A/N: Ugh. I thought I didn't want the stress of writing, but I do, damn it. I took this story down, and now I've made a few slight revisions and I'm putting it back up…whatever. This is me. I'm an emotional wreck when it comes to writing haha. But enough about my authorial woes. Let's focus on the story. Oh. By the way. Here's your fair warning: THIS STORY CONTAINS ROMANTIC LOVE BETWEEN TWO BROTHERS. Sorry to ruin it for you, but I figured some people would like to know beforehand what they are getting into.
Chapter One: Capricious
The castle of Ethelfast protruded from the base of the black mountain like an obsidian-horned dragon snout. So close, only a few minutes' ride from the gates now, Hollith could only see the loftiest of the towers over the wall. The crimson banner of his family waved casually in the high breeze, beckoning the conquering legion to return home after two years of pushing the boundaries of their kingdom even farther, over numerous hamlets and one particularly stubborn fortress that had held out for nine months before finally giving way to Hollith and his soldiers. And then, after the capture, the prince had to linger and tame the newest addition to his father's collection of castles. Peasants were easy to win over; one ruler was another to them. But the nobility and the soldiers were not so malleable. It took gifts and charm to gain their loyalty and earn their trust. Hollith had offered them all the things they wished to see in a sovereign. He bribed them with gifts of treasure and bestowed pompous titles upon their names. He fed them all the meat they could stomach, slathered in promises. When he left his newest conquest a year after first setting foot inside its walls, he was seen off with utmost respect and gratitude by those same nobles who had so desperately resisted him in the beginning. Such was the work of a prince.
Hollith had earned respite. He deserved nothing less than a glorious welcome home, a bountiful banquet in his honor, and a good night's sleep in his own luxurious bed.
Up on the wall, waiting anxiously with his fingernails digging into the stone battlements as he leaned out over them to peer out across the flat plains, stood Hollith's younger brother. Two winters had frozen the lands of Wesfeld, and then twice spring had thawed the fields since the last time Laethe had seen Hollith. And now, all that stood in the way of their reunion was a short stretch of grass that could be crossed on horseback in scarcely the time it would have taken the younger of the two brothers to bridle his own horse so that he could ride out to meet them.
"Open the gates," Laethe said, turning his eyes, the color of an overcast sky, to the guard next to him. He wanted the city to be waiting for his brother as impatiently as he was.
The gatekeeper disappeared to follow his orders, leaving the sandy-haired youth alone to track the progress of the approaching party. Two years he had waited, long enough for him to grow six inches taller and ten times wiser. And these few short minutes, these mere grains of sand in the hourglass, were exponentially more agonizing than each of the days that had passed since he had begged Hollith to let him come along. For some time after being left behind, Laethe had resented his brother, thought him cruel to refuse the younger prince such an adventure. But as weeks and then months passed, with the help of some distractions, his anger dulled, the flames burnt out, leaving only scarcely glowing coals awaiting the older prince to return and nurture the fire back to life.
It had been relatively peaceful for the first few months of Hollith's absence. Then, once news of Ethelfast's vulnerable state reached her enemies, attackers came in hordes, hopeful to snatch up the coveted stretch of fertile land while the king's most formidable son was away. Laethe's first taste of battle was from the safety of his home, as it should have been. Under the wise and watchful eyes of the most experienced generals, he had the chance to steadily blossom and learn skills that he hadn't even known he was missing. He filled in gaps that would have gotten him killed, had he been granted his wish to rush into battle alongside his brother at such a tender age. Laethe had filled in those holes that had left him appearing naïve and childish in the eyes of his brother, and he was eager to stand before Hollith's judgment once more, sure that his growth wouldn't go unnoticed.
As much as he yearned to go out and meet Hollith, Laethe remained atop the battlements until the older prince had passed through the gates and dismounted his horse. Only when Hollith had finished embracing the old generals and councilmen that had come to meet him did Laethe descend the steep stone staircase, and even then he did not go to his brother. No, Laethe would wait until Hollith noticed that he was missing and asked for him. He leaned against the shaded black stone, the fingers of one hand twirling a chunk of hair from his ponytail, eyes trained on his brother reveling in the welcoming party. The welcoming party that didn't include him. How could it take him so long to remember that he had a younger brother that had missed him so painfully every moment that he was away from Ethelfast?
"Where is my brother? Has Laethe not come down from the castle to welcome me home?"
At last Hollith's voice, deep and dangerous like a wide river, formed his name. A small, yet satisfied, grin crossed Laethe's lips as he straightened up and emerged from his hiding place. His eyes found Hollith's as he approached, his strides calm and torturously casual despite his urge to bound forward, and held his brother's gaze. Hollith had eyes like the sky too, though his bore no signs of a storm.
The color of Laethe's eyes was one of the few things that Hollith found recognizable in his brother after his prolonged absence. His brow furrowed studiously as he took in the young man that was responding to his kid brother's name. Those steps were quite sure of the path they tread, though, so it must truly have been Laethe approaching. Laethe, who had sprouted up like a young tree and put a layer of meat on his body that had been merely soft skin and thin bones when Hollith last looked upon him.
"This can't be my brother," Hollith said with a small smirk as the younger prince came to a halt before him. He reached out, his hand grasping Laethe's upper arm, and gave it a squeeze as though testing the size of the muscle beneath the fabric of his shirt. His thumb wriggled in between the fibers of his brother's biceps, digging in to try and reach the bone.
Laethe knew this was some sort of test, and he pressed his lips together to keep from making a noise, but he couldn't stop himself from squirming.
"There he is," Hollith grinned, as the unfamiliar cold expression fell from the youth's face to reveal the boy that he had left behind two years ago.
"Here I am," Laethe sighed softly, surrendering his hope for compliment. He moved into Hollith's open arms and had to drop his head slightly to lay it on his brother's shoulder. He used to be just tall enough to nestle his ear over the top of his Hollith's heart. Now, standing only a few inches shorter than the older prince, Laethe made a new place for himself. Maybe if this time he nested near his brother's ear, rather than over his heart, he wouldn't be left behind again. "I've been here all along."
Hollith broke the embrace and found the top of his younger brother's head for a soft ruffling of his hair. "I see Father hasn't come down to see me. I should go to him. Tell me what you've been up to the past months."
"The past years, you mean," Laethe corrected him, falling into step with him as he started for the castle.
"Was it that long?" Hollith asked. He knew exactly how long it had been, but he pretended that he hadn't missed out on the privilege of watching his brother become a young man. Had he known how deeply his feigned indifference pierced Laethe's heart, would he have shown greater concern?
Laethe suffered the wound silently, distracting from the vulnerable hole in his defenses by going on the offensive. "Yes. I counted the days so that I would know how long we withstood the siege that fell upon us in your absence before finally it was broken. The days were numbered by arrows, spears, swords, and scars."
"The city fell under attack while I was gone?" Hollith asked, brow furrowed with concern. "Why didn't someone send for me?"
Laethe made him pay for his clumsy and callous words, his nonchalant demeanor. He had learned much about waging war in the past two years. "Why would we have sent for you when there was no need, brother?" he asked, his tone hued with childlike innocence.
Hollith's eyes, which had been trained on his brother as he waited for an answer, slowly fell away from the face that he was still growing accustomed to. The round and childish features that used to shape Laethe's face had grown a bit sharper and more mature while he was away, the bones showing high above hollow cheeks that had once been round. The younger prince had always been cute as a child, earning secret treats from the kitchens by only flashing a sweet grin at the servants, but his face was changed, still pleasing to the eye but in a different way. His eyes were the stormy sea and when he batted his lashes, a fierce gale came howling at Hollith's back, urging him closer.
He wouldn't rise against the words; Laethe hadn't spoken so harshly out of spite, but out of blissful ignorance to the weight behind them. His little brother, his greatest admirer, would never purposely hurt him that way. "It was a good thing that you stayed behind. You must have learned much."
Playful wickedness coaxed one corner of Laethe's lips upward in a grin that Hollith had never seen before. One that taunted him with the suggestion of a juicy secret. "General Algar took good care of me and taught me a great many things. As did Master Blaise, and even your old friend Crasto."
"You've been busy," Hollith said, unsure of exactly what to make of that smirk on his brother's face. "We will have to go to the training grounds so that I can test the teachings of our finest warriors."
He would admit that the names that Laethe listed off surprised him. None of them were worthy of taking on the prince as their pupil. But he did not question it. Instead he asked Laethe for more details about the siege on the city. For a few more minutes, Laethe described the enemies and their tactics, until they reached their father's study. Naturally, Laethe faded into the background as Hollith spoke with the king, who was able to provide deeper and wiser insight than the young prince.
"Perhaps my men and I need to pay a visit to Lofthale and remind them just who we are," Hollith said, after the nature of the attacks on his city were fully explained.
Laethe straightened up from where he had been leaning against the stone wall, his wandering eyes suddenly trained on his father at this interesting turn of events. Hollith had only just returned; Laethe wasn't about to let him leave again. "I don't see the need for that. We sent them fleeing with their tails between their legs. They won't be back any time soon."
Hollith was quick to punish Laethe for speaking without carefully weighing his words. "But they will be back. I think it the best interest of our kingdom to strike back swiftly and heavily."
"Your men are weary," Laethe countered. "They will not be thrilled to find that they must leave their families again, after hardly having time to recover. Lofthale is but an insignificant pest. No matter how many times they attack our walls, they will not even scratch us. Eventually they will realize the futility. You are looking for a fight where there isn't one. You're supposed to be a prince who watches over his people, not a warmonger searching for battles where there need not be one."
Hollith hardly recognized the one speaking such stinging words. How could this be the same boy who had pleaded on his knees to be allowed to go to battle? War had certainly changed Laethe. He seemed to understand now that war was more than just swinging a sword for a chance at glory. And he was shining a most unflattering light on his brother.
"This is a matter to be presented at council," the king decided. "We'll discuss it no longer for the time being. Now, see yourselves out. There is a banquet to prepare for."
The study doors were closed behind them and they mounted the stairs to head for their chambers where baths would be awaiting them, silence overcoming them. But Hollith felt that something had been left unsaid between the two of them. The words exchanged in that room had been more than a diplomatic suggestion of options; it had been an argument, and that argument seemed to be about more than war. Laethe had never spoken against Hollith in the past. Then again, the last time Hollith had seen his brother, he had been too young to form an opinion of his own. He could not let this go without protest. His intention was not to start a row, but he could not leave his younger brother thinking so low of him.
Hollith stopped in his tracks, and reached out to hold his brother back by the shoulder, but Laethe slipped out of his grasp and continued walking. He didn't want this to be resolved. He wanted the tension, so that Hollith would not be able to forget about him.
"Laethe, don't walk away from me," Hollith spoke sternly. "You have grown disrespectful without guidance, it seems."
Laethe paused with his hand on the doors to his quarters and slowly allowed his head to fall to the side so that his eyes met with his brother's. "I hardly see how I can be to blame for that." And then he pushed open the door and disappeared.
Hollith followed him, his steps noticeably louder than they had been coming down the hallway. "A warmonger. That is a dangerous word to throw around so easily, especially when not two years ago, you were on your knees begging me to take you to battle with me."
A quiet scoff passed through Laethe's lips as he dipped his fingers into the bathtub that had been prepared for him. "It seems a bit absurd to compare the man you are now with the boy that I was two years ago."
"Exactly my point, brother." Hollith's voice had become graveled, ever more reminiscent of a wolf's growl as he went on. "You are barely more than a boy, yet you insult me as though you have seen as much as I have."
Laethe did not match his brother's heightened demeanor. He remained perfectly calm as he went about preparing for his bath, sitting on his bed to first remove his boots and then reaching up to let his hair down. It fell in thick, unruly waves. "I haven't insulted you. You know as well as I do—even better, perhaps—that a good councilman is one who points out the faults in a plan so that they may be corrected to prevent failure. It seems to me that you're looking for conflict where there is none."
All the things Laethe said made sense, and Hollith would have been proud to hear his brother speaking so responsibly if not for the fact that he knew the heart inside of the boy beat fiercely and brashly, the opposite of the way he was acting now. Was it possible for him to have changed his own nature while Hollith had been away? He moved to stand before Laethe and peered into unblinking eyes that stared straight back into him. There was defiance in Laethe's eyes that disrupted the illusion of rationality he was trying to put on.
"I do not want conflict between us, Laethe. Otherwise I wouldn't have followed you here. Are you resisting me because you're angry at me for leaving you? I won't apologize for that. We both know that you weren't ready."
Laethe would give his brother one more chance to make things right. He was hurt that Hollith left him behind, of course. But he understood that. He could forgive that. What he couldn't forgive was the idiot's refusal to acknowledge him. He would never be able to forgive Hollith for not noticing how much he had changed, how much he had grown, how much better he was, how much more worthy he was. Laethe would crumble if Hollith wouldn't admit that he had missed his brother as sorely as he had been missed. The younger prince got to his feet and began undressing himself, easily slipping out of his shirt to reveal his newly developed physique to his brother, a blatant shove in the direction he hoped the conversation to go. After carelessly tossing the garment to the floor, Laethe's fingers slipped under the waist of his pants.
The sight of Laethe's suddenly half-naked body did not bring forth the words that the youth had hoped for. In fact, Hollith found that he was at a loss for words. He noticed the difference in his brother, the distinct lines through his stomach and in his arms, but he could not read Laethe's mind. He saw only an act of insolence before him, his brother deliberately and conclusively ignoring his attempts to clear the air. Hollith didn't know what had happened to bring the storm clouds in his sweet Laethe's eyes to life. He wasn't sure how to handle this new person that his once innocent little brother had become, but his instinct was to ignore the misbehavior. So he left the younger prince's chambers to find solitude in his own without as much as another word and readied himself for the banquet.
When he descended down to the hall, Hollith feared that whatever ill feelings had come between himself and his brother would taint the evening, but Laethe had come down to the hall shortly after and slipped into his place without so much as a word about it, and a brief meeting of their eyes showed no disdain. The only strange thing that Hollith noticed about his brother's behavior was a lack of the usual attention he was given. But how could he say what was "the usual" anymore? Perhaps the new Laethe that had bloomed in his absence was normally this way, with eyes that wandered about during the tales of glorious adventure. Perhaps he had grown out of hanging breathless on every word Hollith spoke, instead settling his attention on the various other faces surrounding, looking them over before moving to judge the next. Perhaps other things were now more interesting to Laethe than war.
Other things, or other people. The meal had ended, and the attention had shifted from Hollith. The men were splitting off into groups to hold their own conversations, and Laethe had deserted his post at Hollith's side for a place across the table where he appeared to be having quite an intimate discussion. Now that look on his brother's face was one that Hollith recognized. That look was what Hollith was used to staring into when he relayed his war stories. Laethe was looking at another man, watching him with utmost attention as though whatever words he said flowed into pictures between them. What could Algar, who Laethe had spent much of the last two years fighting alongside, who was at best an average general, who Hollith hadn't even considered asking to join him on his very important quest two years ago, possibly have to say that could be so fascinating?
Algar was inconsequential in the large scheme of Ethelfast's military. The last Hollith had heard, Laethe was hungry for glory. If the younger prince was after triumph, there were many far better choices of a mentor. The middle-aged, middle-class general must have done something to impress Laethe. Hollith was very curious to know exactly what that something was.
But before he could form the proper words to ask such a question, Hollith was pulled from his ruminating by a hearty clap on his shoulder. "Prince, time to spare for an old friend?"
It was Felowin, indeed an old friend of Hollith's. He had taken the eldest prince under his wing long ago, responsible for Hollith's instruction in combat, strategy, and riding when he was a child. It had been years since Felowin had seen battle, though; an arrow wound to his leg had left him with a tragic limp, confining him to the strategic and diplomatic arts of conquest. Even so, Felowin was deserving of a standing embrace from the prince.
"Forgive me for not coming to you sooner," Hollith beseeched the greyed man.
Felowin waved off Hollith's apologies. "You've had a lot piled on your plate from the moment that you walked through the gates."
Hollith nodded. In Felowin's presence he felt free to admit that it was a bit overwhelming. "I thought there would be time to rest, but it seems that I have returned only to have another fight on my hands." He was quick to assure his mentor with a grin that it was nothing he couldn't handle, though. "I don't complain, of course. I would get bored if things were too quiet. After all, this is what I was bred, born, and raised to do."
Felowin chuckled softly. "You are truly your father's son. It is good to have you back. You are the backbone of our forces. Without you, we were vulnerable."
Hollith frowned slightly. "What do you mean? My brother said that our men claimed an easy victory without me."
"Our defenses claimed victory," Felowin said. "And it did not come easily. If our forces had taken to the battlefield outside of the city, they would have been scattered at the slightest breeze. Without you our army is but wildly flailing limbs with no head to guide them."
"Why do you say this?" Hollith questioned Felowin, his brow furrowed. "What happened?"
Felowin did not answer immediately, and Hollith could tell by his expression that he was searching for the right words. The old man sipped his ale to wet his throat. When he had sufficiently savored the beverage, he finally came out with an answer, though one a bit more cryptic than Hollith had hoped for. "Your father is old and your brother is young."
The prince took his turn to drink. He was almost sure that he knew what Felowin meant, but he wished that the old man would speak plainly and tell him who it was that seemed to have an eye on his crown. "Is it safe for my brother here?" Of all the things Hollith could have asked Felowin, that was the only question that he really needed an answer to.
A small laugh passed through Felowin's lips. "Your brother is safer here than you are, Hollith."
The amusement Felowin showed at his worry awakened suspicion within Hollith. His eyes drifted from the crow's feet that showed when Felowin smiled and found the freshly ripened face of his brother across the way. Laethe's lips were warbling a song that provoked a grin from Algar. Hollith couldn't read what he was saying; the way his lips danced about like fluttering wings disguised their true purpose. They were like a butterfly, floating about playfully and aimlessly rather than taking a straight path to the destination. But his eyes spoke to Hollith. He must have felt his brother's gaze, because Laethe turned his head to catch Hollith watching. With a glance Laethe revealed that all was not well between the two of them.
There was a smile across his lips that starkly contrasted the anger in his eyes as Laethe got to his feet and made his way back to his brother's side.
"Brother, I am retiring for the evening," he announced. "I've come to bid you good night."
"The first night you've seen me in two years and you decide to turn in early?" Hollith asked.
The question Laethe posed in response was meant not to be answered, but to prove a point. "Will you not be here tomorrow morning?"
Laethe's lack of concern for missing out on time with his brother pierced Hollith in the same way that his own words had done to Laethe previously that day. But he was blind to the fact that his brother was mirroring his own behavior to punish him. He did not know what to attribute the distance Laethe was establishing to.
"Good night, then, Laethe. Sleep well." If Laethe was going to be cold, then Hollith would return the gesture.
But Laethe would not allow it. He had become well-versed in warfare over the past two years. "You won't stand for me?" he asked.
And when Hollith stood, Laethe wrapped his arms around him and dropped his head in his newly claimed spot on Hollith's shoulder. What could Hollith do but embrace his brother in return? It was not in him to intentionally hurt his dear little brother, no matter how stubbornly he thought he was set on it. "Rest easily," he murmured into Laethe's ear.
Laethe could not contain the small grin that crossed his lips, so he hid for a moment among the locks that had been twisted and teased into Hollith's wheat-colored hair. It delighted him to have his brother's attention, even if he had to keep a knife to his throat to hold it. He wanted to linger there, but he knew for himself how distance worsened the ache, so Laethe extricated himself from their embrace and left the hall with only a short glance over his shoulder.
Hollith watched his brother go, and met his eyes when he turned to look back. However, Laethe's gaze drifted after a moment, finding something else before he turned his head to the door once more. Trying to follow the path of his brother's eyes proved unsuccessful for Hollith; the glance was too fleeting. The entirety of the banquet lie behind him, anything or anyone in the hall a guess as good as the next.
"Felowin, my brother has changed," Hollith said, his hand rising to stroke the short, coarse beard on his chin, which grew in golden brown a shade darker than his hair.
"People tend to do that," Felowin replied. "A lot of growing up happened while you were absent."
"He is cold toward me. But I cannot apologize for leaving him here. It would be a lie to say that I was sorry for that. If he had truly grown up, he would understand that."
"I have not seen any coldness from him."
"You are not close enough to feel it," Hollith explained. "The boy I left here never would have left my side, even for a moment during this affair. Yet he hardly spoke to me, instead finding company with Algar. Algar, Felowin. How has that lackluster, nondescript nobody drawn my brother's attention?"
"Laethe is as capricious as a bumblebee in a field of wildflowers. My advice would be not to trouble yourself with this, Hollith." Felowin's words sounded more warning than comforting. "You have many other things to think about."
That analogy did not sit well with Hollith. He could not heed Felowin's advice. Not right now. Right now he had the time and the freedom to dwell on his brother, so he would use it. "My brother is not fickle, Felowin. He has always had but one dream in his life, and that dream was to go to war with me. He is obsessive and single-minded. His ambitions possess him. Why does he no longer have interest in me and my battles? Did something happen to him to sour his taste for fighting?" If Laethe was no longer interested in war, how could Hollith, who was nothing more than an embodiment of battle, continue to be relevant to the young prince? That would explain everything: Laethe's condemnation of his suggestion to go after their attackers, his disinterest in war tales, his sudden longing for the company of a man who rarely saw battle…
Felowin shook his head with regret. "Hollith, I do not wish to discuss this with you. Open your eyes and see for yourself what has changed about your brother. Look what he has become. Merely a glance from him can light a fire in the blood of a man of the right persuasion. You have long known that Laethe prefers the company of men, and when he is surrounded by a multitude at his every beck and call, at his volatile age, why would he care for the affairs of his father and brother?"
For a time, Hollith said nothing. All he could do was stare down into his ale, his distorted amber semblance looking back at him. None of the facts had escaped him. He knew that his brother preferred the lines of a man's body to the curves of a woman's. And the generous gifts that time had bestowed upon Laethe were not invisible to the older prince. But he was not able to piece all of his knowledge together properly until Felowin laid everything out for him.
"I see…" Hollith murmured, raising his mug to his lips.
"As I said," Felowin began, "It is nothing you should waste your time troubling over. You have done nothing to distance him; rather his nature has forced the two of you apart."
It was not hearing of his brother's lasciviousness that bothered Hollith as much as the idea that tonight's events, Laethe's disinterest namely, would probably be the norm. He tried not to think about it, speaking no more of the younger prince and joining a circle of his fellow warriors to listen to some stories and discussion. But somehow he could not stop himself from seeing images in his mind that disturbed him so greatly that he could find nothing to speak of and nothing to listen to that would distract him. The idea of Laethe and Algar provoked nausea to roil in Hollith's stomach.
And what of all the other names that Laethe had mentioned earlier that day? The warriors he had claimed "took care of him" and "taught him." One of whom was speaking this very moment. Hollith was looking right at Crasto. His eyes drifted about the king's hall as he tried to recall the men his brother had named. Blaise's name had also come up, for sure. But had Laethe mentioned Soldin? Or Pallock? What about Bron? Suddenly, everyone in the hall was suspect.
Suspect? Of what? What any of them, Laethe included, did in the hours of the night was not any concern of Hollith's. It was a waste of energy to even bother with such gossip. Felowin was right; Hollith had far more important things to worry about. He had his own business. The fact that there no longer seemed to be any sign of Algar anywhere in the king's hall did not even cause Hollith to miss a beat. The older prince decided to dedicate his thoughts to enjoying himself tonight, as tomorrow would bring with it serious responsibilities to see to.
With the help of plenty to drink, Laethe didn't cross Hollith's mind again until the very early hours of the following morning when he slowly trudged past his brother's chamber doors on the way to his own room. The thick wood planks of the doors beckoned to Hollith, inviting him to knock, or perhaps press his ear to them in hopes of catching a whisper of what might have been going on behind them. But he did not accept that invitation, instead barricading himself behind his own doors and then burrowing into the warm embrace of the bed that he had missed for two long years. Everything else may have changed, but the comfort of his mattress and his blankets was exactly as welcoming as he remembered.
For the remaining hours until sunrise, Hollith slept soundly, dreamlessly, peacefully. He might have continued sleeping even after the sun was up, if not for a little bit of help waking up. Something disturbed his bed, bouncing him ever so slightly, just enough to bump him from his slumber. He heaved a sigh and then cracked an eyelid to see if it was who he only half-expected. It would have been typical of old Laethe to bound into his room and bounce him awake, but Hollith didn't know what was typical of new Laethe.
Illuminated by the shred of sun that slipped through a slit in the curtains was a sliver of the young prince's face. A strip of his hair shone gold, and his skin glowed bronze, and his eyes sparkled the color of mountains on a distant horizon. And he was smiling at Hollith, a grin that would have been mischievous on a child, but on Laethe's adolescent face was coquettish. He lie there, on his side face to face with his brother, his arm under his head as a pillow, and Hollith couldn't help but allow his own lips a smile.
"How long has the sun been up?" Hollith asked, noticing that Laethe was already dressed.
"Oh, only a few hours," Laethe responded, his lack of concern evident by the soft yawn punctuating his answer.
Hollith leapt out of bed as though it had suddenly turned to hot coals. "A few hours? Why didn't you wake me earlier?"
He was frantically floundering about in search for some clothes when the sound of Laethe's laughter, soft like a warm summer breeze through reeds, reached his ears. The shirt he had picked up fell from his hands as he marched to the window and drew the curtain aside to see that the sun had only just fully appeared over the edge of the earth. A low hum of his own laughter vibrated within him as he turned back to eye his impish little brother, who seemed to have made himself quite comfortable over there on the bed.
Laethe was hugging one of the cushions to his chest so that it covered all of his face but his eyes. He could only hope that it would muffle the thundering beats of his heart, agitated so by the glorious vision before him. Against the backdrop of the sun, Hollith cut a striking figure, the naked brawn of his battle-hardened arms, chest, and abdominals defined so clearly in the light. No one could compare to Hollith. He was the only one with strength enough to command the roaring flames and tumultuous winds of Laethe's heart.
"Well, that's one way to get me out of bed," Hollith said, still smiling as he moved from the window and pulled his top over his head.
"That was not my intention," Laethe replied, lifting his chin over the edge of the pillow he still clutched to make his words clear. "I thought we might enjoy a bit of the morning together here."
Hollith had never had the luxury of time to waste. He was heir to the throne; there was always some important matter that needed his attention. "A moment of childish amusement is good for my health, I suppose. But we've had our fun and now we must act as dutiful princes."
Childish. Laethe's eyes iced over at the word. He tossed aside Hollith's pillow and got to his feet. "I already served my time as a dutiful prince while you were cavorting about the countryside, brother. Now that you're back, I hereby surrender all of the prince's responsibilities to you."
Hollith's eyes snapped up, attempting to pin down Laethe's, but failed. He was already heading for the door. So, they were at odds again, the younger prince turning treacherous in the blink of an eye. Capricious, just as Felowin had said. Capricious, like the weather or the sea or the tide of a battle. Hollith was not afraid of any of those things, and he was never one to leave a fight unfinished.
"Cavorting?" he spat the word as though it was bitterness on his tongue as he hurried after Laethe. "Surely you can't be so ignorant as to think that I was away for my own pleasure the past two years." His heavy hand came down upon his brother's shoulder, and this time he was ready for Laethe's attempt to shrug him off. He coiled his fingers around Laethe's upper arm.
At having Hollith's fingers digging into his muscle, a wince escaped Laethe. He tried to yank his arm away, but he knew that Hollith was stronger than he was even despite his growth. Being unable to escape heightened the pace of his heart and heated his blood. He was spun by a violent jerk on his arm, and found himself face to face with his brother. All Laethe could do was stoke the flames that Hollith had sparked.
"I am anything but ignorant now. Your absence lifted the blindfold you kept over my eyes all those years. You are not content without battle. Your thirst for violence is so great that if it doesn't come to you, you will go and seek it out, Hollith. You call it conquest, I call it bloodlust. You call it duty, I call it cavorting."
Hollith had never raised his hand to his brother. The notion had never, until that moment, crossed his mind. But the smug defiance in Laethe's eyes taunted the back of his hand, daring it to strike his smooth jaw and knock such treason from his lips. All that kept Hollith from obliging his eager arm was the sickening thought of proving his brother's venomous words true. For the sake of his own character, he showed Laethe mercy, staying his hand and releasing his vicelike grip.
"I am happy to accept once again the responsibilities that I so selfishly laid upon you, Laethe. Go and do as you please with yourself; you are relieved of any duties," Hollith said evenly, before brushing past his brother and disappearing into the corridor.
Who was this man? Who was this pathetic excuse for a man who surrendered and ran away at the slightest sign of a fight from Laethe? It was not Hollith. Hollith was a warrior who rose above any contest and struck it down, forcing anyone who dare challenge him into submission. Laethe rose up in rebellion only so that Hollith would come down upon him and tame the fire that threatened to burn him from the inside out. But all Hollith had done was disappoint Laethe, retreating and surrendering more fuel for the flames. What did he have to do to draw his brother out to battle? Was he too unimportant, too insignificant in Hollith's eyes to warrant action? Did he need to do more damage to be considered worthy of Hollith's attention? With storm clouds rolling in his eyes, Laethe turned on his heel to follow his brother's lead and exit the chambers, taking his own direction down the stairs and out of the castle.
Hollith's path would eventually lead him to the king's study, but he took his time getting there so that he could present himself to his father without thoughts of his mutinous brother clouding his mind. He did not want to even mention Laethe's insolence to their father; he would handle it on his own. He wasn't sure how, though. This behavior from Laethe was new to Hollith, and recent events had demonstrated the frightening truth: Hollith was powerless against his brother. There existed no anger ferocious enough to compel Hollith to fight his dear Laethe, not with words, and not with weapons. He could never knowingly hurt his brother, even if a good lashing would benefit him.
Laethe, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to hurt his brother. He wanted to burn Hollith, to spur him, to slap him into action. But he was having trouble figuring out just how to do such a thing. Even the sharpest words had no effect against Hollith's thick defenses. Clearly, Laethe needed better weapons to lay siege to this fortress. A huff of frustration passed through his lips as he yanked his throwing axe from the standing target. He had found himself out at the training grounds, hurling axes over and over with deadly accuracy, hoping that the cuts in the wood would somehow satisfy him. Unfortunately, his blood was still whirling and rushing, no matter how many imaginary enemies perished from axes embedded in their skulls.
An unexpected greeting caused Laethe to jump in his skin. He had thought he was alone. But perhaps company wouldn't be such a bad thing right now. The prince turned and found the familiar face to go along with the voice that he recognized as Crasto's. A nobleman of the same age as Hollith who had been quite nasty to Laethe when they were younger. How things had changed since they were children, though. It was the sweetest revenge Laethe could have asked for, to have grown into an object of desire. He was the one with all the power, now.
"Crasto," he regarded the other man curtly. They all had their kinks. Algar liked it when Laethe played wide-eyed and innocent, Crasto craved a chase. Laethe had learned a lot in his brother's absence.
"Are you showing off?" Crasto asked slyly.
Laethe slammed the axe blade into the post of the fence that separated the range from the sparring ring and then lifted himself to perch upon the beam. "Why would I bother showing off for you?"
Crasto didn't have a good answer for that, so he changed the subject. "Can I help you release some of that energy you seem to have pent up?"
He was talking about sex. But they both knew it wouldn't be that easy. What fun was there in skipping the foreplay?
"I suppose you may try." Laethe swung his legs over the fence and then touched down on the other side of it in a single fluid, graceful movement.
Crasto watched him disappear into the small shed that housed weapons and other training equipment with a small smirk, before snapping out of his momentary enchantment and hopping the short fence to hurry after the prince. He was about to enter the stuffy little shack when Laethe reappeared and pushed a wooden sparring sword into his gut and shoved him backward into the dirt arena. So it was this kind of day.
Except, this was different than any of Crasto's encounters with Laethe. Usually there was a hint of resentment, aged to perfection by years of torment, that spiced up their flirting. On a normal day, Laethe would toy with Crasto, perhaps play the victim a bit, let him win a few rounds, soften his blows, and then claim victory in a gentle, yet still degrading, manner. But today, Laethe was wild with rage. He did not pull his punches or save Crasto's pride. He mercilessly humiliated the other man, knocking his sword away and knocking him to the ground again and again, and then demanding that he get back on his feet.
"You aren't even trying," Laethe said down to his opponent who found himself on his back in the dirt for the umpteenth time. "I've grown weary of this." He lifted his sword to rest it across his shoulders and then made an about-face to head back toward the equipment shed.
Just in time, because Crasto wasn't sure how much more of this abuse he could take. He had better be richly rewarded for all his efforts. After retrieving his own weapon from its resting place a short distance away, Crasto glanced about to make sure no one would see him chase Laethe into the shed. It wasn't much of a secret, but he didn't want any interruptions.
Though the training ground was fairly deserted, there was at least one witness to the beating Crasto had taken, and the eagerness with which he had followed Laethe. From the window in the king's study, Hollith had seen everything. At first, he had smirked to himself at the way his little brother was demoralizing poor Crasto. But as the moments passed by without the two emerging from the equipment shed, Hollith's face grew dark and his fingernails scratched at the stone windowsill.
"I am ready to gather the generals for council. Send for them, and your brother. They are to report to the war hall immediately," the king said, oblivious that his son had hardly been listening to him for the past few minutes.
"Yes, Father," Hollith nodded, wasting no time setting out. He might have argued for leaving Laethe out of the council, had he not been so relieved at having an excuse to go and break up whatever rendezvous was going on down at the training grounds. He didn't even stop to send out servants to summon the other generals on the council. It wasn't until Hollith was about to round the corner of the small shack that he came to a halt, taking a moment to decide just how he wanted to go about his intrusion. The hammering of his heart wasn't quite loud enough to drown out the sound of his brother's voice seeping through the cracks between the boards of the rickety door.
"Quite frankly, Crasto, your dismal performance out there has left me quite uninspired," Laethe said, sounding bored.
Crasto's voice responded, and it made Hollith cringe. "I'm sure there's something I can do to excite you…"
"Yes, there is something," Laethe agreed after a moment's pause. Hollith could hear the coy grin on his brother's face. "It always stirs me to be treated like a prince. The sight of a man on his knees before me, and the sound of him groveling and begging never fail."
Laethe was cruel to use his beauty that way. Was that what he wanted Hollith to do for him? To back down and bend to his will? Hollith had thought the best course of action to take against his brother's rebellion was to ignore it, to provide it no fuel so that it would eventually burn out, but what if his disregard was coming across as submissiveness? That wouldn't do. He couldn't have Laethe growing into a tyrant. Hollith wrestled with the notion of subjecting himself to Laethe's dominance, momentarily forgetting that he wasn't the one facing his brother until he heard the sounds of muffled movement.
"Your Highness, please…"
"Surely you can do better than that, Crasto."
Crasto cleared his throat of any pride he may have had left. "Your Highness, I beg of you, take pity on your wretched servant and grant me the privilege of touching you."
"Touching me? Is that all you want to do? That hardly sounds enjoyable."
"No, Your Highness, I wish to—"
Hollith wasn't going to wait around and find out what sinful things Crasto wanted to do to his brother. He reached out and flung open the door before any desires could be professed, flooding the small room with sunlight that he hoped would burn away the lust hanging in the air. The rays illuminated his childhood friend on his knees, reaching up to hold the hem of Laethe's top in his hands, and his brother posed akimbo. Crasto's features twisted to display the horror he felt at being caught this way by Hollith, of all people.
"Your Highness," Crasto stammered, this time truly groveling as he jumped to his feet. "I…this isn't what—"
"Laethe, Father has requested you join the council for a meeting in the war hall immediately."
The growl in Hollith's voice as he spoke over Crasto's bumbling excuses brought a slight grin to Laethe's lips. "I will walk there with you."
Capricious, indeed. One moment Laethe was accusing Hollith of selfishness and bloodlust, and the next he was back at his brother's side, helping him dispatch messengers to the generals. He couldn't help but wonder when Laethe would turn on him again. He didn't want to worry about that; he wished they could go back to being twins in heart and soul. But were those days gone forever? Had Hollith permanently severed their bond by leaving Laethe alone for so long?
"When I was a child, I always thought Crasto was indomitable. I thought that way of most of your friends, that you were all lofty war-gods who would always remain bigger and stronger than I," Laethe said after Hollith dismissed the messengers to go fetch the generals. "For some reason, I seemed to forget that I would grow up, too. But here I am now, and I've long surpassed the mentors and bullies of my childhood. Now, everyone in this place is at my command."
"Certainly not everyone," Hollith replied. Was that what had happened to his brother? He had outgrown the abilities of others, and thus outgrown any respect for them? Perhaps Hollith should humble him, remind him that there would always be someone stronger looming over him.
It annoyed Laethe that his brother would not acknowledge his growth even when he placed it on display. But the response that Hollith gave, the reminder that he was still that same proud warrior that Laethe loved, was enough to placate his temper. "No? You have someone in mind who won't crumble before the mighty Prince Laethe of Wesfeld?" the younger brother smirked.
"My tender, delicate Dove," Hollith laughed softly, using the nickname that their mother had given Laethe when he was a child, which had become scarcely of use since her passing three years ago. "You don't get to call yourself mighty until it has been spoken by the mouth of either your enemy or your superiors."
"Then what shall I call myself, oh fearsome Beast of Ethelfast?" Laethe wondered. More than a superior, Laethe would call Hollith his enemy, at the moment.
The wind or the tide, Hollith might have dubbed Laethe, if he had the intention of bestowing a title upon the youth. But he was not going to give his brother that power. "I will call you the Prince of Doves, until I am given reason to do otherwise."
No anger could possess Laethe's heart over Hollith's refusal to commend him when it was wrapped in the warm blanket of sound of his childhood nickname being spoken with such gentle fondness. Perhaps Laethe only needed to give him time to get used to the idea that his kid brother was no longer a child. Perhaps he would come around if only Laethe would be patient. For now, Laethe could be patient, satisfied to know that his brother still cared for him. But these days, contentment was fleeting, and Laethe couldn't say how long this calm would last.
A/N: Do I even need to say it? Send me a review letting me know what's going on in your brain now that you've finished the first chapter. Questions, comments, concerns all welcome. If you just wanna say hey and ask me how my dog is doing (actually I have two now), that's cool too. I'm not here to be all by my lonesome. If I wanted to do that, I'd just keep my stories to myself and not post them haha. Much love.