block the boy. If Auguste got a man down in the process, that was just a bonus.

More men down. One got a slice of Damen's arm, then circled around his back. Before Damen could react, August had struck his sword through the back of his head.

Perhaps Veretians did have honour.

Damen dodged a blow and saw Laurent stick his bejewelled sword between the legs of a man who came close to him.

Perhaps not.

Damen fought. Auguste fought. Auguste kept looking for Laurent, which was, of course his mistake. Laurent defended himself. With his head turned, arms raised, body exposed, the last attacker managed to get his heavy sword lodged between Auguste's ribs.

The impact of sword on bone rang out through the clearing. Damen heard a gasp, a keening noise, and an Akielon curse. The man who struck the King of Vere went quite still as if he could not believe he had managed to make contact.

Auguste fell backwards. Laurent surged forward to catch him but he was not tall enough or strong enough to bear the weight, and hit the grass beneath his injured brother.

Damen and the Akielon soldier were the last ones standing. The other man braced himself, as if to run, but Damen leaped and apprehended him. He forced him to the ground with his knee pressed to the back of his neck.

“Who sent you?” Damen demanded.

“I can't stop the bleeding!” came a terrified voice, in Veretian. Damen whacked the Akielon over the head, hard enough to render him unconscious, and lurched over to the fallen princes. “Auguste. Auguste. Don't go to sleep.”

Laurent had sliced his own fine clothes to staunch the blood but they were already soaked through. It was hard to tell, since they were red also. They just looked like they had gotten dipped in the stream.

Damen had seen men fall before. He knew it was rarely quick. The bled for hours. Died for days. But when it was quick, it was definite.

Auguste's blood flowed denser than the stream. His breaths were blighted by bubbles.

“You! Brute. Pull the sword out.” Laurent waved at Damen. Auguste's head was in his lap now.

“That will not help.” Nothing would.

Laurent scrambled forward, like he meant to do it himself. Damen stopped him. It would not help. It would hurt more.

Laurent bit Damen's hand and knelt over his brother. Auguste's eyelids fluttered. Damen watched his eyes focus on Laurent, like the sheer force of his will was enough to control his failing body.

“What -” He choked out. Auguste's eyes were on a small red pendant hanging loose now from Laurent's stained shirt. Laurent pushed it beneath his clothes and then Auguste's eyes were on Damen. “Damianos,” he said. “Take him.”