Once upon a time, before you or I, and even before the world as we know it, a handsome young king ruled over a great and peaceful kingdom. The king’s name was Andean; his kingdom, Wintan-ceastre. This peace, however, was new and hard-fought.
Generations before, in the time of his ancestors, Wintan-ceastre was a bleak and gray place. The suffering of its citizens hung like a great dark cloud above the land.
Despite the wide and coursing river that ribboned through it, the people had little in the way of trade to sustain them. All surrounding kingdoms knew better than to moor their boats in Wintan-ceastre, lest their purse or throat be cut. Worse still, the river was brown, brackish and dirty. Many toiled with little food and less clean water. And what food could be coaxed from the muddy land would likely find its way to the larder of the fearsome King Azazel.
There are many stories from the Dark Times. Some say they were stories alone- the king’s very real evil embellished upon by bards and balladeers. Others swear they heard the truth of it all at their grandfathers’ feet. If tales of those days are to be believed, the king was in league with dark forces, and had eyes as yellow as a late-summer apple. It was said that his knights had coal-black eyes, and could not be killed by sword or spear. Some of these black-eyed horrors were strong enough to toss a grown man like a stone. Others could break necks with the snap of a finger. Some could even steal a man’s face and walk around wearing his skin.
What never wavered in the stories, however, was the bravery of their young hero, Arturus the Carter. How good; how strong, handsome, and clever the young upstart was.
In one story, Arturus was visited by a good witch. In his eyes she saw his true purpose, and gifted him a magical dagger- the only means of harming or killing the black-eyed men. Another story told of Arturus drowning one of Azazel’s generals in a barrel of river water, and that the salt of it burned the skin from the man’s face like lye. Still another says that a spirit came and pinned King Azazel in place while Arturus ran him through with the blade. Each of Arturus’ deeds seemed more fantastical than the last.
Whatever the truth of it, two things were certain: First, that Arturus’ rebellion brought down the tyrant king. Arturus’ symbol—a simple carter’s mark of spokes on a wheel—became a five-pointed star in his earned grandeur. It was this he wore on his shield when he fought. It was this symbol that became a badge of the rebellion. It was this that was etched into his crown.
Second, that it was Arturus who discovered the great salt deposits that, in time, became the kingdom’s stock in trade. Merchants came with goods and new spices in exchange for salt; foreigners of every shade brought with them their exotic languages and new ideas. With all of it came great prosperity- keen minds and full bellies for all its people. Peace and plenty, with no more heard of black-eyed men or dark magic.
It was as if the whole world was night until Arturus brought them the day. The symbol of the kingdom became a sun, crossed with Arturus’ star.
Even at his death, no rain fell upon the kingdom. Arturus’ son was as good and beloved as he. So was his son, and his son, and so on until King Jon’s eldest, Andean, was crowned at the age of sixteen.
There was little doubt Andean would be just as good and beloved as his predecessors. Despite some measure of tragedy—the death of Queen Mayre when he was only a boy, his father’s death leaving him charge of his younger brother Samworth while in his own tender years— he was a fine king, and of good disposition. He loved good beer, the company of frisky women and stouthearted men, and a hearty song. He loved to ride and to hunt. And no one who had ever seen his face could say that he was not handsome, with his moss-green eyes, his pouting lips, and his fine features. All agreed he was as good as a king could be.
It was in Andean’s 29th year that the kingdom was to celebrate two centuries of peace and plenty.
It is here that this story begins.
All Dean wanted to do was ride.
For weeks now, no soul in the palace could spare a single word non-germane to the celebration. Worse still, from the moment he stepped out of his bedchamber in the morning until he retired at night, the king couldn’t find a solitary moment for himself.
Today would be no different, it seemed, for as soon as he opened his chamber door he saw the faces of his most trusted servants. To his right was the towering bulk of Benedick, his most loyal guard, decked in boiled leather despite the June warmth and ready to play his part as the king’s shadow. To Dean’s left was his senechal, Tran; she stood only collarbone-high to the king, but could glare down a tiger with only a tight smile. She wore that smile now, along with a slim, simple cobalt gown.
“Your majesty,” she said with the tiniest of bows. She rose her right arm, bidding him towards his first duty of the day.
Dean did as he was told, with Benedick walking close behind.
“Ellen says she’s had no word from you concerning your journey from the capital down to Wonsport in your progress. Tomorrow is her market day and she must be informed of what to buy.” She arched a dark eyebrow. “You’ll have a half-dozen companions by journey’s end, highness, and they will need more than salt pork and eggs.”
Dean scowled. “I don’t know. Carrots? Apples?”
“They’re not horses, sire.”
“And I can’t live on food for rabbits,” he snipped. “Last progress Ellen sent the cooks along with sacks and sacks of vegetables. She packed no dried beef, hardly any good cheese… Do you know she had me eating porridge every single morning that we camped? Tried to pass off some crushed-almond water as ‘almond milk’ for that porridge too.”
Tran rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you endured the days from feast to feast admirably, sire.”
“Almonds, Tran. You can’t milk an almond. She even tried to feed me some of that chickpea muck that Samworth is so fond of. Lucky that Duke Victor was there to eat it or it would have gone to waste entirely.”
“So you would have no vegetables at all?”
“Some carrots for Babe,” Dean ribbed at her. “Benny, what do you say?”
“There ought to be potatoes and onions in the wagon, if possible,” he offered in his bastard-Gallic drawl, “in case we have to stew a rabbit on the way.”
“There!” Dean barked happily. “There’s your rabbit food, Tran.”
“Fine. Have Ellen pack more of that bean slop,” Dean grunted, “and some of that stinking goat’s cheese that Lady Mills is so fond of with her eggs. We can buy more vegetables as needed in town. Just bring whitebread flour and salt pork so I can have a decent breakfast.”
“Of course,” she sighed, already disheartened.
“Might we have some strawberries,” Benny entreated, “if they’re ripe?”
Dean glared daggers at him. He wasn’t about to deny him the request, but that he dared to bring up fruit now, after Tran had forfeit, personally offended him.
“Fine,” Dean puffed, “and ripe strawberries for Benedick.”
“Very good, sire,” Tran said, with the smallest of triumphant smiles. “Now, onto the royal barge...”
“What about it?”
Tran bit her cheek. “For Arthur’s Night,” she gritted out. “You must pick the flowers you’d like to decorate the barge for Arthur’s Night.” Tran huffed through her nose. “I’ve shown you many, many sketches and fabric samples, your highness. Did any of them appeal to you? Any one?”
Dean waved a hand dismissively. “Pick one yourself, if it sticks in your mind. As long as there are enough pillows and furs, you can decorate the damn thing with weeds and burlap for all I care.”
“That’s your cue to cover it in petunias and primroses,” Benny smirked at Tran, “with bright pink lanterns.”
“Very funny,” Dean sniped. “You’ll be riding it too, smartass.”
Dean sighed audibly. “I don’t see the reason for all this bother. I’ve done progress twice as king—plus another as prince—and I’ve never had to plan further than being fitted for a new pair of hose.”
“Which reminds me,” Tran interjected, “Aaron needs to take your final measurements. And you still haven’t told him if you’d prefer that green velvet doublet be ready for Arthur’s Night or if you’re saving it for the ball. The draper is coming this morning, and if you’d like a cape to match…”
Benny sniggered behind him. Dean sighed again, twice as loud.
Progress in itself was nothing, but aligned with the celebration of two hundred years of the Winchester dynasty and the annual summer festival, well, then, no detail must go unconsidered.
He would leave more of this sort of thing to Samworth, who had a better head for numbers and empty pleasantries. Given the circumstances, however, handing him any more duties would be especially cruel. Having to stay behind as Dean sipped and supped with his most loyal vassals had already made Sam peevish.
“…and I think the new servants’ morale would much improved by a word, your majesty…”
Furthermore, any complaints about these duties on Dean’s part was sure to open another avenue of discussion: why he did not yet have a queen—or at the very least, a consort with a mind for letters—to take on these sorts of tasks. Someone to write the letters and make the arrangements, leaving the king to greater duties. Tran was a more than capable seneschal, but she was no substitute.
“Yes, yes- of course, Tran.”
And though Dean had never cared much for the idea of marriage —his bed was open to both sexes, and he was in no hurry to settle for either— he’d never wished for a queen until a few moons ago. The festival was all he’d heard about since the spring thaw. Any respite from it would be welcome.
Because, on top of all these cursory preparations, Dean needed to hunt. To seek out strange smells or cold spots in the forest; to investigate animal carcasses that looked far too ravaged to have been set upon by mere wolves. To make sense of the disaccording omens of ill weather and gossip amongst the townspeople. Such was the secret vigil kept by the kings of Wintan-ceastre.
A general malevolence seemed to be growing in strength around the kingdom, settling thickly in the air. Something he could feel in in his gut. (He’d dare call it a sixth sense if the very term didn’t smack of magick.) Nothing he could yet put a name or a face to—not until he could break free from his desultory duties.
Sir Robbett would arrive soon, and Dean would be able to breathe easier.
Bobby had sent word of his departure two days previous, and Singer’s Hold was a mere three days’ ride away. Unless he’d chosen Rumsfeld—the cranky, fly-bitten bay that was old even when Dean was housed there— he might well see him by lunchtime tomorrow. He would bring word from the furthest edges of Wintan-ceastre, and they could go over the Book of Kings together.
Tran came to a sudden stop. Sam had appeared in their path, casual as you please in shirt, trews, and open jerkin.
“Your royal highness,” Tran said with a small curtsy.
“Tran,” Samworth nodded, with equal formality. Then, more freely, “Benny. Dean.”
“And how does this morning find you, sire?”
Samworth smiled wanly. There was no lie to fit them all equally, so the truth would have to do. “I was on my way to the library.”
“Of course you were,” she said proudly.
“Of course you were,” Dean parroted, baiting him.
Sam’s face soured at that. “I’d wanted to do further reading on a book I just found- a history of the Animadverti.” He glanced at Dean. “It’s generations old, maybe even from the reign of the Frog King. It seems our last sanctioned witch hunt was much, much later than we first thought. It was only about a seventy-five years ago—”
As expected, Dean waved dismissively, as if the words themselves smelled foul. He was about to fully excuse Sam when Tran’s son Kevan came bounding into the hallway.
“Mother!” he called over a large wicker basket, “the florists have arrived!”
He lowered the basket—so wide and heavy that he needed both arms to carry it—and, finding himself amongst royalty, offered a tiny, perfunctory bow. Inside were sheaves and posys of every sort, meant to render the florists’ vision in miniature.
Kevan thrust out a hip. “The draper’s here too.” On his belt hung a clasped metal ring, through which strips of cloth were strung like bunting. “Or rather, his daughter is.”
Tran turned a daunting eye to the king. “I don’t suppose you’ve chosen floral arrangements for the ball either.”
“Can’t say that I have,” he replied coolly.
Tran’s lips pursed tight.
Dean relieved Kevan of the basket, and, with a single step, jabbed it against Sam’s chest until it was forced into his arms. “It looks like you won’t have to spend a day stuck in the library after all.” He turned to Tran. “I’m sure Samworth would be happy to choose flowers for the grand hall. Curtains, too.”
Sam’s face said he’d rather drink moat scum.
Dean lay a hand on his senechal’s shoulder. “Tran, I’ll leave the barge to your impeccable taste.” He glanced at his brother before giving him an amiable clap on the back. “Pick something pretty, Sammy.”
He then shouldered past the crowd, heading towards the throne room as quick as his bow legs would let him.
“Lilacs and primroses!” Benny winked, before stalking down the corridor behind Dean.
Dean didn’t wait for Benny. With even a little time made free, he could hear reports from his constables; be ready to compare notes with Bobby when he arrived. Perhaps he could even spar some—Ashe had been on him to hone his swordsmanship before taking to the open road.
Still, report as they may, all the constables in the capital wouldn’t recognize a grindylow until it was eating their children. He must break free. Must hunt. Must ride. There would be no peace in his head elsewise.
Bobby would arrive soon. He consoled himself with the thought. Bobby could keep Samworth safe during his absence.
For all its luminous beauty, Prince Samworth could only see the grand hall as a brilliant white sepulchre. All its pilasters and gilded sconces could not take the taint of early death away from it.
This had been his mother’s project- to remake Azazel’s grey and vaulted hall into a place of light and joy; a place of wine and dancing and song. It was a great expense, his father had said, and had taken more than a little assurance from their bookkeeper that the kingdom could afford such a luxury. This was the place that was supposed to entertain kings and khans and sultans. It was here that he and his brother were to court; to marry. (Once, deep in his cups, Jon let slip that Samworth’s own presentation before the gods was to be the first use of the hall. Upon sobering up, Jon dismissed this confession and never spoke of it again.)
With Mayre’s death, Jon had the grand hall bolted, all hopes for the future having withered on the vine.
Jessa had taken a liking to this room. She had seen its potential—its resplendence—even in the few stark daylight hours of winter. She had thrown open the draperies at each of the thirteen great windows, the warmth of her hand melting the frost gathered on the glass. On her knees, she had admired the patterns of fruits and flowers inlaid in the wood. She said she would be married in here if she had to polish the chandeliers herself, which made Samworth love her all the more.
For a brief minute, it seemed a place of life and light again. A lily gone dormant, only awaiting the warm breath of spring.
The hall was too soon bolted again, untouched for these four years now. And here he was supposed to open this tomb, festoon it with flowers and drape it in gaudy shrouds.
Sam didn’t know where to begin.
He unloaded his burden onto the flat top of the harpsichord, sighing at the cloud of dust that wafted from it. Four years’ worth, at least. And though Sam had duties enough, he figured he ought to have the instrument examined- assure that it was in a condition to be played.
He groaned softly to himself. If it were to be played, he would be expected to dance. Dean would be too busy searching for the bottom of his goblet or the next body to warm his bed, so Sam would have to dance for the both of them. His stomach soured at the thought.
Baron von Rosen’s daughter was still unmarried, so no doubt he’d have to give her a turn on the floor. The last time he’d partnered with her she couldn’t keep her hands off his backside—a problem she attempted to blame upon their difference in height. He managed to break free of Rebecca only to end up with another, even shorter daughter of some laird or other who doted on his ‘manly shoulders’.
That had been at Don Cesar’s wedding. Doubly droll.
With all five points of the kingdom represented, from the highest dukes to the lowest knights, maybe he would meet a young woman at this ball. A smart one, whose love for books would match his own. Noble -but not spoilt- with a quick tongue, and a good heart. And maybe, if he were lucky, she would even be be beautiful.
And maybe his head was too stuffed full of stories.
He picked up the first posy his his fingers touched and held it aloft. It was green all over, with showers of hanging leaves and a flower that looked like a droopy green horsetail. There were thistles and carrot greens and what he swore was a cabbage. The whole thing had the appearance of a withered salad more than a decoration, and he tossed it aside.
The next was a tall, rounded bouquet made of blood-red roses and deeply, darkly-red lilies accented with stiff sprigs of rosemary. Too funereal, he decided in an instant, and he put it down
Sam squinted over each new posy, trying to picture how each might look cascading over a vase or spilling from an urn. Which may be most easily knocked over by a drunken reveler? Could one be caught in a lady’s high hairstyle?
He huffed in exasperation. Thus was ludicrous. This was the job of a queen or a consort, not the prince of the realm. He should be riding beside Dean, speaking statecraft to their allies, discussing trade with their vassals! Not picking out flowers like a summer bride because Dean wasn’t inclined to do his duty.
“Ugh!” He pitched the flowers in his hand down onto the canvas with a satisfying thwack.
Surely there was something else he could do. Something that didn’t involve this place.
Let Tran decorate this tomb. She would sigh and she would frown, but it would be done, and he wouldn’t have to set eyes upon it until the ball.
He turned sharply on his heel, ready to storm away in protest, when he came to face-to-face (or, rather, chest-to-face) with a small, dark-haired woman.
“Oh!” she squeaked, stumbling backwards.
As if by instinct, Samworth swept her in close, holding her steady with one arm around her waist.
It was not until she stilled that he felt the soft crush of her breasts against him, or the feminine hands clutching at his jerkin. Only then did he look down to meet her deep umber eyes.
Sam may have gasped aloud—he certainly felt the catch of breath.
She had a slim, heart-shaped face and a wide, rosy mouth set against pale golden skin. Sam’s eyes trailed down the fall of a long chestnut braid, sweeping across one shoulder and cascading onto her scarlet bodice.
He averted his gaze immediately, meeting her eyes again.
She stared at him in open-mouthed awe, marveling at the difference of size between them; the way his large, warm hand had enveloped hers.
“My apologies,” he stammered, “I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?”
“Fine now, thank you,” she murmured. “Though,” she added with a small smile, “I wonder what those poor flowers have done to make you so angry.”
Sam grinned despite himself. “Nothing.” He shook his head. “It… It’s only this room.”
“But,” she blinked, batting her long, dark lashes, “it’s so beautiful.”
“It is.” He licked his lip. “But it brings back too many ugly memories.”
“Well, think of all the new memories you’ll make here.” She smiled plesantly. “You’re giving a ball! With music, and dancing, and wine… You may even meet a beautiful girl.”
He sighed, resisting the bait. “True as that may be, this room will be bare urns and naked windows until the flowers are decided. Then I’ve got to pick curtains to match. And all to the taste of my brother, who can’t deign to choose flowers for an event in his honor.”
Her dark eyes positively glimmered. “Well, fortunately for you, you have my expertise to draw on.”
She swept towards the piano, moving light as air.
Sam tried, and likely failed, to subtly appreciate her from behind. The girl had a delicate waist, though her behind was hidden under a full velvet skirt. The piping of it was all cloth-of-gold, with filigree of the same color in patterns on the sleeves. His heart skipped a little. Her clothes were fine enough—but who was she?
She pulled on each of the tightly-wound ribbons surrounding each nosegay, and set them upon the draped table to her right.
From one discarded posy she pulled the deep-red lilies. From another she plucked some bulbous, peach-pink roses and held them tight. The furthest bouquet had a branch of thin, fern-like leaves with small berries in hues of white and pink and red, and more green horsetail. She opened her delicate hand to clutch them all together. After all that, she tucked in slim stems of white flowers as it suited her.
She pored over it for a moment, eyeing it on the top and sides and pronouncing it acceptable. “Do you like it?” she asked sweetly from beneath her lashes. She held the improvised bouquet aloft, so that it might be imagined in its proper place in the ballroom.
Sam stuttered empty syllables before finding his tongue. “It’s…it’s quite lovely.”
“I think it’ll be a good fit for your celebration,” the girl said insightfully. “Flowers have meanings, you know.”
She smiled. The prince was all attention. “You see these?” She pointed to the green horsetail. “These are called amaranthus. They stand for immortality; for something that will never fade. And the color of these roses is expressive of gratitude. These little white flowers here are called phlox. They stand for harmony.”
“And the red lillies?”
Her smile grew wide and anguine. “Passion.”
Sam nearly swallowed his tongue.
“And the little berries?”
She giggled. “They’re pepper berries. They’re just pretty.”
Sam exhaled a breath he didn’t think he was holding, the tension now cut to ribbons.
“I’m Ruby,” she smiled, offering her free hand. “My father is Domnhall the Draper.”
“Samworth,” he said in a rush, before finding his regal manners. “Prince Samworth of Wintan-ceastre.” He took her rather lissom hand in his, lifting it so that it reached his lips—barely. Sam couldn’t help but grin over her the softness of her fingers; the lingering scent of flowers and spice.
He let her take her hand back, and paused to quickly collect himself.
“How do you know so much about flowers? As a draper’s daughter, I mean?”
“Weddings,” she said with a blush. “When you’re showing bolts of cloth for a wedding dress to a nobleman’s daughter, her maids can’t help but talk of flowers.”
“You could’ve fooled me. I’d have thought you were the florist.”
“No. Only a woman with supplied with insight and intuition.” She caressed the spathe of a lily with her finger. “I don’t think your brother wouldn’t care for orchids, or delicate blooms of any sort.”
“True enough,” Sam conceded with a grimace; he excused the buried gibe almost immediately, though. “I suppose I should consult you about the curtains as well?”
“I’m afraid I may not be impartial,” she earnestly. “Thirteen sets of curtains for these windows could feed us for a year.”
“Which do you like best, then?” He held out the iron ring. “Which color goes best with new memories?”
Ruby considered them all as if she hadn’t seen a single scrap of them before. She ran a delicate white damask between her fingers before picking out a dark cerulean fabric with a subtle sheen. “This one.”
She put both full hands together, letting Samworth see how they complimented the other. “This will make your flowers stand out,” she said smartly. “And it’ll be lovely against the white and gold. A color for the whole year ‘round.”
A warmth spread through Samworth- one that he hadn’t felt on his cheeks in years. “Yes. Yes, I think it is.”
“Well…” Ruby put the bouquet down onto the piano, still holding the ring. “Now that that’s settled, I can let my father know. I’m sure if he and I and our apprentices work on these alone for the rest of the week…”
“You won’t be cutting yourself a dress?”
“A dress? Whatever for?”
“For the ball, obviously,” Sam grinned. “It’d be a shame if you never got to see your own handiwork.”
Her entire face lit up- bright as the sun reflecting off the gilded sconces. She threw her arms around him, barely making a circle of them.
Samworth smiled to himself. To damnation with wishing. He would make his own luck. His own story.
Yeah, Domnhall the draper. I had to. HAD TO.
Ruby was thisclose to making a pun about being biased, but good taste prevailed. You’re welcome. (Because she's the draper's daughter? Fabric bias? Get it?)
…I'll show myself out.
The next morning, Dean enacted a stupidly simple plan.
Upon waking, he glanced at the clock upon his mantelpiece. Seven in the morning, it read. He might have an hour, perhaps two, before his absence was noted. He sprung from his bed with a buzzing sort of excitement he hadn’t felt in months.
With Ellen gone to market, and with her two strongest and most experienced cooks with her to help haul it back, the kitchen was all but unguarded. With so many hands full— even Benedick would be busy polishing his armor— Dean would take advantage of the rumpus by simply not calling for his breakfast.
He’d be forgotten until perhaps nine, when Gareth’s patience would be overcome by concern. The skinny chamberlain would knock at Dean’s door, and with no answer, would peer inside to find it empty. If Dean were lucky, he’d be leagues away by then.
He pulled on his lightest linen shirt, but decided against the matching breeches. (A sweat-stained backside was unbecoming, king or no.) Instead, he hopped into a double-lined woolen pair in black. He all but tore the tabs from his simplest rust-brown doublet, slipping it over his shoulders.
He tied on his hose and moved to put on his riding boots when he realized he would be better off without them. Even with the herbs and rushes strewn below his feet, the clack of the heel on the hard stones would give him away. Armed with this knowledge, he buckled his belt, and tucked his sheathed dagger into his waistband. He’d slip it into his boot once he was outside the kitchen door.
From deep within his armoire, he withdrew a black leather drawstring pouch. The hide had gone nearly silken with age, the pulls now made of hemp-rope dipped in salt. Damask lined the inside, the pattern only visible when the grey fabric was held to the light. A demon who tried to steal from the bag would find himself frozen on sight, trapped by the magick therein.
Inside were the oldest weapons in a hunter-king’s arsenal: salt, anointing oil, a flask of blessed water, a vial of dead man’s blood, a silver coin, and an iron knife. His grandfather had thought to have a chapbook of spells made, lest the fight need to be won on a magickal’s terms.
Dean had modified it to include a draught of willow bark, some rag bandages, and a small steel bar bent to the shape of the hand. (He had used the last of his flint-rock, it seemed, and duly noted that he must pick up more if he saw it.) He had also added a small sleeve of iron prods, lest he need to pick at any lock that could not be opened by royal will alone.
All this he placed into a larger, brown bag made of cloth, along with his waterskin and riding gloves. Finally, he buckled on his sword.
Phoenix was the birthright of all kings of Wintan-ceastre. She was the first sword smithed in the fires of a free kingdom, made for Arturus himself. A streak of silver ran through her core, and each layer was cooled in salted water before the shaping began anew. On her crossguard were engraved the words ‘non timbeo mala’— ‘I shall fear no evil’ in the Old Tongue.
Like most Arthurian artifacts, there was some speculation as to whether the object contained power or merely prestige. But powers or no, Phoenix was sharp enough to shave a fly at ten paces, and a well-made sword was a necessary for any king.
Dean gathered his boots, and, with a quick glance around the perimeter, slipped mostly unnoticed from his bedchamber and down the stairs.
Once his boots were on, he took advantage of the new crop of servants by making an overstated, unexpected entrance into the kitchens, and caused such bowing and scraping that a young spit-boy named Alfy nearly burned three chickens in his need to genuflect. It didn’t take more than a head held high and a few stately commands for them to bring forth some bread and cheese and cold meat, as well as the biggest apple in their barrel.
He shoved the bundle of food, save the apple, into the pack and slung it over his shoulder. (The little boy in him wanted to run away with his prize before Ellen found it missing. She had few qualms about giving a prince a rap on the hand or bottom with a wooden spoon— especially if that prince had made off with a tart or gotten his fingers into the cobbler.) He thanked them regally and sincerely, and left with his shoulders square and his back straight. It was all he could do to keep from whooping all the way to the stable.
Dean took every secret corridor known to him, and managed to pass from the kitchens to the gardens without seeing a soul. Those in the garden paid him no mind, already bent over their beans or tomatoes. He strolled through the open garden gate and along the dirt-and-gravel path to the stables.
He was pleased to note that, of the two scents most attended with horses, the scent of clean straw was the first to hit his nose. If Creaser was mucking the stalls, then Babe was likely pasturing, and likely in a agreeable mood. She didn’t care to be confined, either.
As hoped, he found her grazing behind the stable. Babe’s black coat had been brushed to shining, her tail swatting to and fro behind her. A little pang of guilt found him then: how long had it been since he’d done her grooming? Still, he was glad to see her all the same.
She had been his very own for these twelve years, after riding her mother Pala until the end of her days. It could even be said that Babe was his oldest friend. She’d heard more confessions than anyone with the ability to speak, and was more seasoned at hunting than most humans.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he grinned.
Babe raised her long neck, pricking her ears up at the sound of him. Dean clicked his tongue, bidding her come. She trotted easily to his side.
He extended a hand, and she allowed herself to be petted: her smooth, strong back, her crest and withers. She nickered softly, nudging him with her muzzle, sniffing at his pocket.
“You’re spoiled,” he chuckled as he fished out the apple. “I can’t even surprise you with a treat anymore.”
Babe chomped through the apple in two bites, chewing loudly as he petted her still. “M’sorry I haven’t taken you out in so long.” He rested his head against her shoulder, breathing in her familiar musk of hair and hay. “You up for a ride? Hmm…? C’mon.”
She dutifully followed him back into the stable, where Creaser was just setting down a wheelbarrow at the other end.
He gave the king a warm smile, displaying his three best teeth. “Out for a ride, your majesty?”
“Yes, Creaser. And maybe a quick hunt as well.” Dean plastered on an assured smile as he slipped Babe’s bridle on. “Bring back a rabbit or two for the stew pot. Just to see if I remember how.” He threw in a wink. “Help me with her saddle, would you?”
Creaser shrunk a little, but did as he was told. “Sure’n your larder is full, your grace. No good emptying half the forest so close to the festival.” He laughed weakly. “Leave something for the peoples’ pots for Arthur’s Night.”
“Rabbits will do as rabbits will do,” Dean smiled knowingly. “I’m sure the the people will never be short of them.”
Creaser cowed further, afraid of both insubordination and the mystique of the wood. “It is not wise, sir,” he said in a whisper, “to go into the forest on a new moon.”
“It’s a sunny morning, Creaser,” Dean smirked. “You should leave the stable sometime.”
“It’s true, sir!” he insisted meekly. “Men have seen things in the wood, sir. Strange things.”
Dean looked up from Babe’s saddle with sudden interest. “Such as?”
The stablehand glanced over both shoulders. “Faeries, sir. Tiny sprites, wearing nowt but a smile. Dozens of them, bright as Arthur’s lanterns and dancin’ to the music of the underworld.”
Dean suppressed his laughter so hard he nearly choked. “What else have you heard?” he asked, with admirable restraint.
Creaser’s eyes met his master’s but for a moment. “The Woman in White, sir. She walks the forest floor, weeping for her lost child. She’s as bright as day, and kneels to beg the good gods end her suffering. But they never do, and still she walks.”
“That’s all? She walks and she weeps?”
“And she keeps that what’s hers in her care, like they was her own childer,” he said with a nod. “Every last bird and bunny.”
Dean rolled his eyes, still smirking, as he mounted his horse. “Well, should I see this Woman in White,” he humored Creaser, “I’ll remind her that it is my forest, and I’ll have all the rabbits I like.”
“But, your majesty…!” Creaser pleaded once more.
“You test my patience, Creaser,” Dean said sternly. “Now hand me my pack.”
Dean hated to admit it, but once he was out in the fresh air and sunshine, he could understand the persistent festive mood that had taken hold of the palace.
The ground under Babe’s hooves was solid, and the air outside was warm and sweet. Everything was in full bloom, from the cattails at the marge of the moat, to the tall grasses along the forest path, to the cherry trees raining blossom petals with even the slightest wisp of wind.
Even the palace itself seemed brighter, the spring rains having washed it clean, and the steady sunshine blanching the gray stone to chalky white. Set against the leafy trees, with its banners gently streaming, it looked a perfect portrait.
So, of course, once free of his obligations—with the steady clop of earth under Babe's hooves and a warm breeze susurring through the forest—his thoughts turned to duty. Of both the covert kind and of the most apparent.
He was quite aware that his greatest duty as king was as yet unfulfilled. His grandfather had sired Jon by Dean's age, and Sam was well-settled in their mother's belly when their father was twenty-nine. Save for a singular cousin (and a quick cousin-marriage) some three or four generations ago, Arturus’ line had stubbornly continued from father to son since the kingdom 's own birth.
There was the story of the Magnus the Frog King, who was said to find enticement from his male companion and then hop into his queen’s bed to spend his seed. Crude as it was, he managed to sire three children that way. And King Francis, whose wife was found to be barren, had true-born children on a lesser noble; one with the same red hair and blue eyes as his queen. Having a brood-wife was still a tender subject; it was often said that the purpose of having a brood-wife was to have only one woman to disappoint in bed.
Dean shook the thoughts away. He was not so foolish as to think he might marry purely for love; but surely a fondness, or even a common bond, was not too precious to hope for.
Lady Cassandra would have made a fine queen. She was spirited, and fierce as she was beautiful. Their fathers were amenable to the match. And yet she shied away at even the hint that there was more to the natural world than the scope of the gods. She believed in them well enough, but balked at the very notion that witches or magickals were real. Any attempt to state otherwise earned him a wary glance, or questions that skirted the line of inquisition. Distrust spread like a dry rot between them, and both fathers eventually withdrew their approval.
The widowed Duchess Braeden had seemed like a fair prospect. She was patient where Cassie was wild. She had a sympathetic ear. She was utterly capable of running a household by herself. And she was fertile, as she had bore the late Duke a son. But as Dean’s endearment became obvious, so too did her sway. Politics began to encroach upon their bedroom. It wasn’t until she whispered about political appointments with her hand on his cock that he realized he’d been duped.
While Dean had all but resigned himself to his poor luck, the idea that Samworth should suffer the same fate was unthinkable. Hells, if Sam would find a suitable bride he’d gladly name a nephew as his heir. But having him sat in the library, pressed in his books like an immortelle would gain him no further prospects.
Sam had taken a shine to some lesser ladies—Zarah, spice merchant's daughter; Amelia the underlayer—yet had hardly wept when they died. Even then, Dean feared Sam's heart would always lay with Lady Jessa. They were young and much in love, and would have been a fortuitous match. She was kind and beautiful- and, if she took after her mother, likely to give him many children. She had died of fever four winters previous. Sam's eyes were never as bright after that.
It was a lonely thing, this burden. Keeping the kingdom safe. Keeping Samworth safe. Sleeping with one eye open, stashing a dagger beneath his mattress—sadly, even his lovers could be circumspect—and never being able to trust the warm caress of an early summer’s day.
Babe sniffed the air loudly; she too was on patrol. She had battled enough werewolves and black-eyed men to know their stink from a league away. So when her easy gait slowed and shortened, he abandoned all musing and took in the world before him.
He was still on the same two-cart lane, in the middle of a little glade. To his right, a field of long grass, shallow in patches from passing hungry animals. To his left, an infinite mirror of alder and poplar and ash. But ahead—dead ahead—the road grew twisted and rutted, leading into a line of tall oaks and the deep forest beyond.
Babe was sure-footed, but one wrong step on that path could fell them both. The grass seemed smooth enough, but going through through the treeline could be equally perilous, if a wolf-pit was waiting. A strong oak branch was more than supportive enough for a man or two to get the drop on them. Two men he could fight. Any more than that…
He cursed himself for being so foolish as to think he could hunt alone.
Maybe they were only bandits.
He had to turn around.
Dean closed his eyes, listening for the rustling of grass or the snapping of twigs. The wind would hide the sounds of men in trees, but nervous horses would snort and prod the underbrush. Anxious men would draw steel from a sheath and give themselves away.
He held his breath.
If there was nothing, he could simply turn her around, take off towards the palace and wait for Bobby. Like he should have in the first place, he thought.
As if in answer, an arrow buried itself in a nearby poplar. A thin rivulet of red sprung, unfocused, over the bridge of his nose.
“Son of a bitch!” he swore, digging his heels into Babe’s flank. He snapped the reins against her back and she took off at a gallop. Dean crouched low in his saddle- in case they had anything else to aim at his head.
He rode for the treeline—at least there he had a chance. He steered Babe through the tall grass, beseeching the gods for strength and speed as the sound of hoofbeats picked up behind him.
Babe jumped a row of hedge-brush, skidding a little as they hit the mossy carpet of the forest floor. The trees were spread further here; Dean began weaving her between them, swinging wide and ducking the low branches, leaning into the shifts in her weight.
A sudden punch of pain hit his shoulder; a rock, he realized, striking muscle just to the right of his spine. Another bounced off his boot- one the size of a crabapple. But the hooves had stopped their thundering.
To was discovering—to his horror—that his first instinct was right. Ambush. He was riding right into a trap.
Dean looked up to the trees for any dark shapes, anything looming amongst the greenery. Anything unnatural. A lemon-sized rock hit him in the ribs. “Oof!”
From behind him came the shout: a man in black, riding like the wind and aiming straight for him. Must have been hiding behind a tree. From even that little distance, Dean could see the black of his eyes. He was coming up to Dean’s left, wielding a nasty wooden truncheon in his fist.
The creature was hobbling him against a sword fight. Babe was still running straight and true, but wouldn’t be at an advantage for too long. Slowing would only serve to bring his skull closer to that blunt weapon. Ducking his head might mean a strike to Babe’s, and then they’d both be down.
Another stone flew past his ear with a whoosh. That meant there was at least one more of these things.
With one hand on the reins, Dean rooted around the pack, batting away his water skin and trying to pry into the arsenal. With gloves on!, he bedamned himself, but he couldn’t spare a moment to remove them.
The rumble of the earth underfoot meant that the black-eyed man drew near.
Blessed water might buy him some time. But it, like a truncheon, was a close weapon. A few stray droplets wouldn’t do the job—he had to get close for it to really burn.
Where was that gods-damned flask?
A quick glance over his shoulder saw the cursed man closing the distance between them.
In a moment of pure desperation, he seized the undeniable shape of his waterskin and bit out the cork with his teeth. He took a long swig, reciting a prayer at the back of his throat.
The black-eyed thing moved in for the killing blow.
And Dean spat. He spat for his life.
The blessed water hit the man’s skin with a hiss, and he cried out in pain. The horse jolted like it had been singed, pulling sharply to its left with a monstrous noise.
The cursed men had cursed horses. How was that even possible?
He had to tell Bobby. If he made it out alive.
“Come on, baby…” he whispered. “We’re almost out.”
Out…outpost! Surely there was an outpost somewhere! Rufus had left almost a dozen warded outposts scattered around the kingdom for this very purpose. There’d be no stable, but at least he’d be safe.
Dean swiveled his head left to see the black-eyed man charging at him again, this time at a diagonal. His heart jumped into his throat.
Speed up. Slow down. Stay. Go faster. His strategy seemed to pendulate with every beat. Babe wouldn’t be able to outrun him for long. Dean had already given her twice the workout she was used to. And there was still one more of them out there somewhere.
The black-eyed man was gaining on him.
He prayed that his girl was agile as ever.
With only a cart’s length between them, Dean pulled back hard on Babe’s reins. She ground her back heels into the dirt, kicking up a cloud and skittering on her forelegs, coming to a stop out of reach of the cursed man’s weapon.
“Good girl,” he breathed.
The dark-eyed man—now stopped himself—wheeled his horse around, anticipating Dean’s next move, ready to take up the chase anew.
The two faced each other, the king and the demon, for a long, long moment. Babe paced anxiously, putting her weight on different feet, turning her head one way and then the other. The demon’s chestnut horse did much the same, turning in small half-circles.
In the moments that followed, Dean would think of the man’s black eyes in contrast with his other, nondescript features. The surprising commonality of their horses. A determination he might respect in other circumstances.
But right then, to tarry was to gamble his life. He yanked on Babe’s reins and sent her bolting ahead into the forest unknown.
There! In the distance was a little thatched cottage, dilapidated with age and half-swallowed by the forest. Surely that had to be one of Rufus’ outposts—there was no village or town to argue otherwise.
He snapped her reins again, barreling towards the safety of the cottage. All he had to do was get inside. Then he could think. Nevermind the unknown number of assassins that might gather while he was cornered. If he could just calm down and think…
If he didn’t make it back alive, Bobby would kill him.
Babe slowed her course despite Dean’s urging. It was then that he looked down to find that the worn path gave way to loose, fine silt, dotted with tumbled rock. A shallow creek ribboned before them, wide as a road and deep as Babe’s hocks.
Yes! This must be an outpost! Running water to ward away vampires, nix, angry ghosts… Bless Rufus’ departed soul!
Babe trotted through the stream, taking her care on the rocky creek bed. Dean merely tried to keep his boots away from the water. He breathed in his relief, the knot in his chest unfurling. With a final shake of her tail, she left the stream and kept at her run.
The slowing of hooves behind him meant that the cursed man’s horse must have found the same stream. But instead of the wet slosh of legs through water, there was a screech of pain that echoed through the trees—the combined agony of man and beast.
The horse was flailing, finding no footing on the stones and no relief from the burning water. The man was faring no better, trapped under the weight of the horse, the skin peeling from his face a layer at a time.
“Ha!” he cried out in his deliverance. Thank the gods!
Now to reach the outpost… there must be a book there of some sort. Maybe enough to make a charm or a hex bag to see him through the forest and back—
Babe reared suddenly, letting out a piercing shriek.
Dean held tight to her as best he could, keeping his knees dug into her barrel even as she stood nearly straight up. But when she started to buck, there was nothing that could be done. Nothing to get a steady hold on. He couldn’t even keep a hand on the pommel of his saddle. Damn gloves.
He fell to the earth with a thud that knocked the breath out of him. Pain bloomed from the back of his skull; with it came a creeping darkness at the periphery of his vision.
An arrow, embedded deep in her right thigh. That’s what did it.
He’d forgotten the other man. Or men.
Babe towered above him, striking out and whinnying in pain. Her hooves were dangerously close. If she brought one down on his head it would all be over. Then again, if the cursed men found him, having Babe crush his skull like an egg might be considered a kindness.
The forest grew dim around the edges. It was as if he were sinking; being swallowed by the earth. Riding backwards through a tunnel. The world became only green light and spare glints of sun. No shape, no depth.
‘Keep Samworth safe.’ His father’s last words echoed in his ears. He had failed as an elder brother. He had failed as a king.
Then the world went black.
Dean awoke with a start. He was very surprised to find himself alive. His eyes darted quickly about, searching for signs of danger. Had he been captured? If someone had caught up to him after that spectacular fall, he must have been captured. But he found no signs of imprisonment. Instead, he found himself in the small, worn cottage, in what he could only describe as a nest.
There was no other word for it, really: a heap of straw on the floor, interwoven with a few kindling branches and some long, stiff plumes of white and grey. He lay in a groove in the middle —soft underneath him— that felt as light and downy as his own feather mattress, and was laid under a patchwork quilt.
He wiggled his toes and found them working as they should. Likewise his legs, as he turned onto his back to face the ceiling. No protests came from there either, despite the rock. (He knew he’d be sporting a nasty bruise from that one.) His neck was a little stiff, but no more than could be expected from sleeping on straw.
He was altogether whole and unharmed, which was more than he could say for this place.
The little house was horribly neglected- the thatch roof was thin enough that little slivers of light shone through it. Any large holes, though, had been patched— as if by nature itself—with a thick growth of ivy.
Dean propped himself up to sit—still no aches there—and then rose to standing. He wobbled a little bit, the world not quite straight on its axis.
He was able to stumble a full three steps towards a shuttered window before throwing it open and being sick over the sill. It was dry and bilious for lack of breakfast, and he rued his ‘simple’ plan still more.
After finding the strength and stomach to raise his head, he was astonished to see Babe grazing on tall grass a few yards away.
Surely he must have dreamt it all. Or was dreaming now. But the chase through the forest, with arrows scraping his nose? The one he was sure had pierced Babe’s rump? No, he couldn’t have; not with the way she had reared. And the lingering tenderness of his head- there was no dreaming that.
From the open window he heard a faint sound…humming. No tune he’d ever heard. But it was low and lilting; the way he imagined the song of a siren must be. His eyes slipped closed, and his hunting instincts took hold then. He listened for the source of it
To his surprise, it was coming from the next room.
Slowly, silently, Dean bent to reach for the dagger in his boot. It made no sound as it was pulled from its leather sheath. He slipped it in his sleeve, at the ready.
It was then that he noted the outline of of bare human feet—mens’ feet, Dean deduced, if their size was anything to go by— imprinted on the thick carpet of moss that seemed to cushion the whole of this oaken forest.
They led beyond the thin plank of a door, and into the rest of the cottage.
He peered out of the door with caution, observing the room. The ivy wound its way along the rafters and the clay plaster walls, with sprouts of bright blue flowers here and there. A stone hearth had become overgrown with mosses and lichen. The stout black cookpot boiled over with curlicued vines and fat purple grapes.
The door squeaked on its stiff hinges and the humming went silent.
Dean held his breath for a few tense heartbeats, feeling the throb of them at his temple, before the humming resumed again.
He ventured to peek further. There, upon a beaten wooden table, was his sword. Beside it was his hunting kit, his water-skin and his pack, the latter two gone empty. His provisions may have been sacked, but his sword was left unguarded. He might be able to take it, fight his captor, then mount Babe and flee.
Dean opened the door quite cautiously, ready to spring at any moment. The door betrayed him, letting out a squeal of alarm.
The ruckus happened so fast that Dean did not comprehend it all until his dagger was in hand, blade aimed at his abductor’s throat.
He had pounced from the bedroom and grabbed his sword while the other man ducked beneath the table. Dean hurtled onto the tabletop with one hand, cornering him.
The only exit was the front door, to the right of the fireplace. Dean had him pinned already. In order to pass, he’d have to come out from underneath. He may not have time for hide and seek; there could be more of them coming.
Dean jammed his sword between the slats of the table, trying to eject the man out. The man must have been quick—three violent thrusts of the blade and not so much as a peep from below.
The king made to draw the blade back when it lodged itself in the wood— the disadvantage of a good, sharp sword. He pulled with almost enough force to dislodge his shoulder, but met nothing but resistance as the smooth blade sawed deeper into the timber.
The man rolled out from underneath the table on Dean’s right. Dean caught this and unsheathed the dagger in his sleeve.
He jumped from the table and collided with the fleeing man’s form, slamming him against the plaster wall so fiercely that the whole house shook. Both of them fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs, but it was Dean who came out on top. He placed the sharp edge of the blade against a long, tanned neck.
By the gods, he was beautiful.
He was Dean’s age or a little older, with a crop of messy, ink-black hair. His eyes were the color of sea storms, and he had the widest, pinkest lips he’d ever seen on a man.
Dean realized how quickly he was breathing, not only from fright and surprise, but from the sheer amazement at his comeliness.
From his free, hidden hand, the man offered the last chunk of his bread, brandishing it like a shield.
“Take it!” He whimpered. “Take it! It wasn’t mine to have!”
Dean was taken aback. It took a few moments before he could absorb his words. He still cowered like a trapped animal. He thought Dean was after his bread. His bread.
The man looked up at him imploringly; silently begging for mercy.
Dean found his voice then. “No, no- the bread is yours. …Stand.”
He quickly—gracefully—found his feet.
Drawn to standing, Dean was able to get an eyeful of him. He was a long, lean yearling of a man—slim but densely built, and nearly as tall as Dean himself. As straight a back as he’d ever seen on a peasant, and muscled arms and thighs that strained at the fabric of his clothes.
Dean decided then and there that he would have him.
His voice found its royal timbre. “What’s your name?”
The man opened his mouth, but no sound came out. A squint of worry found his face.
Dean chuckled softly. “Have you forgotten it?”
He studied the floor, as if the answer were written in the moss. His brows pinched together briefly before he met Dean’s eyes again.
“The Lady of the Forest calls me Castiel,” he offered.
Dean bit at his cheek. “The Lady…of the Forest?” Dean repeated haltingly. This was either a imbecile or a madman.
Dean blinked twice, three times before meeting those blue, hooded eyes, searching them for some sign of malice. In them were only a strange, wild sort of clarity—this man was neither simple nor mad. Only…unburdened. Free as the beasts of land and air.
An epiphany reverberated through Dean like the chime of a celestial bell. A companion who knew not of treaties or marriages—who could have no motives in his touch, no one else’s whispers poured into Dean’s ear.
He would have him. He must have him.
“Castiel,” he smiled sweetly, “do you know who I am?”
“No,” Castiel replied. His nonchalance was refreshing as cool spring water on a sweltering day.
“I am Andean of Wintan-ceastre. I am the king of this land. And you, Castiel, have saved my life.”
The man’s lips quirked in the slightest smile. “I did only what I would for any injured traveler. I took you in and healed you.”
“And what a good man you are to do so,” Dean insisted. “But unlike just any poor traveler, it is in my power to reward you quite handsomely.”
Castiel tilted his head and squinted, looking for all his worth like a curious owl, or a confused dog. It was beyond endearing and Dean had to suppress a grin.
“How long has it been since you had good bread, Castiel?” He gestured towards the naked hearth. “Your fire has long gone cold. And there must not be a mill around for a league in any direction, should you have any wheat to grind.”
Castiel stared at him—through him—and blinked, batting his long, dark lashes. “I…I don’t remember,” he said at last.
Dean had him, like a leveret sniffing at a snare.
“At the palace we have a great oven, which is stoked all day.” He crept in closer. “You could have fresh, warm bread any time you please.”
Castiel’s eyes blew wide.
“Would you like that, Castiel?”
He bobbed his head excitedly.
“There will be a celebration before the New Moon. Two hundred years of peace and prosperity in the kingdom. There will be music, and dancing, and a grand feast.” Dean spoke in low, seductive tones. “All the foods you could ever ask for. Breads and cakes, cheeses, nuts—”
Dean grinned a vulpine grin. “Of course. You saved the king’s life, after all.” He wrapped a friendly arm around Castiel’s shoulders. When he didn’t flinch, Dean went in for the final blow. “An open larder, a good bed, a full fireplace to keep you warm in the winter…and all without lifting a finger ever again. Would you like that, Castiel?”
“Oh, yes,” he breathed in his wonder. Dean had to suppress a shiver at the sweet depths of that voice.
“Then come back with me, to the palace.”
“Oh, I will!” His eyes were bright with joy. “But first, I must tell Rowena.”
Dean’s thoughts jammed to a halt. “Who is this Rowena?” Before he could inquire any further, Castiel had slipped out of his arms and padded out the door into the forest proper.
“Rowena!” Castiel called to the trees; to no one.
“Who’s Rowena?” Dean asked again.
"She's the guardian of our village." Castiel bounded further into the copse of trees, shouting her name. “Rowena!!”
Dean stood planted in place, looking for other cottages, other signs of life. "What village?” he asked himself quietly.
Before he had time to inquire—or indeed think—one word further, a shape began to manifest out of the air itself: first as a fine cloud of white mist, then as a brilliant corona of light so bright that Dean needed to shield his eyes.
When he moved his hand away, a woman in a white dress stood before him. She was a tiny thing—at least two heads shorter than Dean, with waifish limbs—but in her almond eyes was an eminence far beyond the limitations of form or body.
“The Woman in White,” Dean muttered. Just like Creaser had said.
The name was too simple- it was a gorgeous gown of white silk, cut in a deep V down to her creamy-pale bosom. Long enough that she seemed to float rather than stand. Over it she wore a golden girdle-belt woven with pearls, and gold filigree accented the skirt, sleeves, and hems. A veil of deep red hair fell down her chest and shoulders, immaculate as if they’d just come out of papers. It was all beautiful to be sure, but it had not been the fashion for some hundred years or so.
She spoke then, revealing a deep Alban accent. “I have been called that and more,” she said placidly. “And who are you?”
Dean blinked through the question, taken aback. He huffed a little in offense. “I am Andean of Wintan-ceastre. I am your king.”
Her eyebrows raised, and a slow, toothsome smile found her blood-red lips. She sunk into a deep, exaggerated curtsy. “Do forgive me, Your Highness,” she said, fluttering her long lashes. “I’ve never gazed upon a king before.”
Dean’s lips pursed. He knew fulsome flattery when it was thrown his way. But if this so-called ‘Lady of the Forest’ was all that was between him and having this beautiful man laid supine on a thick feather bed, he’d oblige her.
“You’re forgiven,” he said with a dismissive, regal wave, and the sincerest smile he could muster. “I don’t imagine you see much in the way of royalty.”
“Oh no,” she chirped, trilling and burring the words until they stretched. “Not for many, many years now.”
That caught at Dean’s brain like pollen to a horsetail, but let slip just as quickly. She’d probably seen a passing hunting party or two, if they’d had to venture deep into the forest for game.
“By your leave, Rowena,” he accented her name with a small bow, “I should like take to Castiel home with me, to my palace.”
Her glance darted back and forth between the two of them; her smile faltered only for a heartbeat. “And you have no objection, Castiel?”
“No.” His smile was small, but hopeful. “The king says that there will be a grand feast soon. And that there will be bread, and apples, and a real bed to sleep on.”
“A real bed!” Her voice was poison in honeyed wine, and she turned to Dean with gimlet eyes. “Yes, I’m sure the king has just the bed for you.”
Dean flushed under his collar, but kept his jaw firm. Rowena’s lip quirked in recognition.
“Castiel is very dear to me,” she said, her tone too grim for the sentiment, “and I’m afraid I wouldn’t dare part with him.” She glowered over the sentence. “But,” she addended, “who am I to deny the will of a king?”
Dean saw the provocation in her eyes. He set his own features to a mask of practiced neutrality. He would stare her down.
“Though, I do have one favor to ask you, your grace…”
He answered with a curt nod.
“Only that Castiel be allowed two companions—guardians, if you will.”
“No,” Dean said flatly. “One is a companion. Two is a conspiracy waiting to happen.”
“Two or you’ll none,” she shot back.
Dean’s nostrils flared.
Rowena’s smile returned, false and treacly. “Worry not, your grace. They shan’t be in your way. They won’t eat much. They won’t even need horses.” She snapped her fingers; it seemed to echo through the glade. “Gaaabrieellll…” she called. “Anaaapielll…”
On either of her slim shoulders danced a tiny spark of light- one a faint lavender purple, the other a sunny gold. They seemed to grow, and to blossom, until Dean could see —to his incogitable shock—the outline of two tiny bodies, replete with two pairs of shining gossamer wings.
“NO.” Dean crossed his arms. “No no NO.”
Rowena’s smile finally reached her eyes. “What’s the matter, dear? Afraid of little wee sprites?”
“Fear has nothing to do with it. I can’t bring Magickals into my palace.”
“Certainly you can,” she chirped, “you’re the king.”
“It’s forbidden. As king, I am sworn to uphold the laws of gods and men as written in our charter.”
“And what do you, Andean of Wintan-ceastre, presume to know about the will of the gods?”
“We bring them our offerings at harvest. We invoke their names in passion, and dedicate our children to their service.” Those were his father’s words, spat out by rote. They were bitter on his tongue, but he continued. “For this they have blessed our line for two hundred years.”
Rowena threw her head back and laughed. “Such conviction! Such hubris!”
“What a dick.”
Dean choked on air. Where had that last voice come from? It was too loud, too broad to be Castiel’s. He swung a full circle, trying to find the owner of the voice, when he saw the man inside the hazy gold orb. He stood petulantly on Rowena’s left shoulder, tiny arms crossed.
Dean’s eyes grew wide. “They talk.”
“Nothing gets past you, does it?” he spat. “Must be why they made you king.”
“What in the name of…” Dean maundered.
The lavender sprite spoke, her voice reproachful. “Gabrielll…”
“What?” Gabriel retorted. “What’s he gonna do? Kill me?”
“Gabriel!” Castiel protested. “You’re being very rude.”
Dean’s head snapped to his left. “You see them too?”
“Of course,” came the indignant reply. “They’re my friends.”
Dean raked a hand down his face. “Of course you do,” he said under his breath, into his palm. “Of course they are.”
Rowena spoke above the them all. “Enough!” When the glade was adequately quiet, she began again. “There now… now that everyone’s acquainted, you can see that they’re too small to cause you any harm.”
“Would you take Castiel’s word? They are his friends, after all.”
Dean ground his teeth. “Even if I did consent, how would I keep them hidden? They’re small enough, sure. But they glow.”
“A simple cloaking charm will hide them from the uninitiated. Only those who have seen Death will know their true forms.”
“That’s not gonna work. Not with my court.”
“All but first sons, then,” she simpered. “Why beat about the bush?”
Dean considered it. Benny bragged that his toughness came from having three elder brothers to scrap with. Garth had only sisters. Kevan wouldn’t be accompanying them on progress; he wouldn’t have the temerity say anything out loud anyway. That left only Bobby.
Bobby could be made to understand.
“And what if I refuse?”
“Then Castiel will simply stay here,” Rowena said flatly, with an almost-shrug. “I’m sure you’ll be forgotten in time.”
“Sounds good to me,” the little gold speck said. “He doesn’t like us, and we don’t like him. End of story.”
Dean’s brow furrowed tight. The nerve of that stroppy little insect! (He would have been much angrier, had the absurdity of the situation not been quite so striking.)
“Gabriel, Rowena…please,” Castiel begged, “please let me go to the palace. If just for the celebration. Music, and dancing, and a feast…” He sighed like a maiden. “How wonderful it would be…”
“Yes Gabriel,” Rowena trilled, “think how wonderful it would be.”
Gabriel heaved a weary, answering sigh; one too big for his tiny body. Dean heard it clear as a full-grown man’s.
Castiel put a hand on Dean’s shoulder. “If I’m unhappy, your highness, may I return to my home at any time I like?”
“Certainly, Castiel,” he nodded, before tacking on “if your mother will have you back.”
Rowena and Gabriel protested in tandem:
“I’m not his mother.”
“She’s not his mother!”
Dean noted this quietly, and without regard. Such a queer assembly.
“Then I may go?”
Rowena bowed her head. “If the king consents to your companions.”
Castiel looked at Dean, his face all hope and goodness, and Dean’s heart melted a little.
“Fine.” Dean mentally kicked himself- being so swayed by a lovely pair of eyes… “But not a word of these companions of yours to anyone.”
“Because dear,” Rowena butted in, “some silly humans may not be quite as understanding as the king.” She looked pointedly at Dean before flashing a benevolent smile. “We need to keep our little friends safe.”
Castiel gave a resolute nod. “I’ll protect them.”
“I know you will,” she said through her mask. “Why don’t you gather your things? I’m sure his highness wants to return to the palace straight away.”
Castiel nodded eagerly and, with a final glance at Dean, ran back towards the cottage. Dean watched him (trying not to be distracted by his shapely backside) until he was out of earshot, then turned to face the little woman again.
“Why is he so precious to you, Rowena?”
“He played in my forests as a boy. He ran with my deer.” She turned up her palms in an ethereal, magnanimous gesture. “I only want to protect him.”
“Where are his mother and father?”
“They died, as mothers and fathers do.”
Dean felt the particular sting of that. “And he has no family of his own?”
“None living,” she said airily. “Come now, your highness. You of all men should know what blood alone does not make a family.”
A chill rimed over Dean. How stood the hour? How long had he spent in that nest? Bobby may have come! And when both Bobby and Samworth found him to be missing…
“You’ll want to be getting back to your palace, Dean Winchester,” she said knowingly.
He cast her one final look. This patience, this play at concern… Castiel may have been as tendered, but he had no doubt he was being sold two piglets in a poke.
Aside from the bread, which he insisted upon taking, there was little for Castiel to pack. He only owned one pair of boots, a good leather belt with a brass buckle, and a mean-looking silver blade. Bowls and pillows and quilts, Dean assured him, were to be had at the palace. So it was decided that Gabriel and Anapiel would hide in the pack upon nearing the palace. Until then, they were free to rest or fly as they preferred.
Dean had only just untethered Babe and adjusted her saddle when she suddenly began backing away from him.
He held her reins tight. “Hey…hey sweetheart,” he cooed into her ear, “what’s wrong?” He glanced in the direction she was shying away from, and saw Castiel approaching. Gabriel and Anapiel sat on his right shoulder.
He kept coming, and Babe kept balking.
“Just a moment, Cas—she’s not liking something.”
“She let me tether her…” Castiel puzzled, “I don’t see why she’s afraid.”
“Probably your little pals there spooking her.”
In response, Dean heard the distinct sound of a raspberry blown in his general direction. So help him, he was going to crush Gabriel under a book the minute he got his hands on one.
Castiel shook his shoulders and his two companions took to wing, hovering in place as Castiel took a few disquiet steps towards Babe. Her muscles still held tense, but she didn’t balk.
She let Castiel place a hand on her neck. He drew closer- close enough to whisper in her ear. Dean couldn’t hear the words, or even if they were in the Common Tongue. Whatever language it was in, it seemed to still her. Castiel turned to his companions with a nod, and they took a seat on her poll- one behind each ear.
Dean’s went saucer-eyed. Babe was in no way shy, but she communicated with Dean best.
“What’d you say to her?”
“I only told her that Gabe and Anna are my friends, and she needn’t be afraid.”
He squinted at Castiel, equal parts skepticism and awe.
“…you can talk to horses?”
“I talk to lots of animals,” he said earnestly. “Birds, squirrels, bees…”
“Well, tell them goodbye.” Then, a little kinder, he added “You may not see them for some time.”
Dean turned and mounted Babe in one easy movement, then offered Castiel a hand as he got into the stirrups.
Castiel’s chest thumped against Dean’s back as he took his place in the saddle. Even Babe had to steady herself against the sudden, clumsy drop of weight, and protested with a whicker.
“Since you speak horse, you might want to apologize, Cas,” Dean teased. “You can tether all right, but your riding skills are rusty.”
“Why do you call me that? Cas?”
“Your name’s quite the mouthful.” Dean spoke over his shoulder. “No one’s ever called you anything but Castiel?”
Even from this point, Dean could see Castiel’s thousand-yard stare; like he was trying to isolate a single blade in a league of grass.
“Let me guess—you don’t remember.”
“No,” Castiel said limply.
“You can call me Dean,” he suggested, “if it makes you feel at ease.”
“Gabe’s fine,” Gabriel piped in, unbidden, “thanks for asking.”
Dean ignored him. “But you don’t mind it? My calling you Cas?”
He shook his head. “No.”
Dean looked the quiet, doleful sprite. “And you, Anapiel?”
“You may call me Anna, my king,” she smiled weakly, “if it pleases you.”
“She’s too polite to tell you you’re butchering it,” Gabe spat back. “Your fat mortal tongue is too thick to say it right.”
Dean looked to Anna for the truth of it; she hid her face under a curtain of red hair. He then glanced to Castiel, who dipped his head nervously before nodding ‘yes’.
“All right,” he huffed with some annoyance, “Anna, Gabe, and Cas.”
Dean pulled lightly at Babe’s reins, following the beaten path away from the cottage. With luck, they’d be able to reach the palace before Bobby did.
By the light of the sun, and by the direction of the wind, Dean had determined that the road the he had barely regarded had led him northwest, just to the cusp of Manner’s Wood. Due to his unplanned adventure, he had ended up in the thick of it.
And though Dean was loathe to admit it, the little glow-worm had actually made himself useful by leading them back onto the main road. From there, the king was able to follow the old hunting paths to the Northern Gate, where he hoped to announce himself without too much spectacle.
That hope was dashed the instant the sentries recognized him. One nearly fell off the battlement in a rush to shout his return; the second blew his horn until his face was purple. The drawbridge was dropped so hard and quick that the rumbling gave Babe a fright.
There was a great rush as soon as he entered the reception hall—a boy with a pitcher of water and goblet, another with a damp cloth for his face and hands, guards with spears ready to run anyone through at a nod. But head and shoulders above them all was Samworth, charging at full speed towards him. Castiel ducked behind Dean, his hand clamped onto the meat of Dean’s arm.
Such was the sight of his lumbering brother that he almost didn’t notice the shorter, grizzled man following in his path.
“Dean!” the older man thundered.
“Where the—!” Sam yoked himself in then, remembering his place. “Where did you go??” And then, noticing the man shrinking ever more behind the shelter of Dean’s frame, asked “And who is that?”
The king’s head swiveled to see Castiel’s wide blue eyes peering out from over his shoulder. He side-stepped away quickly, but placed a calming hand at the small of his back.
“Castiel, may I present my brother, the Prince Samworth of Wintan-caeastre,” he gestured to each, “and Sir Robbett Singer. Samworth, Sir Robbett… this is Castiel. He’ll be my guest for the festival.”
Castiel was silent and frozen in front of the two angry men, while Dean stood firm. Sam’s eyes darted between the two of them, brow furrowed in confusion. Bobby only glared at Dean like he’d lost his gods-damned mind.
To these looks, he answered. “He saved my life today.”
Bobby’s eyebrows jumped halfway up his balding pate before puckering into a deep V between his eyes.
“I…you…!” Bobby snuffed like an angry bull. In private, he would have no qualms about giving Dean a dressing-down; in public, in front of some stranger and half the court, he could only glare. He cast a horn-mad look Sam’s way before throwing his hands up.
“Maybe you can talk some sense into him.”
Bobby turned out of formation and stomped down the hall, leaving the three younger men alone.
Sam glanced between Castiel and Dean, worrying at his lower lip.
“Dean, shouldn’t you offer your guest some comfort?” he prodded. “Some food? A room?”
Dean rolled his eyes—as soon as Castiel left, a lecture would be forthcoming. “Yes, of course.” He clapped his hands. “Gareth!”
His gangly chamberlain appeared at his side as if by magic. “Yes, sire?”
Dean placed an arm around Castiel’s shoulders. “This is Castiel. He’ll be my guest during the celebration.” He paused, looking Gareth over with a raised, imparting brow.
Gareth stood straight then. “Yes, sire.”
“Very good. Have a warm bath drawn for him so he can be clean for dinner. And fetch him some clean clothes as well.” Dean looked Castiel up and down. “I think there may be some of Samworth’s old things that will fit.”
“In fact, bring the whole trunk. If he’s to accompany me on progress, he’ll need to be outfitted. Let Aaron know that that is to be his priority from tomorrow morning.”
“Of course, sire.” Gareth held out his arm with a small bow. “This way, Castiel.”
Castiel stared owlishly at Dean. Dean slid the arm from around his shoulders and onto his back, giving him the slightest push. “Go with Gareth, Castiel. You’re safe here.”
Castiel, still wearing a confused frown, began to walk in the general direction Gareth had bid him to.
“Prepare Mother Mayre’s room for him,” Dean said, drawing an affronted little noise from Sam.
Gareth nodded, and was about to follow when Dean seized his wrist, drawing him back. “Have his bath drawn in my chambers,” Dean said low in Gareth’s ear, “and have the mattress in Mother’s room replaced. Take the feather bed away and bring in the lumpiest nest of straw and horsehair we have. Do you understand?”
Gareth nodded gravely. “Yes, sire.”
Dean clapped him on the shoulder and smiled “Good boy, Gareth,” before sending him on his way. He likewise dismissed the pageboys with a quick nod.
The king and the prince eyed the room—too many guards, too many corners. They walked in tense silence from the main hall to the throne room, peering around corners and columns.
Now sufficiently out of earshot, Sam turned to face Dean.
“Dean, what’s the matter with you?” he hissed. “You can’t just pick out some peasant to bring to bed.”
“Why not?” He grinned at Sam’s frustration. “I am the king, after all.”
“That’s the kind of thing kings did in the Dark Times,” Sam growled. “We don’t do that any longer.”
Dean was annoyed. “I’m not going to force myself on him, if that’s what you’re implying.” Samworth’s shoulders loosened. “He did save my life, and for that I am grateful. And that he’s handsome is so much the better.”
“Is that why you’re goading him into your bed with a shabby mattress? Gratitude?”
“He didn’t live in palatial splendor, Samworth,” Dean said tartly. “He slept on straw padded with a few game-feathers and a thin blanket. I’m sure that any mattress here will be soft as a cloud in comparison.” A sly smile played at his lips. “And if that mattress so happens to be mine…”
Dean turned his merry eyes to Sam, whose mouth was still a flat, mirthless line below two glaring green embers.
“I won’t touch a hair on him unbidden, Sam,” he promised. “Truthfully, I don’t even know if his taste runs to men. But if it does…”
“And you’ve throughly considered your own safety and security, I’m sure.”
“He was half a hermit, Samworth. He lives in the woods with no town, or even another cottage nearby. Hells, I thought for a moment that he was simple-minded. It’s only…”
Dean let out a heavy breath- one that drooped his shoulders.
“He took me into his home not knowing I was the king. I attacked him thinking he was holding me prisoner, and he thought I was fighting for my half-eaten round of bread. There’s not a malicious nor self-serving bone in his body.”
“But why set him up in mother’s room? Or yours?”
“Surely you know what it’s like, Samworth—being royalty first and all other things second. Would you not welcome the chance to simply be yourself?”
Sam’s eyes fell to the floor, which was all the answer Dean needed.
“Would you not want that to last as long as possible? To keep them from away from the whispers of courtiers and spies?”
“All right,” Sam granted. “Only… only swear to me you won’t take advantage of him. That you won’t keep him if he doesn’t consent.”
“I swear I won’t.” Dean marked an ‘X’ over his heart. “I’ve told him he’s free to go at any time it pleases him.” He wished he could make Samworth understand that his oath would be enforced, and how. “On my word, if he ever decides wants to return home, you have my leave to pack him some provisions and let him be on his way.”
“With no protest?”
“With some protest, I imagine. But I won’t hold him back.”
That seemed to be enough for Sam.
“Dinner will be served at five, as planned,” Sam informed him, “since Bobby arrived half-starved. If you’re hungry now, I’m sure Ellen will make you a small something to tide you over.”
“I’ll survive. Bobby’s probably waiting for me, so I’d best go take my licks.” Dean chuckled then. “I wouldn’t dare go into that kitchen anyway. Between stealing food and running off, I already know there’s a wooden spoon there with my name on it.”
The brothers shared a laugh. To some people, at least, they were still boys first and royalty second.
With his courage gathered, Dean made his way into his solar. His boots felt heavier with each step.
As a boy, he and Sam had managed to slip past the guards and onto Pala, taking an impromptu tour of the town below the castle motte. When they returned, Jon thrashed him soundly. It hurt to sit, and his clothes barely covered the bruises on his arms and legs. After that, it was decided that perhaps Dean was best housed elsewhere for a while, so that he might learn to behave. Luckily Jon—or himself, he was never sure which—was still enough in Sir Robbett’s good graces to take him in.
Bobby was twice the father the king had ever been. Taught him twice as much- about the world, about being a benevolent lord with the ear of the people. Bobby’s little fiefdom was what he wished all the kingdom could be. When he was bid to return to the capital, he asked to take Ellen and two maids, and the knight gave them all leave. When Dean faltered his first few months, it was Bobby’s good counsel that saw him through.
He didn’t fear Jon’s beatings half as much as he did Bobby’s disappointment. And today, he’d earned that disappointment.
As he entered, Bobby stood at the window, glaring down at the kingdom below. There was nothing but the closing door to announce him.
“Hi Bobby,” he said guiltily.
Bobby’s sharp eyes dug into Dean, his scowl hard as a switch.
“What in the name of Aed and Dis Pater did yeh think you were doing, slippin’ out without a word?”
He must have been angry—his Hibernian accent slipped out when he was angry.
“I was hunting, Bobby.”
“Yes all alone,” Dean replied with pique. “In case you weren’t aware, I’ve had some matters to attend to lately.”
“And yeh couldn’t wait just one more lunchtime before runnin’ out and tryin’ to get yourself killed?”
“I wasn’t trying,” he puffed. Dean smiled cheekily. “Picking out curtains isn’t that boring.”
“Dammit, boy! Do you realize what could have happened?” He slammed his fist on a nearby table. “Just because ye’ve named Sam as regent for the last ten years doesn’t mean the crown is his for the taking! You’ve got Campbells up north with a claim through yer mother, you’ve got cousins, usurpers—hells, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jon has a bastard or two waiting his turn!”
“I didn’t think—”
“Damn right yeh didn’t think!”
Dean cringed at that. It was like something Jon would say.
“And if you could’ve waited three gods-damned hours I could’ve told you just what you were up against! But no! You’ve got to jump in like your father—all fire and fury without using your damn head!”
Dean averted his eyes, trying to ignore the pull of tears behind them.
“What’s got you riled up enough to try and hunt alone anyway?”
“I don’t know, Bobby!” he whined. “Just a feeling. Something that keeps gnawing at me. Something bad.”
“So bad you couldn’t wait for backup?”
“I was being stupid, okay? I know that now.”
As if sensing his mistake, Bobby came closer, wrapping two meaty arms around Dean. The king fell into them at once.
“Yeh scared me half to death—and yer brother too.” Bobby sniffled a little. “I ride up to hear you’d disappeared and I thought the worst. You didn’t tell Sam, or Benny or Tran…”
“I’m sorry, Bobby.” Nothing like Jon. Never. “I didn’t know when you’d be here, and I couldn’t wait.”
The two separated easily, the tension evanesced.
Dean laughed a little. “I thought you’d be riding Rumsfeld, so I shouldn’t expect you for another day at least.”
“Rumsfeld!? He’s dog’s meat and cordovan by now,” Bobby gruffed. “Besides, I wouldn’t trust this journey to any ol’ plug. I had to get here quick as I could. There’s a whole lot to tell you before you go.”
Dean’s brow furrowed. “I don’t care for the sound of that.”
“It’s no better from the telling side.” Bobby’s eyes wandered about the room, taking in the subtle shifts of furniture and objects as displayed by father and son. Most specifically, the cabinet where the liquor should be kept.
“You got anything to drink in here?”
“Wine,” Dean offered, gesturing to an ornate glass decanter on his writing desk.
Bobby’s expression soured. “And not one drop of whisky to calm an old knight’s nerves?”
“Not until your king sends us another barrel.”
“I’ll let him know next time I’m at court,” Bobby deadpanned.
He snatched a cup and poured the wine up to the brim. He took a long, deep sip, and strained the extra from his mustache. “It’ll do,” he pronounced. “Sit.”
They took their places on two hard wooden chairs, with a table between them. Bobby shifted on the pillow under his rump —another addition of Dean’s— until he found something like comfort, and rested against the punched and painted leather back.
“What happened out there today?”
“I got ambushed by some cursed man, or men, when I was out hunting.” He huffed a little. “They almost had me too. You know they’ve got cursed horses?”
“I believe it,” Bobby said into his cup.
“Funny thing is, I don’t think they were trying to kill me. They nicked me with an arrow here,” Dean indicated the bridge of his nose, “so they could have if they wanted to.” He looked at his hands. “I think they need me alive… I don’t know if that’s better or worse.”
“How’d you escape?”
“Apparently they can’t cross streams. Or the stream was too brackish for them to ford. Either way, the man and the horse went down. When I looked back…”
Dean licked his teeth, rolled his tongue in his mouth. “I know they knocked me off Babe, and I swear I saw an arrow stuck in her. But when I awoke she was tethered and grazing, easy as you please. Not even a scar. On me or her.”
Bobby contemplated his cup. “And that’s when you met that Castiel fella?”
“Yeah.” He absently ran a hand over his neck. “I know what that sounds like, Bobby, but all my hunting instincts tell me he’s not a part of this.”
“You give him any tests?”
The fall of Dean’s face and the long, stunned silence gave Bobby his answer.
Bobby rolled his eyes. “Gods-dammit, Dean.”
“We’ll do it at dinner,” the king replied gruffly. “Blessed water in the wine, silver plates, iron utensils—the works.”
“And how are you gonna get him to bleed? ‘Accidentally’ stab him with a serving fork?”
“I told you, my instincts—”
“Your instincts don’t mean shite right now. Not against Lilith.”
“Lilith?” Dean’s eyebrows shot up. “Who in damnation is Lilith?”
“One of Azazel’s most trusted. Honestly boy, what’s the use of having that big damn book if you don’t read it?”
“I read it,” he mumbled, as he rose, “I just don’t memorize the name of every puck and boggard like Samworth does.”
“Well, go find it and let’s see what it says about her.” Bobby sipped small, trying to avoid the lees.
“If you know so damn much why don’t you just tell me?”
“I can only remember so-damn-much. And I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the thing.” He turned in his chair. “It’s called the Book of Kings for a reason.”
Dean mockingly echoed Bobby under his breath as he reached for a book upon his shelf —a stodgy, unreadable scientific volume about lemmings— and fished a key from a compartment hollowed deep in its chapters.
From there Dean turned to the standing cabinet, a heavy oaken thing with iron handles, and sigils hidden in the elaborately carved patterns on the doors. This key opened the cabinet. Another key was hidden in the false bottom of a drawer. That key opened the lowest drawer. Dean pulled out that drawer—full of historically significant if not widely available treatises—to find a panel underneath it.
Under a notch so small that only a child’s finger could fit, Dean pried a loose board up with a key. There, finally, was the Book of Kings. He lifted it out on both sides, standing it straight up and pivoting it out of the cabinet.
The large, leather-bound book took up both arms. Dean held the thing close to him as is if it were made of glass and set it gently on the table.
The paper was old as the kingdom itself. Pages were yellowing at the edges, and curling in some corners, but the ink was still bright as fresh. What had begun as a record of births, deaths, and marriages became a trove of notes and illustrations from all the past hunter-kings of Wintan-ceastre.
One had made a bestiary of the thing, with careful portraits of various monsters. Another had written commentary on the commentary, making cross-references them over the span of centuries. Jon’s own entries were a mix of both, though with far less reverence than was due either.
It was the fastidious compilation of notes—from his old friend the Frog King, Dean saw—that allowed him to find the first entry on Lilith; one from Arthur himself.
“Lilith…white of eye…,” He read aloud, finger dragging across the spidery script, “and black…of soul.” Dean bent over the book, glaring at it cockeyed. “Says she was one of Azazel’s first generals…but was believed to be dead. Exorcised…by…Brother Albertus??” Dean blinked.
“Who’s that?” Bobby asked.
“Albertus was Arturus’ brother. They fought together against Azazel. Not a lot about Albertus, though—supposedly drank demon’s blood to use their powers against them, so they don’t like to talk about him much. He became a monk after the battle. ”
“I thought you didn’t memorize these old books.”
“I don’t. It’s simply more interesting than a catalog of pixies.” Dean turned back to the book. “She is…versed in necromancy…known for her tortuous—torturous—punishments, and…Ugh! was known to drink the blood of newborn babies.”
Bobby sighed. “That’s even worse than I remember.”
Dean glared across his shoulder. “If you thought queen bitch was after us Bobby, why didn’t you tell me?”
“And let that letter fall into the wrong hands?”
Bobby took a small sip, eyes at the bottom of his cup. “Part of what happened this morning was my fault.” He shook his head. “I should have said something earlier.”
Dean frowned, straightening to his full height. “And you’re sure it’s her?”
“That’s what my sources tell me. And if what I’m hearing’s right, she’s gotten mixed up with some minor necromancer named Crowley.”
“I’ve heard that name,” Dean nodded. “I thought he was a mercenary.”
“Apparently he dabbles in both,” Bobby grumbled. “Doesn’t do any fighting himself, though—might sully his kid-leather gloves.” He drained the rest of the cup, lees and all. “It’s his boys that are giving pieces of the game away at every roadside tavern that’ll serve them.” He then added “Joh sends her salutations, by the way.”
Dean acknowledged this with an incline of his head. He must remember to thank her for her loyalty.
“Why now?” Dean pondered aloud.
“Flair for the dramatic, I guess,” Bobby offered. “Two-hundred is a nice round number.” Then, as an afterthought: “You can wreak lots of havoc at a festival, especially here in the capital.”
“So what does this mean for the progress? The festival? The ball?”
“That’s up to you, your majesty. On one hand, you’re gonna be harder to hit as a moving target. And canceling the bicentennial festival is going to leave the whole kingdom wondering why.
“On the other, that means leaving your palace in the hands of an old man and a wet-behind-the-ears prince regent.”
Dean crossed his arms over his chest, settling one hip against the desk. His eyes darted between Bobby and the decanter.
“I think I’m going need a cup of that. Maybe two.”
Castiel sat naked on the king’s bed, remarking upon the soft blankets and fluffy pillows, and the immense copper tub that was currently being filled with buckets upon buckets of steaming water. He had tried to inform them that none of it was necessary—that a good deep basin and a little rag would be more than enough for a bath—but they merely trained their eyes to the floor, leaving and returning with more and more buckets.
It was not until they stopped coming back that he imagined it was time to climb in.
“Is it safe?” Gabe asked, from under the thick cloth of the pack.
“I think so,” Castiel answered. “They seem to be gone.”
Gabriel fought his way out from under the low canopy of muslin, whilst Anna crawled out on her hands and knees. Their tiny eyes went wide at the size of the bed before them—wide enough for an entire family, and stuffed with a whole flock’s worth of feathers.
“Is this your bed?” Anna asked, agape, sinking her arms into the softness.
“It’s the king’s bed,” Castiel replied, “in the king’s chambers.” He swept his hand broadly towards the great carven armoire, the elaborate silver basin sitting upon a cabinet, the runes and sigils worked elegantly into the posts of the bed. To the tub before them, losing its head of steam.
Gabe flew a few feet above the bed, then folded his wings mid-air, cannonballing himself into the mattress with a soft whuff. “I could get used to this.”
“I was told there would be more bread,” Cas said with the tiniest of pouts. “And cheese.”
“You have to get washed up first, kiddo,” Gabe said sagely. “These royals, they have to—”
A silencing knock fell on the door, and each held their breath.
It opened just a little—enough for a woman with a pale face framed in dark curls to stick her head through. “Castiel?”
“Yes?” he gulped.
She smiled sweetly, both entering and closing the door with a kick. She wore a simple black kirtle with a gray chemise, her sleeves already rolled to her elbows. A silver tray rested against her hip, and a cotton cloth was slung over one arm. “My name is Maighread. Meg, if you like. Gareth sent me to help bathe you.”
“Oh...” He looked to Gabriel, who stood frozen in place. Anna had already scurried back into the safety of the pack. “…yes. Thank you.”
Meg inclined her head towards the tub, bidding him in.
Castiel rose nervously—not for his nakedness, but for the vulnerability of his situation—and put one leg into the tub and then the other, lowering himself down with his eyes squarely on Meg. (Meg, for her part, was silent and stoic when faced with the smooth skin and sinewy limbs of the king’s companion, though she pictured him marked with her own fingerprints and bruises. And the groan he let out when that flesh met warm water was music to her ears.)
She found a footstool by the bed and sat upon it, laying the tray of toiletries at her ankle. “How long has it been since you’ve had a hot bath, Castiel?”
“I don’t remember,” he answered dreamily, limp against the tub walls.
“I bet you don’t.” She lifted a dipper from her tray into the tub, pouring the warm water over his collarbone, enjoying the sighs pushed from between his full lips. “The entire palace is already whispering about you, you know.” She dispensed more water across his neck. “They say that the king met you in the woods. That you saved his life.”
“I did what I would for any injured traveler,” Castiel said plainly. “I took him in and I healed him.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “He fell off his horse. And she was was shrieking so very loudly I had to come and help.” He looked suddenly grave. “She was very scared for them both. Those bad men might have hurt them.”
“Oh,” Meg feigned idle interest, “you talk to horses?”
“I talk to lots of animals,” he said proudly, sitting up. “One day, in the woods, I followed a honeybee, and she—”
In the corner of his eye, Castiel saw Gabriel’s usually steady light flare into a bright amber burst. Inside, he was shaking his hands and waving his head, with cutting motions across his throat for good measure.
Castiel tilted his head to the side.
Gabriel pressed a finger across his lips, then stabbed his finger in Castiel’s direction; made a gesture like that of turning a key in a lock. All of which just added to the lines on Castiel’s forehead.
Gabe finally threw up his hands. “Stop talking, Castiel!”
“Ohhh…” he said. “I understand.”
Gabe raked a hand down his face.
“Are you all right, Castiel?”
Yes, Gabe mouthed, head and hands bobbing in an exaggerated nod.
“Yes, I am well.”
Meg glanced over her shoulder, expecting someone but seeing only empty air. She raised a suspicious eyebrow.
“Who were you speaking to earlier, before I came in?” The corner of her mouth ticked up. “Did you meet a fly, or a mouse?”
“Myself,” he lied quickly. “I was talking…” His eyes darted to Gabriel, who violently waggled his approval. “…to myself.”
“Mhmmm…and how often do you answer yourself, Castiel?”
He blinked his confusion at her.
“Ohh,” she cooed, “you’re just as cute as a button, aren’t you?”
His expression remained unchanged. “Are buttons particularly becoming?”
“No, but you certainly are.” She scooped up a big dipperful of water and poured it over the crown of his head. “And you’ll be just the prettiest little pony in the king’s stable once we get you cleaned up.”
Before Cas could inquire further—were there ponies? And why would he be sent to the stable?— Meg began to rub his hair with a soapnut bar.
The king opened the door with an ill-timed knock. He was unsure of the particular protocol of entrance when a chambermaid was bathing the handsome hermit who saved his life. He also took some umbrage at the thought of waiting at his own door- he was the king, after all.
Best to enter first, knock second.
He scarcely had one boot inside when the greeting was offered.
Dean just about choked on his tongue. There, risen from the tub at full height, stood Castiel, naked as the day he was born and caring not one jot about covering himself.
Dean watched the journey of a single droplet of water down the long column of his neck, down his lean, rippling torso —with nary a hair to block its journey— and disappear into the crease of a densely muscled thigh. Never before in his life had he wished to be a single droplet of water.
Meg smiled slyly as she draped a cotton cloth around Castiel’s hips, tying it snug at his waist. Castiel, for his part, slid the cloth around under his thumb and two fingers, marveling at the soft thickness of it.
The king’s tongue darted out to lick his lip. He then cleared his throat, his eyes unable to look higher than Meg’s feet. “Dinner is almost ready.” His voice was coarse. “Help Castiel dress as best you can, and bring him to the table.”
“At once, your majesty,” she said with the slightest incline of her head.
Dean excused himself without ever looking up from the floor, willing both his traitorous brain and unconscionable member to settle down before he reached the dining room.
The blood had very nearly made its circuit back to Dean’s brain by the time he reached the dining room. Good thing, too— Sam and Bobby were already settling into their chairs, a girl filling their cups with wine.
Dean’s eyes flickered between the pitcher and Bobby; a nod and a canny look passed between them. A gander at the table settings and he knew that Bobby made good: silver cutlery at each place setting; tart apple sauce served in a warmed iron pot; rosemary roasted potatoes topped with milled pepper and flakes of salt. Doubtless there was blessed water in the wine. If Bobby had arranged a test for the color of Castiel’s blood, he’d kept that trick to himself.
Dean sat at the head of the table, waiting. Worry at Castiel’s potential failing was almost enough to shake the image of his statuesque body from Dean’s mind.
Two guards swung the main doors wide; Castiel entered, Meg at a respectful distance behind.
The shirt she’d found for him was only just a step above naked. Even tied, the collar yawned open, exposing the long column of his neck and the prominence of his clavicles. His hair stuck upwards in such disarray that he looked freshly debauched. (The trousers seemed to fit, and no more was thought of them.)
The king shifted in his seat, sitting up quickly.
“This is from the trunk, your majesty,” said Meg. “I’m afraid the most of the shirts are rather large, as you can see.” She looked at him with deep brown eyes. “I would imagine he’s closer to your size, sire, though I don’t dare go through your wardrobe.”
Dean swallowed hard. The thought of Castiel in his clothes…
“The trousers fit well enough,” he remarked, “and I don’t doubt Aaron’s talent for alterations.” He then added “I’m sure we might make a courtier of him by progress.”
Dean looked her over. He made it a point to speak to every member of staff, and to learn names whenever possible. ‘Familiarity breeds loyalty’, Bobby had said. Her name escaped him; she must have been new.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Maighread, sire. Meg, if it please you.”
“Thank you, Meg. Have Gareth wake Castiel early for measurements, so that we might start as soon as possible.”
“Yes, sire. Will that be all?”
“Yes, Meg. Thank you.”
She bowed a little before turning and exiting through the guarded doors.
Castiel still stood where he was planted. Dean sighed. They might make him look a courtier, anyway.
“Come and sit, Castiel.” He flicked his head towards the chair at his right.
Castiel sat between Dean and Bobby, scraping the legs of the chair over the stone as he inched incrementally closer to the table. Dean could practically see Bobby’s remaining hairs stand on end. Sam’s gritted teeth were visible through his pinched smile.
Castiel smiled back nervously, perhaps just as aware of his status as a sore thumb.
The silence was (thankfully) broken with the creak of a swinging door and the saporous smell of roasted pork. Upon a great silver tray was a suckling pig surrounded by roasted onions, with an apple damming up its mouth; bearing the tray was Ellen herself. Dean noted the way Bobby’s eyes lit up at the sight—and that his attention didn’t stray from Ellen once the pig was set down.
Ellen returned his smile, her sharp eyes softer than Dean had ever seen them. “I remember you liked a good suckling pig, Sir Robbett.”
“Very much, Ellen,” he nodded. “Thank you.”
The brothers shared a glance. The heft in those few words! How had neither apprehended this before?
Dean was brought out of contemplation with a cuff to his ear. “I ought to serve you cold gristle and boiled cabbage,” Ellen scolded.
He guarded his ‘injured’ ear with a hand, scowling at her like a sullen child.
“Be glad I didn’t bring my spoon,” she added. Bobby tried—and failed—to hide a smirk. Ellen then turned to the door and was gone.
“I am the king, you know,” he said to Bobby, who laughed behind his hand. Even Sam was ducking his head and struggling for a straight face.
Dean rolled his eyes. “Let’s just eat the damn pig.”
Before Dean could so much as raise his fork, Castiel’s arm darted out lightning-quick to snatch the apple from the animal’s mouth. He raised it to his own lips and took a loud, chomping bite that echoed in the silence of the room.
His chewing grew softer and slower as he realized that every eye was on him, and that every mouth hung agape. He swallowed, audibly and somewhat painfully, as the rest of the diners gawped at him.
Castiel placed the apple on his plate—as if that was the beginning and end of his blunder—and folded his hands in his lap. “My apologies.”
Dean buried his face in his palm.
“Perhaps a course of etiquette might be in order,” he groused, “before we set out on progress.”
Castiel hung his head and nodded.
“How about we begin with a toast?” Bobby cut in, lifting his goblet.
Dean sat straight. “Yes, a toast.”
Sam acquiesced, raising his own vessel. Castiel mimicked the placement of their hands and the way their elbows rested against the table.
“To happy reunions,” Bobby said. The others echoed the sentiment, with Castiel’s reply a beat behind. They then raised their cups to their lips. Dean and Bobby each kept one eye open for Castiel’s reaction, Sam blissfully unaware of the spiked wine.
Castiel’s entire face puckered; he crashed the cup down and pulled his hand away as if the thing had burnt him, sloshing wine onto the table. Dean and Bobby watched, rapt, until he swallowed. Despite his grimace, they observed, it seemed to have no actual effect.
He frowned at the cup like it had personally offended him. “What’s that?”
“Wine,” Dean said with vexation. “What did you think it was?”
“I…” Castiel looked lost.
“You were just drinking it because we were drinking it, weren’t you Castiel?” Sam tendered.
Castiel nodded, and a little measure of contrition diluted Dean’s relief. Sam’s cutting look didn’t help.
“Would you like some water instead?”
Castiel nodded again. Sam signaled to the serving girl; a fresh cup was delivered and filled from a jug. Castiel drained the cup twice.
“Better?” asked Dean. Castiel nodded yet again, the vigor of it the only indicator of his mood.
He was about to nudge Bobby and let him cut first, when it occurred to him that he ought to say these things aloud. If Castiel wasn’t some sort of creature bent on their destruction, he’d best learn some table manners. “You’re our guest, Bobby- you take first cut.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” he replied, acting along.
The serving fork and carving knife were passed from Bobby to Dean to Samworth , and finally to Castiel, who took up the silver-plated utensils without issue. Bobby passed the pot of apple sauce, insisting that Castiel try it with his pork; he took up the iron handle and spooned some onto his plate before passing it back.
Dean speared his potatoes onto his fork and raised them to his lips, before realizing Castiel was about to do the same. It was hard to miss the intensity in those big blue eyes… the way they studied his every move. He set his fork back down, slicing the potato into neat quarters and taking smaller, slower bites. Castiel mimicked these movements, and hummed contentedly over his mouthful.
“These are very good.”
Dean smiled. “I’m a meat and potatoes man myself, Cas.”
“Yes, almost exclusively,” Sam teased.
"Don’t look to me for blame. I tried to feed him greens and sprouts and he wouldn’t have ‘em. Tried to teach ‘im some table manners too- looks like he only brings those out for company.”
Dean went pink to the ears. Bobby was clearly not counting himself as ‘company’.
“Dad wasn’t a stickler for table manners,” Dean muttered. “Took a lot of meals in the solar.”
“Not with you, maybe,” Sam huffed, “but gods help me if I forgot which was my salad fork.”
“Then I name you Castiel’s instructor of etiquette,” Dean shot back. “You have five days to make him presentable to Lady Mills.”
Sam huffed and grunted and tried to form a protest, but couldn’t seem to make the words come. “Fine.” The way he hunched over his plate said otherwise.
After dinner, Sam excused himself to the loo. While he felt no real urgency in that regard, it seemed to be the surest way to withdraw himself from the table until his presence was forgotten.
Dean and Bobby had tucked into a gallon of beer after the meal, and might now be seeing it through to the dregs. And while Sam had a fondness for the old man, he didn’t hold the same sort of rapport with him as Dean did. It couldn’t be helped, Sam supposed, what with Dean having lived at Sir Robbett’s hold while he stayed behind.
Perhaps it was the amount of space Bobby occupied in Dean’s life, whereas Bobby took up very little in his own. Until their father’s death, Bobby lived as a shadow, or a suggestion. A barely remembered man with a thick accent and rusty, thinning hair. A curse on Jon’s lips until the day he came to take Dean away.
Jon’s ashes had barely cooled, it seemed, before Bobby was granted authority beyond that of a gentrified knight. He had Dean’s ear, and saw to the appointments of Duke Victor and Sir Devereaux. And while Bobby tried to pull Sam from his grief with sweet cakes from their new cook, or by teaching him to shoot a crossbow, it seemed like Dean needed no such consolation. It was as if Dean still had a father while Sam had none. Tonight was no different.
Moreover, this Castiel seemed content to bask in Dean’s mere presence, which helped even less. And now he had to play Pygmalion with Dean’s pet hermit. At least the promise of a visit from the draper’s daughter —Ruby, he corrected himself— took some of the sting out of being left behind on progress. (Sam was determined not to be jealous of some sequacious hermit, no matter how shapely Dean found his backside.)
Sam retreated to his chamber to freshen up, washing his hands and face, taking powder to his teeth and rinsing with minted vinegar to chase the greasy feel of pork from his mouth.
He supposed he ought to turn in now, so that he might be well asleep by the time Dean came stumbling up the stairs—or worse, before he caught the sounds of Dean’s passion echoing through the halls. Then again, he decided, if he was to be kept awake by boarish grunting, he might as well retire to the library. At least there the sounds might be muffled by the volumes lining the walls, and he would not need to lay in the dark pretending he did not hear it.
Also, he had found a new book, one more fascinating than the last: The Languages of Magick, attributed to an Albertus Lux. Obviously a pseudonym, he knew, but the depths of the author’s knowledge was staggering.
There were the praises of various gods, in both Latin and the Common Tongue, for specific and sundry occasions: the birth of a healthy baby, a battle won, a good marriage made, and so on. But amongst them were various prayers and praises of other cultures of their land, many of them long since expired or forgotten. Letters of Druidic, Enochian, High and Vulgar Strega… He considered himself lucky to even find a book such as this. And luckier still that he was a prince. To a lesser person, even being seen with it might be tantamount to witchcraft.
Of course, he would argue, that simply because a praise to the gods was in Strega did not make it witchcraft. Hells, even Latin was frowned upon as a heretical language by some. And what sort of rational person in this day and age truly believed in magick?
He thought he heard voices in the library —a man and a woman— but didn’t think much of it. There were plenty of sweethearts amongst the castle’s staff and guard, and sound carried far throughout the stony corridors. Besides, he was anticipating his book far too much to scold two people for their indiscretion.
The voices died suddenly at the creak of the library door, but there was no woman. There was only Castiel curled upon the velvet settee, reclining against one cushioned wing and already a chapter or two deep in a book.
He looked up from his reading, dully impatient like a cat woken from a nap. “Hello Sam,” he said amiably.
“How are you—” Samworth looked back at the doorway. At Dean’s room. “How did you…” he sputtered, before finally blurting “I thought you’d be with Dean.”
“He and Sir Robbett went to Dean’s solar for more wine,” Castiel said, wrinkling his nose, “so Gareth showed me to my room, and the privy, and to this library.”
Sam’s mouth hung open. “Oh… I wasn’t aware that you could read.”
“Why would I not read?” he asked, his voice surprisingly free of malice.
“I…” Sam stumbled, shamefaced. There was no answer that was not some slight. “My apologies, Castiel.” He ducked his head a little. “That was rude. I should have no reason to believe you could not.”
Castiel seemed unoffended, and Sam changed the subject roundly. “What book do you have there?”
Castiel held the book aloft for Sam to see, holding his place with a thumb.
“Kripke’s History of Wintan-ceastre,” Sam smiled to himself. “I read that one as a boy.”
“It’s very interesting,” Castiel agreed, eyes now back in the book, “though it doesn’t seem to go back very far.”
Sam’s grin reached his cheeks. “And you’ve learned the first lesson, Castiel— history belongs to the victors.”
Castiel only hummed thoughtfully in reply.
Sam knew that sound: a man who would much prefer the company of his book. It was just as well. Whatever fondness or loyalty bound Castiel to Dean likely did not extend to himself. Thus if Castiel was deep enough in his own reading, he might not notice the potentially scandalous book the prince was nonchalantly plucking from the shelf…
He cradled the book close, hiding the title against his jerkin and nearly burying it under the bend of his elbow. It was coming to his room, so they both might read in peace. Though he did spare a thought for the poor man’s eyes- up here alone with a solitary candle.
A cursory glance around the room found a salt-glass lantern, doubtless left there by himself. He retrieved it from its high shelf —more evidence that he was the culprit— and brought it to the table beside Castiel.
“Here,” he said, kneeling, “use this instead.”
Sam picked at a tiny metal pin on one of the lantern’s eight faces. A hinge drifted ajar, and Sam swung it open to show a good length of candle inside- enough for a few hours’ reading at least. He lit the lantern from the flame of Castiel’s chamberstick, and the room was suddenly brighter by threefold.
“Three of the faces are mirrored with silver,” Sam explained, “so that they reflect the light.” Sam smiled again at Castiel. “It’ll save you many a headache in the long run.”
“Thank you, Sam.” His eyes and his small smile were sincere, and Sam wondered if this might be the start of an alliance. A conspiracy of readers under the king’s upturned nose.
Sam picked up the contraband book by his knee before rising to his feet. “Let me know when you finish Kripke’s history, and I’ll recommend you a good, thorough volume.”
“I will,” Castiel answered with a resolute nod. “Thank you again.”
He picked up the chamberstick to see himself to bed. “Good night, Castiel.”
“Good night, Sam.”
The prince chanced one last look as he turned to shut the door. Castiel’s nose was already back in his book. He’d noticed absolutely nothing.
He strode back to his room and his reading, content with his own cleverness. Castiel hadn’t suspected a thing.
Dean regarded himself at all angles his looking glass could reach. The contusion upon his ribs bloomed purple, mottled around the edges with juniper blue and sickly green. He could not contort himself or roll his shoulder enough to see the condition of the matching bruise on his back. But the bridge of his nose was as it had ever been, without even a tiny cat-scratch of a scar. That gave him pause.
Nevermind that he kept company with two sprites- there was something preternatural about Castiel himself, and neither he nor Bobby could make sense of him. Nothing in that little cottage suggested he was any sort of conjurer —no books, no hearth, not even so much as a pinch of vervain or wort— and his memory was too poor to have committed any major spells to heart. And whomever The Woman in White truly was, Cas offered her no worship, nor did Anna or Gabe. So why did she hold him so dear?
Dean ruminated on this all through his toilette, from tooth brushing to shaving to dressing down to his smallclothes. He had only just slipped under his covers when a timid knock came from the side door. From his mother’s old room, he realized, and a wolfish grin found his lips. Castiel’s room.
Old habits died hard, however, and he found himself rooting underneath his mattress for the handle of that familiar dagger.
“Come in,” he said sweetly.
As expected, it was Castiel. Unexpected were the dyad points of gold and lavender light that fluttered around his head.
“I can’t sleep,” Castiel mumbled, rubbing his bleary eyes.
“Did you need a draught of some kind? Or a glass of wine to see you to sleep?” he teased. Castiel glared at him, irritated as a wet cat. “Or, you could sleep in my bed,” Dean offered. “It’s certainly large enough.”
“It is very soft…”
The king shuffled to the far edge of the bed, then patted the warm, empty space beside him. Such was the cushioned luxury of it that he didn’t hear the thump of his own fingertips. Castiel eyed the bed for half a heartbeat before crawling under the body-warm covers, smiling contentedly at the downy comfort of it all.
“Thank you, Dean,” he said with a yawn. He pulled the covers up to his neck, snuggling his weight down into the dense feathers.
“You’re welcome to my bed anytime.”
Gabriel settled onto the pillow just in front of Castiel’s nose. “Thanks, king-o-mine.” He spread his wings across the expanse of the pillow, laying his tiny arms behind his head.
“Not you,” Dean growled. He’d forgotten the book- maybe a boot would be enough to squash him.
“Someone has to make sure you leave room for the gods.” Gabe waggled his finger in the space between Dean and Castiel.
“Guard his virtue from the canopy, then. I don’t like your watching me sleep.” He swatted at Gabriel like a pesky fly. “Away. Shoo.”
Gabriel huffed his annoyance, but fluttered upward to the red velvet canopy of the bed. A soft, feminine sigh sounded from above him, and Dean knew that Anna had joined him as well.
Fine, he thought. He was in no hurry. And contrary to what Samworth may imply, he would not be goading anyone into anything. His own charm had been enough, or so he believed, that he had no need to impel anyone to bed with royal right.
And besides, he thought to himself, the furthest apple at the topmost branch was always the sweetest, both in the acquiring and the tasting. One needn’t even climb the tree— wait long enough and that apple too will fall.
Dean lay on his side, looking at the man at the adjoining pillow. His black hair stood straight in places and wildly askew in others. His long lashes fanned across his high cheekbones. Wide pink lips ticked up ever-so-slightly in his sleep. Very sweet indeed.
Dean pulled his bedclothes up to his neck and let his dagger slip from his hold.
“Goodnight, Castiel,” he whispered.
The morning of his progress, Dean awoke—as he was becoming accustomed—to gentle, steady puffs of air against the back of his neck, with a sleep-warm arm across the span of his chest. And, as he was becoming accustomed, Dean smiled to himself.
He’d scarely slept as well in his life as he had these past five nights— even with two tiny magickals embowered in the canopy of his bed.
That first night, he and Castiel had settled against each other like rabbits in a warren, and woke nose to nose. The second, they fell into a pile of limbs like lazy stable-cats. The third, and for all nights onward, Castiel had thrown an arm over Dean and woken with either his head pillowed on Dean’s chest or his chin somewhere between Dean’s shoulder blades.
This arrangement hadn’t the effect Dean had first hoped for. He intended the tangle of their bodies to lead to touches and caresses and so forth, eventually culminating in the act itself. The outcome was quite the reverse. It reminded him of childhood, when Sam would crawl into his bed for sanctuary. When he and Ellen’s daughter Joh fell asleep under a table at a feast, having shared a filched cup of wine. Comfort and intimacy, with no heat behind it. Though it was not what he had hoped, Dean was glad of it.
One might find in their bed a face that was not as appealing at dawn as it had been in the golden glow of a fire. A lover might have tumbled well enough, but a word from their waking mouth made him regret it. Or worse, one who was braggadocious from first glance to last moan, but was silent as a corpse over breakfast. And there was the pressing question of whether his ‘royal sceptre’ would supersede all good sense, and give those questionable partners one more turn in the sheets.
There was little of that trepidation with Castiel. Indeed, he seemed to have scant interest in Dean’s most private parts at all. (Well, perhaps not entirely—Dean had woken up hard the first morning after a particularly pleasant dream, and Castiel unabashedly stared at the tented fabric of Dean’s smallclothes. The king then removed himself to the privvy to take care of matters.) Still, Dean tried to retain some modesty.
Neither Castiel nor his chaperones had any such concern. He’d learned to cover himself when Gareth brought their breakfast, but would have his toast and tea and jam as naked as the day he was born. (His table manners had improved significantly, but he’d still grown no sense of shame.)
He might have done so again this very morning had Dean not asked him to put on his trews at least—he had ordered them a hot breakfast of bacon, groats, and runny eggs with bread soldiers. “I won’t risk you spilling it on yourself before a long ride,” he scolded. “You’ll be tender enough from the saddle.”
They bathed and dressed at opposite ends of the king’s chambers, as they did, and helped lace each other into jerkins and shirts and arm braces. Dean would straighten Castiel’s collar and ties, tucking them neatly away, and both Anna and Gabe would flutter into the pouch at Castiel’s waist. Then, with no one the wiser, they would all emerge from Dean’s chambers together. Castiel was now a fixture at Dean’s elbow, only one pace behind, and Benny would bring up the rear at arm’s length.
Today they left His Majesty’s chambers walking taller and prouder than usual, for today Dean wore his kingly circlet, passed down and down and down through the years from Arturus himself, emblazoned with his symbol. The golden crown sat brilliantly on the handsome king’s brow, giving him an air that glorified him from stately to near-divine. Gareth and all his staff bowed their heads as he passed.
The halls were lined with servants of all sorts, from kitchen maids and cup bearers, to Creaser and Ellen and finally to Tran herself, who waited next to a nervous Samworth in the reception hall.
Sir Robbett stood two paces behind Sam, in the first row of gathered servants. It wrenched Dean’s heart to see him there; when he was a boy, taking the offered sword, it was Bobby who presented him. He’d fed Dean his lines when he was a shaking prince of thirteen trying his damnedest not to cry.
Dean strode right to his mark, and unsheathed Phoenix with a grand sweep of his arm. The outcome of this pageant was fixed; but if spectacle must be made, he would make it.
“I, Andean, King of Wintan-ceastre by right and by blood, call upon this company to serve witness.”
“As is your will,” came the murmured reply.
“Lady,” he nodded to Tran. “Whom do you present?”
“I present the Prince Samworth of Wintan-ceastre, your majesty,” she recited with a small bow. “He is of blood most royal. His loyalty to the kingdom and the crown is unwavering. He has the fealty of his majesty’s own vassals, and the endorsement of the crown’s own allies. I present him to you in good faith.”
“In good faith, I accept him.” Dean’s eyes raked the crowd. “If any witness has any objection, let them speak now.” He allowed a few, perfunctory seconds of weighty silence. “Very well.”
He presented Phoenix to Tran, supporting the hilt and pinching at the blade just below the gutter. She took the long sword in both of her small hands before laying it across both of Sam’s open, gloved palms, the hilt against his right hand.
Once safely balanced, Sam inclined his head towards Dean, urging him on.
“Do you, Samworth of Wintan-ceastre, accept this responsibility?”
“I vow to uphold the charter of Wintan-ceastre as it is written,” Sam intoned. “In the event of your death, I vow to protect the kingdom, and the honor of the throne to which I am raised. In the name of the gods.”
“In the name of the gods,” the audience echoed.
“Then I, King Andean of Wintan-ceastre, do name you henceforth Prince Regent, with command of all my lands and titles, until such a time as I return.”
“As is your will,” they finished. With the servants’ parts now finished, a general repose fell over the crowd.
Sam gripped Phoenix tight in his right hand, and placed his left on the empty sheath on his own belt. He slid the sword inside until the pommel hung at his waist, the weight of it felt in every way.
The brothers, as well as Bobby and Tran, joined the great relief. They may now part as family, rather than royalty. Dean threw his arms under his not-so-baby brother’s; Sam wrapped his around Dean’s broad shoulders.
“We’ll be gone a month, if that,” Dean said into Sam’s hair. “Try not to bore Robbett too much.”
A soft snort floated over Dean’s ear. “Don’t get too fat at all those feasts.”
Dean clapped his brother on the back. “Fustilugs.”
Sam returned it. “Churl.”
They parted with a limp punch at the other’s shoulder before Dean moved on to Bobby. Bobby was the one to pull Dean in, caging him above and below his shoulders. Dean only smiled, and let himself be taken in and surrounded. That reassuring scent of leather and wool and axle grease still clung to Bobby, unchanged since the day he left Singer’s Hold.
“Take care of Sammy, okay?” he whispered. “And if I don’t make it back…”
Dean was let go with a second clap on the shoulder. The corners of both mens’ eyes were growing wet.
“You take care of him,” Bobby commanded. “Both of you.”
Benny gave the slightest nod. Castiel only seemed confused, but he followed Benny’s lead.
Dean turned to Tran. She was not a woman for great displays of affection, but a deep bow to her —which she returned with an equal curtsy—was sufficient enough to leave her beaming.
He took a parting glance around the room, taking it all in.
“In case it needs to be said aloud: I value each and every one of you. Your service, your dedication, your talents. Many of you are the closest thing to family I’ve ever known. And it's of great comfort to know that if I do not return, you will continue to care for Samworth with the same dedication.” He bowed to them. “Thank you. All of you.”
The king’s entourage was waiting just beyond the drawbridge. Creaser stood waiting with three horses’ reins in his hands. Two guards, Asa and Walter, were already mounted on their own horses and patrolling the area, cordoning off the wagons laden with food and affects, and giving flinty eyes to those curious enough to try and wander closer.
Babe was again brushed to shining, the sun gleaming on her hide and making her look like she was made of polished jet. Beside her was Benny’s horse—a great chestnut Belgian named Solitaire, barded with maille along his chest and hindquarters. For Castiel, Creaser had chosen a strapping young Palomino named Link, who dug excitedly at the dirt.
Each took to his mount, and with a final wave for the men on the battlements, the progress had begun.
They rode through the town’s main street flanked by pikemen. Such was de rigeur for any royal parade, yet Dean felt no safer because of them. He hid this well- his neck craning at all angles to wave to the people on balconies and rooftops. In truth, he was scanning the crowd just as Benny was, though much less dour of face as he did so. Castiel, for his part, was all wide-eyed wonder. They shouted to the king—“Gods keep you, your majesty!” “Three cheers for King Andean!” — and threw the occasional flower in their path.
Castiel leaned in as close to Dean as he could without the horses clashing. “This seems like a very important thing you’re doing. Why isn’t Prince Samworth coming with you?”
Dean’s composure took a hit, but reformed in a blink. “Because it is his duty as Prince, now Prince Regent, to rule the kingdom while I’m away.”
“Ohhh,” Castiel nodded, before adding “What’s Sir Robbett there for?”
“To guard him.”
“Like Benny does for you?”
Castiel’s face soured into bewilderment, brows pinched, lips puckered. “But Bobby’s an old man, and Sam’s big and strong.”
Dean sighed. “It’s a different kind of guardianship.”
The king ruminated for a moment, rolling the answer around in his mouth, finding the shapes of innocuous words. “He’s really more of a tutor. Should I… not return from this trip, Bobby will teach Sam...” he grasped for a finish, “…kingly things.”
Castiel titled his head. “Shouldn’t you be teaching him kingly things?”
Dean huffed in annoyance. “You ask too many questions, Castiel.”
Both were quiet after that.
Once on the main road, a combination of relief and boredom seemed to sweep the party. With nothing but open plain, aside from the white specks of sheep and goats along the far-off hills, there was very little to see or do. Furthermore, the road north to Millstead took an easterly swing around Gamble Lake for a good few miles. While riding into the sun, every man’s mouth was busy with frowning and every eye with squinting, so they passed an hour or two in silence before stopping for lunch.
Castiel was better on a horse than Dean would have imagined—perhaps because he and Link had had so much to talk about. (“He’s disappointed to have lost his stones, but thinks going on an adventure will help take his mind off of it,”Cas confided to Dean. “He also believes that Solitaire fancies Babe.” That news was enough to earn Solitaire a perpetual stink-eye, much to Benny’s bemusement.)
He also found it strange to see Gabriel and Anna perched on Castiel’s shoulder —their light dim in the sun, but clear to anyone with eyes to see them— and to hear them, and for their whispered conversation to go unnoticed by the rest of the party. This must have been what going mad was like.
It was a hot day and so a light lunch, with Castiel moaning around Benny’s requested strawberries and dousing himself in the stream where they watered the horses. This made Dean uncomfortable in his saddle. He tried to shoo away the untoward thoughts by quizzing Castiel on his etiquette.
Benny filled the air with songs as their shadows grew longer. A mournful song about beer and the barley, followed by Dean’s admonition that they were all too sober for such a sad tune. He kept it light then, with a song about hunter and a doe, and one of a sailor and an innkeepers’ four daughters. Gabriel, naturally, knew the naughtiest ones, and trolled them like no one else could hear.
Their entrance to Carver’s Wood made them all grateful for the shade, and brought a renewed vigor to Dean. The wood was the last great obstacle before the gentle downward crest of the hill, and into the verdant valley and fruitful farmland that skirted the edges of Millstead.
Just beyond the trail, the tight line of trees grew wider apart like crooked teeth. There were holes in the canopy above, letting the light dapple onto the humus below. At the very end was a glimpse of a grassy land and the wide blue sky above it.
A sunny-bright smile broke over Dean’s face. He sauntered Babe closer to Castiel and Link, leaning in conspiratorially. His eyes glinted with mischief.
“What’s say we wake up your guardians a little, eh?” he winked, nudging his head towards the half-asleep Benny, “and keep mine on their toes as well?” He led Babe a few lengths away, aiming her straight down the time-worn path.
“Last one down the hill gets left for the redcaps!” Dean laughed. He then dug his heels into Babe’s flanks, throwing her into a gallop. Castiel growled a command to Link, and he shot forward like a cannon ball.
“What the…?” Benny grumbled, shaken from the torpor of the road to find the king and his companion racing towards the unguarded verges of the forest. He goaded the horse into action with an “Allons-y, Solitaire!” and a swat with the leather reins.
Lady Jodette was a welcome sight, her smile an excellent prize for winning the race. She sat atop her horse at the fold of the hills, her dark eyes sharp and glinting as jet as she waited for the king’s approach.
Her hair was lopped boyishly short, but there was no mistaking the rest of her— even in a man’s trews and jerkin, she was all feminine strength. She sat tall in her saddle, confident as a queen. (And had Samworth had been the first son, Dean suspected she may well could have been.)
The king eased Babe into a trot, pulling her up alongside Jody’s big dun mare. Castiel and Link sauntered in from behind to join them.
She ducked her head in reverence, though she was clearly biting back a grin. “Your majesty.”
Dean did the same. “My Lady.”
Jody eyed the party—taking in the cart that had only just broken through the treeline; the flustered, red-faced guards that were only now catching up—and the blue-eyed stranger whose boot was practically in Dean’s stirrup. “I take it your travels have been easy, if a bit tedious.”
“A day of blessed nothing,” Dean said aloud. Then, quieter, he said to Jody “I’ve been bored outta my gods-damned mind. That race was the funnest thing I’ve done all day.”
“That was fun!” Anna giggled.
Gabriel groaned. “I hate you so much right now.”
“With such a handsome companion? I doubt that.” Jody’s eyes twinkled with mischief.
Dean straightened his back. “Castiel, this is Lady Jodette, Reeve of Millstead.” He thought for a moment, dimly recalling his own lessons. “Lady Mills will do.”
“I’m honored to meet you, Lady Mills,” Castiel said stiffly, before glancing at Dean for approval.
She laughed merrily at the show. “You can call me Jody, Castiel.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to teach him some manners,” he said to her as an aside.
“You?” Jody snorted, “teaching him how to behave? Hah! Has he seen you eat?”
“I have seen De—his majesty at the dinner table, yes.”
“And you find no fault with it? You’ve never seen him attack a plate and mistaken him for a hungry dog?”
“Hey!” Dean bristled.
“I can’t say that I have.” Castiel affected a thoughtful look. “But then, I’ve never seen a dog at a dinner table, so perhaps—”
Benny choked on his own laughter. Jody tried to hide it behind her hand. Castiel only seemed confused.
“You’re all banished,” Dean mumbled, nudging Babe into a jog.
Jody wheeled her horse around, still laughing, and caught up to Dean and Babe in a trice.
“So who is he?” she asked quietly.
Dean gave her a stern side-eye. “Castiel saved my life. I owe it to him to see that he’s taken care of.”
“Too new a toy to be put down, eh? Should I not have prepared two rooms?”
Dean glanced over his shoulder, deducing if either Cas or Benny was in earshot. “He’s a handsome bedwarmer, nothing more.”
“I’ve heard plenty about your bedmates, but I haven’t seen one in the flesh since Duchess Braeden,” Jody pressed. “You don’t need my approval, sire, if you like him that much.”
“Enough with that,” he snipped, before ticking his voice up louder. “What’s your boy made us for dinner?”
“Brice is roasting a joint of beef as big as you,” she smiled patiently, “and saving the drippings for potatoes with onion gravy.”
“And…?” he asked, hopeful.
“And savory cheese scones,” she added in recitation.
Dean sighed fondly. “You do know you’re my favorite vassal, right? You understand me.”
Jody rolled her eyes, but the grin never left her lips. “You’re easy to please.” Her eyes darted briefly to Castiel, now riding at Dean’s side. “As far as food goes, anyway. You’ve had the same meal each time you visit.”
“And what is a king’s duty, if not to uphold tradition?” Dean ribbed. “What pie do you have for me? Strawberry? Blackberry?”
“The strawberries were few this season,” she said, a might solemn now. “The thaw came late, and there are no blackberries yet.”
Dean nodded. Millstead was mostly farmland—snows and thaws and heat waves ruled here as the river tides did the capital. This would make for serious discussion in the coming days.
“But we have apples by the ton,” she offered. Castiel brightened immediately. “So apple pie it is.”
“Awesome.” Dean shot a glance at his companion. “Have you ever had an apple pie, Castiel?”
He cocked his head in his endearing way. “What’s a pie?”
Dean’s mouth pulled up in a grin.
“Oh, Castiel…” he breathed, “You’re going to learn so much on this trip.”
Their time in Millstead was short but pleasant.
The first full moon of summer was celebrated with the Millstead Faire. The faire always began in late morning and the festivities went long past the midnight hour, encompassing Arthur’s Night into its ancient traditions.
Dean spared a thought for Sam as he and Castiel watched the priests and elders bless the maypole in the midmorning haze. They spoke in a language from before this land was known as Millstead, and even before the Common Tongue. Sam would have loved to observe the ritual, and to gawp at the bull and stag masks the priests wore. Their strongest men and women then carried the thing on their shoulders —a dozen or so of them, for it was as long as a barge pole and wide as a wheel of good cheese— and placed it into a hole dug in the center of the village green. Then there was music and a circle dance, and the faire was officially begun.
The king was glad to partake in all manner of rustic delights: judging the best Arthur’s Night lanterns, betting on piglet races, and presiding over the Queen of Leeks pageant—which was won not by beauty, but by the best jokes and stories. He pretended to be scandalized when the winner stole a kiss, and was glad to see that jealousy never once crossed Castiel’s face.
Dean was stolen away shortly after lunch for a meeting with Jody and the region’s farmers at the town hall. The late thaw weighed on them, and the older men swore signs of an early winter were already looming. Some grain stores might needs be shifted, so that all the kingdom would have enough flour for winter.
He was loathe to leave Castiel, but was much pleased to find him and Donna, one of Jody’s deputies, watching two men juggle clubs, then knives, then two flaming batons each.
It did Dean’s heart well to see Castiel enjoying these simple pleasures. He’d seen these very jugglers at any number of faires, but the catch of breath in Castiel’s chest as the knives cut through the air made it new. Hells, he made everything new: apple pie (which he groaned around salaciously with every bite), the children’s zoo (complete with unicorned goat), and even dancing.
Dean protested that he did not dance, but was presented with such hoots and hollers and cheers that he had to take at least one turn with Jody during the afternoon’s entertainment. He remembered his footwork well enough to make do during the first tune, but declined all further offers. When Castiel could not pull him onto the grass once again, he took Jody instead.
A little something gnawed at his belly, seeing Castiel laugh -and Jody smile back- as she led him through one baltering movement after the other. Dean had his dignity, there on his blanketed hay bale, but wondered how much of it he would sacrifice to be on the receiving end of those pearly smiles.
Dean concentrated on the music instead.
By the time they left for Jody’s hold to prepare for Arthur’s Night, Castiel was drooping in his saddle. So much so that Dean helped him onto Babe, sitting front-to-back as they did that very first time. Dean held Castiel’s arms around him with one hand while Castiel dozed against his shoulder.
Cas fell into bed before he finished undressing- without even taking off his boots. Dean eased his jerkin from his shoulders and his boots off his feet, and tucked him beneath their quilt with a kiss on his forehead.
Dean supposed he could have rallied them with a cup of strong-tea each —there were half a dozen vendors hawking it at the faire, every one with their own family recipe— but a nap seemed just the thing. Their sheets and skins were sun warmed, and from their room in the high tower, the breeze was cool and clear.
The king settled in next to his companion, admiring his windswept hair and the color deepening on his cheeks, until sleep took him as well.
It was Castiel’s voice, urgent and pleading; hands clawed into Dean’s shirt, shaking him awake.
Though Dean’s eyes refused to budge open just yet, his hunter senses caught a smell on the wind: fire.
He groped blindly at his chest, finding Castiel’s hands and placing his own over them. A hybrid gesture, both calming and suspending.
“Easy…easy.” Dean patted Castiel’s hand. “Don’t worry.”
“Dean, fires! We have to warn Jody—”
“She knows, Cas. Don’t worry, they’re under control.”
The nervous keen of his voice peeled Dean’s eyes open. He found the will to roll out of his still-warm bed and, with his arm thrown over Castiel’s shoulder, guide them both to the window. From their vantage, he could see three separate pyres taking form in the orange light of dusk. Doubtless there would be more as the shadows grew longer.
“They’re wakefires, Cas. The people build them on purpose.” He stood cheek-to-cheek with Castiel, directing his eyes to a point just above Dean’s finger. “You see there?”
A mixed group of men, women, and children stood on a newly-reaped field. Drummers sat on low stools, idly tapping at their instruments. A wineskin was being passed around. “See? Nothing but dirt. Nothing that can catch.”
Castiel’s shoulders relaxed somewhat, though his eyes never left the growing towers of flame. He stood transfixed, as if staring not only at them, but beyond them.
Dean thought very suddenly of the long-cold hearth in Castiel’s little cottage. “I suppose living in a forest would make you scared of fire.”
Castiel nodded, turning to him with doeish, searching eyes. “Are you certain it’s safe?”
“Yes, Cas. Everyone will be perfectly safe .” He squeezed Castiel’s arm. “And you’ll be on a boat, away from all of it. There’ll be water on every side of you, and Benny will be standing watch.” He gave Castiel his best, most reassuring smile.
He wore it as surely as the priests and jesters wore their masks. If he didn’t smile, didn’t sever the thread of longing tensed between them, he would have let them stay like this. Pressed closely together, no more than a hand’s length between them. He’d have taken Castiel into his arms, pressed assurances against his skin, kissed the pout away from those full lips until he was smiling once more.
Thankfully —or damnably, he wasn’t sure which— a polite knock broke the tension for him. “Your majesty?”
“Yes, Donna, come in.” His voice was tight and squeaking as the old door’s hinges, and he cursed himself once more.
Donna entered in a soft blue dress, her long hair pulled into a braided bun, her ripe bosoms pushed high— a stark contrast to the modest, unflattering dresses she wore on duty. He was about to compliment her on her transformation when she spoke.
“You asked for us to wake you at seven, but here you are! Already awake…” she smiled nervously. “I’m not…interrupting anything?”
Dean half-stepped away from Castiel. “Nothing of the sort, Donna. Actually, I was hoping that you might perhaps help Castiel dress for the evening.” He then added “And if you might fetch Benedick to help dress me.”
“Oh, aye,” she nodded obediently, if not excitedly. “Certainly, your majesty. And Benedick’s already gone and witnessed the passing of the sword for us, so…ya know…if you had something else in mind…I could just—”
“Send Benedick, Donna,” he said, phlegmatic, pressing a hand against Castiel’s back, “and help Castiel dress. His trunk should be in his room.”
Both seemed to take both offense of the mere idea of separate rooms, considering how Dean and Castiel had hardly been more than an elbow’s length apart since breakfast.
“Well then,” Donna breathed, “let’s go get you ready for the boat!” She gestured with a hand, bidding Castiel out of the room first.
He left with a last, uncertain glance over his shoulder. Donna followed.
Benny returned with a jug of cucumber water (“You’re supposed to clean up with it,” Benny instructed, “though it does taste pretty good.”) and politely busied himself with his hooks and straps while the king disrobed and freshened up behind a paneled screen.
In truth, Dean needed him less to button his cuffs and more to serve as a wedge between himself and Castiel. Benny was excused the moment Dean’s boots were snug on his feet.
The needs of Castiel’s wardrobe precluded Aaron from finishing the green velvet doublet he’d been working on. Instead, he’d sent along a simpler piece: a brown broadcloth jerkin edged in scarlet, with small, brilliant brass clasps along the front. The collar was stiff but not too high, nor was the skirting too low; red-and-gold damask cordedge followed the seams, and Dean had to admit that the sharp lines suited him.
Aaron had made a set of knee-breeches to match —none of those silly puffy pantaloons, thank the gods— and the shades of brown played off the color in his cheeks nicely. It was so beautiful in its simplicity that it almost pained him to put on his circlet.
Dean was aware he was easy on the eyes, but he allowed himself to admit that he looked handsome. Even if the frills at his collar made him feel a might foppish. Aaron was due a bonus when he returned.
He smoothed down the lines of his jerkin one last time before exiting.
He was about to descend the stairs when Donna and Castiel emerged from the adjacent room, and his breath was taken away.
Castiel wore a blue-gray velvet jerkin, tucked deep to fit his form, with a long line of engraved silver buttons running from neck to navel. The garment had been made to bring out the green in a young Samworth’s eyes- now, against Castiel’s sun-kissed skin, it made his eyes bluer than ever. Blue as the evening sky growing dark above them.
A sudden tightness closed over Dean’s chest, forcing a huff of breath from him as he examined Cas from top to bottom and back again. The slight heel of his shining leather boots made them nearly of an equal height. Well-turned calves grew into thick thighs, and Dean had to stop himself from taking a turn about him to examine the view from the back. His shoulders were slighter than Dean’s own, but straighter. The cut of the piece was unforgiving, forcing a younger Samworth to correct his reader’s slump; on Castiel’s back, it sat perfectly.
Aaron was definitely due a bonus. Hells, maybe even a lordship.
He had refreshed his hands and face with the cucumber water left him, and he was pleasantly perfumed because of it. It played against the oil in his hair, leaving him with a clean and delectable scent. Dean wished to burrow his nose between Castiel’s neck and shoulder. (And, Dean wondered, if Cas had bathed very throughly, if the scent might be found in the silken crease of Cas’ thigh.)
“Is something wrong, your majesty?” Castiel asked from under his lashes.
Dean squared his shoulders, straightened his back. He realized that in all the staring, and despite all the thoughts -pure and impure- running riot in his head, he hadn’t uttered a single word.
“You look very handsome, Castiel.”
“Thank you, your majesty.”
Dean’s guts seemed to knot. He wanted to correct him- to bid that Castiel say his name. But a mere companion must behave as any other subordinate; no less than family or consort could call him by his full name, let alone by the endearment of Dean.
Not in public, anyway.
“Shall we go?”
Castiel blinked at him in his familiar way, but followed after Dean, down the staircase and into the hall, where Jody stood waiting.
She wore an uncomplicated gown of dark green velvet with a square neckline, and a string of pearls. The sleeves puffed at the top but tapered, rather practically, to her wrists. In her hair was a wreath of wild carrot and hyssop, and (to Dean’s amusement) dotted with white primrose blooms. Only Benny stood plain in the party, with not so much as a ribbon for his beard. He’d polished his pauldrons to shining, though, and wore a blood-red gambeson beneath his maille.
“You both look handsome this evening,” Jody smiled. “If that’s what you wear on a boat ride, your outfit for the ball must be breathtaking.”
“From your mouth to Aaron’s ear,” Dean grinned. “I’m sure you have something equally spectacular.”
“You’ll see,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. She swung her arm before her with a flourish. “After you, your majesty.”
Dean nodded, and led the way out to the torchlit drive, Castiel by his side, and Jody following on Benny’s beefy arm.
There waited four horses at two wagons. One laden with their baggage, with Walter and Asa at the driving seat; the other was driven by two of Jody’s deputies. Hay bales wrapped in rough fabric sat on the second wagon’s bed, with stray stems already thrown about. It was decorated, as if in apology for its common dullness, with a spray of green wheat and wild grasses on either side.
“A carriage fit for a king!” A voice shouted. Dean nearly jumped out of his skin. He may have yelped. A tough, masculine yelp, Dean would argue.
Jody’s face screwed up in concern. “Are you well, your majesty?”
“An insect,” Dean swallowed, plastering on an embarrassed grin. “An insect on the back of my neck. Nothing more. Let’s get on the road, shall we?” He scrambled onto the wagon bed, ready to have the incident forgotten.
Castiel followed, squinting as he took his seat next to Dean. “I thought we were going onto a boat?”
“I was promised a river cruise,” Gabriel said primly.
“The river is narrow in this part of Milllstead,” Jody explained, adjusting her skirts, “and the barge is too big to move freely. We have her moored on another part of the river.”
Dean cleared his throat. “Our trunks will go in the barge’s hold, and then tomorrow morning the horses will be taken to Victor’s. From there we shall go over land to Don Cesar’s.”
“I still can’t believe you had this moving island of a boat brought all the way here so you can take a river cruise,” Benny cavilled.
“It’s tradition, Benedick,” Dean huffed. “Arthur stole into the capitol on a boat, on the longest day of the year, carrying nothing but a single lantern. You can’t have Arthur’s Night on horseback. Wouldn’t be right.” He straightened his shoulders. “Besides, we’ll need her for the trip from West Edlundston into the capitol on the day of the ball.”
Dean turned to his companion. “That day, Castiel, you’ll get to see her in all her gilded glory. The exquisite craftsmanship, the sun shining off her prow…” He spoke of the barge with such pride one would think he’d built her himself. “The people waving as we pass…”
“Me, below deck with a bucket, waiting for it to end…” Jody deadpanned.
“I’ve had a pillows and a bedroll packed for you, just in case,” Dean said. “If we’re going to have a repeat of my first progress, you’ll at least heave in comfort.”
“Barge” was perhaps not the word for the floating leviathan that the party boarded. She was a sight to behold even in the capitol- here in Millstead, where the riverbanks ran close, her width meant nothing more than a one-man rowboat could scrape by her. She had made berth on a quay for two days as she was decorated, and left this very morning while the river ran high.
The Chevalier was in a class by herself. Tale went that she was drawn up by a king of recent memory and built by a harried shipwright— one assigned to take the king’s crude drawing of an oriental boat and make it into a water-worthy craft. As a result, she ended up as a barge-punt-shallop amalgam, both flat-bottomed and wide, with a high stern and prow.
She was capable of propulsion by up to twenty rowers at capacity, or —if nearly empty, and favored with good current— one good man at the stern to direct the rudder. Tonight, the rowing seats were topped by hatch doors, giving the impression of a flat and seamless deck. In the oarlocks were tall iron poles, and from each hung a lantern waiting to be lit.
Her smooth, carvel-built sides were lacquered to a jet-like shine. In stark contrast, the strakes highest from the waterline were carved with a pattern of repeating sigils and limned in gold paint. Towards the aft of the ship was a canopy of thick, buff burlap —a bit of cheek from Tran— with sprays of flowering juniper, rosemary, and dark purple thistle tying back the curtains at each post. (A might rustic, Dean thought, and not in a terribly masculine way. Then again, he considered, he should be thankful she didn’t go the primrose route.)
Underneath the canopy was a pile of soft pillows and furs from which they could observe the world as they passed. Nestled among them were two reed baskets: one near to overflowing with fruit, the other half-full with what seemed to be tiny pillows, or perhaps a pile of rags. Silver trays sat atop the pillows, empty and waiting. In the brazier-light of the dock, and under the gleam of the full moon, the luxurious furnishings gave it the appearance of a floating bordello.
Asa and Walter loaded the luggage into the hold, while Jody’s deputies loaded the serving trays. From their own earthen crocks, wrapped tight in linen, they handed each of the party a warm beef pasty with a thick, flaky crust. From the king’s traveling larder came the desserts, the likes of which neither Jody or Castiel had seen before. A jug of sweet red wine was left to share.
With the cabin loaded and dinner eaten, Dean recited the prayers and lit the lanterns. One was in an eastern style and made of waxed and oiled paper. Another was saltglass and iron, with patterns made from driven nail holes. The wood-and-rawhide lantern closest to the canopy lit of its own accord, and took on a golden glow.
Benny took his place at the rudder, and Asa and Walter unmoored the ropes holding her steady. With a few quick shifts, Benny had her moving with the current.
At first Castiel was uneasy— the way the boat jostled a little with their movements— but was assured that the vessel was strong, and that the river was not deep. He’d forgotten his own ability to swim until Jody asked, and that seemed to be the end of his fears. He settled onto the pillows, and, able to observe the wakefires from a distance, seemed mesmerized by the lanterns and dancers.
Jody took to the cabin rather quickly, claiming too swift a river and too much wine. He was about to chide her for it when she palmed a fistful of sweets and placed them in her empty cup; she gave him a knowing wink before disappearing below deck.
He shook his head; she was a horrible influence in the best possible way.
“Where’s Jody going?”
He turned to see concern writ on Castiel’s face; how his eyes seemed so much larger and brighter when they were kind!
“It’s the movement of the water,” Dean fibbed. “It makes some people feel ill.”
“Will she be alright?”
Dean smiled. “She’ll be fine; she only needs to rest a little.”
Castiel nodded gladly. Dean’s heart skipped a beat. He was cute. Damnably cute.
The light around them began to shift from the stark orange of wakefires to the soft glow of lanterns. They appeared like brightly colored fireflies: some others placed in windows, some hanging from bridges, bouncing in the distance as they were held at the end of an arm. They were made of carved horn, painted rawhide, colored paper, waxed cloth…some were even carved into the meat of neeps and pumpions.
They were approaching a town, it seemed, and Dean practically bounced with excitement. He crawled over Castiel to reach for the basket of fruit, plucking one from the pile.
Castiel caught the thing against his chest. An orange orb with a clean, bright smell. He cradled it in both hands, tossing it, feeling its weight smack against his palms. Castiel sank his teeth into it, only to grimace at the thick and bitter rind. He dropped it like a hot stone.
Dean laughed heartily, not even trying to hide his amusement. “You’re supposed to peel the thing first, Castiel!”
Castiel glowered at him. He wanted no more of this fruit.
“Those are for the children anyway,” Dean said, his grin wide, his cheeks flush under his freckles. “Look.”
He pointed to the shores, where children waded into the riverbank. The elder ones rolled their trousers to the knees. The younger stood waist-deep. At the mere motion of his hand, the children began to wave and call:
“A gift please, your majesty!”
“For me, sire! It’s my name day!”
One pointed to a boy nearly up to his neck. “For my little brother, your highness!”
That was the call that got the response. Dean took an orange from the basket and, on bended knees, pitched it towards the boys.
It landed just ahead of the little one with a great splash. The elder boy dove for it, snatching it before anyone else could reach. Now secure, he lifted his brother onto his hip with his free arm and placed the orange in his tiny hands. The two boys shared a look of great joy: an orange! Truly this would be the best Arthur’s Night in memory.
Dean dipped into the other basket to bring up a half-dozen little rag sacks, sewn shut with bright thread and bearing Arturus’ mark. He turned to the starboard side and threw a few to the children waiting on the other bank.
“What’s in those?”
Dean shrugged. “Tops. Dice. Nuts. Toy animals.” He flashed a grin. “And maybe a silver or two, if they’re lucky.”
Castiel got on his own knees then, throwing oranges sometimes too far or too rough. One hit a youngish girl in the leg, but she delighted at the prize all the same, doubtless in her right to have it. More than a few rag sacks fell into the water with a sad plop.
“Don’t worry, Castiel,” he said kindly, “tomorrow they’ll have washed up on the riverbank, still as good, and the children will hunt for them like treasure.”
Castiel fell back against his pillows, relieved and grinning. “You’re very good to them, Dean.”
A soft harumph sounded from the golden lantern. Dean thoroughly ignored it.
“People make the kingdom, Castiel. Be good to them, and they will be good to you. That’s what my grandfather taught me.” Dean leaned in close. “And besides,” he winked, “I have something much better for us.”
He turned to his left, picking up a tray and making some preparation of it. He then held it out to Castiel. A pile of tiny pastries lay on top of an oiled cloth; Castiel could practically smell their sweetness.
“A gift from the Ottoman ambassador.”
Dan offered the sweet with his first three fingers. The golden dough was as thin as a dry leaf, piled high with fragrant chopped nuts and spices, and all but dripping with honey. Castiel’s wide mouth opened delicately for it, wrapping soft and slow around the offered fingers.
The touch of those petal-pink lips —as well as the breathy moan as it hit Castiel’s taste buds— had Dean squirming against the pile of furs and pillows. He spared a moment to imagine those soft lips elsewhere and regretted it almost immediately.
“Oh, your majesty—”
“Dean,” he reminded him gently, brushing his thumb down Castiel’s cheek. “You may call me Dean when we’re alone.”
“But…?” Castiel’s eyes darted towards Benny. The glint of his plate in the lantern-light was unmistakable, if not his towering bulk.
“Benedick hears what I tell him to,” Dean said pointedly, “and less, if he knows what’s good for him.” His eyes met Castiel’s again. He purred, “It’s only us now.”
Castiel smiled bashfully. “Dean.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Oh yes,” he answered huskily. “It must be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
Dean chuckled low. “Then you must taste this.” He held a small triangle of soft beige fluff between his thumb and forefinger. Castiel presented his tongue between parted lips. And when they closed again, he hummed softly as spun sugar melted into a delicately nutty aftertaste. He licked away any trace of it on his mouth, chasing the play of flavors and textures as if he might not be allowed another.
It was nigh impossible for Dean not to stare.
“Which did you like better?” he asked even as he busied himself with another tray.
“I can’t say…they’re both so delectable…”
“Then this—” he proffered a dull shard of some brown, brittle foodstuff “—will make up your mind.”
This time, as Castiel’s mouth closed around the confection, his eyes opened wide, his brows unfurrowing for the first time since they’d met. It was as if he’d had a shock and an epiphany at once.
He rolled it around for a long moment—letting it melt slowly, letting his eyes slip closed in bliss—until he smacked his lips, savoring even the last essence of it. “What was that?”
“Chocolate. A gift from the King of Iberia, for our two-hundredth anniversary.”
“Has Jody had any of this? Has Benny?”
Dean wiped a dab of something from the corner of Castiel’s mouth. “There will be plenty left for them tomorrow. Tonight, this for us alone.”
“You are very good to me, Dean.”
The king’s head dipped to his chest for a moment, hiding his flush at the praise. But only for a moment. “For entirely selfish reasons, I assure you. I very much like to see you happy.” He cast his companion a sidelong glance. “Are you happy, Castiel?”
“Oh, I am. Happy.”
A chill went up Dean’s spine. “But…?”
“But…” Castiel sighed, leaving a pause large enough to ride a wagon through. “I feel as if…as if I will never learn enough to please you.”
Dean’s blood turned to ice. He knew that feeling all too well, and to hear that he was the cause of it —for anyone, let alone his companion— took his breath.
“I don’t know to dance, or which fork I should use,” he continued, “when to speak and when to be quiet…and I ask far too many questions.”
Dean bumped a knuckle under Castiel’s chin, lifting it so their eyes met.
“Castiel,” Dean sighed. “I should apologize. I don’t believe I’ve considered how very different my world is from yours.” Castiel frowned a little, prompting Dean to add “That’s not a bad thing. Just…different.”
“I don’t imagine you had need of more than one fork, or the knowledge of how to address a Lord or Lady. And I should not believe myself superior because I have.”
“But you are superior,” he countered softly, “you’re the king.”
“By luck of birth. I know I did nothing to earn it other than outlive my father.” His head hung between his shoulders, his circlet now an unwelcome weight on his forehead. “You are smart, Castiel. I’m sorry if I made you feel otherwise.” He sighed again. “I know that I am not the most learned of our kings—Hells, if kings were chosen for their brains Samworth would be riding this barge instead. My father might have preferred it, actually…”
“Don’t ever be afraid to ask me something, all right? Ask all the questions you like. Don’t worry if it sounds foolish.”
“Promise me, Castiel.”
“I promise,” he said shyly.
Castiel reached for a another piece of chocolate, turning it over silently in his mouth. Dean was content to watch the twitching of his lips when he suddenly swallowed.
“That.” Castiel pointed as they passed beneath it.
A long bridge, with lanterns posted every dozen paces or so. The whole of it was laced with ribbons of many colors. Just above the keystone hung a great spray of flowers. Unlike all the others, no one upon it paid the king or his barge one bit of attention.
“It’s a kissing bridge.”
“What do you mean?”
Dean smiled slyly. “It’s a kissing bridge. A bridge you kiss on. There’s little else to it.”
Dean at bit his tongue. Gods help him, he would not break a fresh promise. “You’ve never had a sweetheart, Castiel? No one to turn your head?”
His eyes wandered away from Dean, his mouth puckering in thought. “I don’t believe so,” he said at last.
Dean swallowed hard. “So you’ve never been kissed?”
“What’s a kiss?”
“Oh!” He barely kept his jaw from falling slack. “Uhm...”
His mind scattered in a dozen different directions. One was pity- that that, of all things, should be on the lengthy list of That Which Castiel Did Not Know. Panic found root- that Castiel should not care enough to know, and had no interest in it. Bravado had to be quelled before it simply rounded upon Castiel and swooped in to demonstrate.
Dean swore he heard Benny stifle a laugh behind him.
“Well…you see, Cas…when two people are fond of each other, they show it by pressing their lips together in a kiss.”
He nodded slowly, steeping in the information. “But why? To what purpose?”
Dean let slip a small laugh. “Because it simply feels good! Like eating chocolate, or dancing…”
Castiel seemed at a loss. And for good reason, Dean thought, cursing himself. He’d only just had chocolate, and had lived a life mostly devoid of dancing…
“Or…” Dean offered nervously, “like when we wake up together in the morning?”
“Oh!” That was the right feeling. The right words. They must have been, for Castiel’s face brightened enough to shame the sun. “Is…is that what it feels like?”
“Yes, well…” Dean swallowed hard. “Something like that. Except…except not your whole body. Only your mouths touch. Or…I mean…” he stuttered, “you can kiss other parts too, but you usually start with mouths.”
Castiel bit at his lower lip, his eyes falling to the furs and pillows beneath them. He hesitantly shifted towards Dean in the smallest measure, before looking at him from under those long, sweeping lashes.
“Will you show me?”
Dean’s heart jumped into his throat. For all his pondering and pining, he had not expected to be simply asked— especially not by someone who didn’t know how. His damnably anxious mind started compiling a list of all the ways he could sully Castiel’s first kiss forever.
“If you don’t want to—”
“No,” Dean said quickly. “No, I want to.”
He swallowed again, trying to force down the nervous lump in his gorge. “First, we move in a little closer.” He leaned into the chilly line of untouched fur that invisibly designated each man’s personal space. Castiel did likewise, until their hips and arms and shoulders pressed together.
“Now part your lips a little.”
Castiel opened his mouth, as if he were about to receive another treat.
“Just a little. As if you were taking a very small sip of something.”
Castiel closed his mouth until it was parted just so; Dean could not find it any more alluring. His other hand moved to cup the hinge of Castiel’s angled jaw, gently guiding him into place. That aching blue gaze settled upon him, and he was drawn in as a sailor was to a siren.
“Close your eyes.”
Castiel did, and Dean closed the space between them.
Time itself seemed to slow to a crawl, so that each fraction of a moment might be reveled upon. Their noses nudged and their lips slotted together. A low, heavy breath escaped from someone.
Dean’s heart battered against the wall of his ribs like a moth at a glass lantern. Impatient. Fluttering. Near to the source of the heat that could very well consume him.
Two sets of eyes opened slowly, cautiously, each gaging the other. And to Dean’s great joy, Castiel uttered a single word: “Again.” When it seemed that no more words were to follow, they indeed met again. And again. And again.
Castiel’s free hand rose to grasp at the fabric of Dean’s jerkin, anchoring them together. Dean’s own hand left Castiel’s jaw —his guidance was no longer needed in that area— and covered his companion’s against the chill of the night. He nudged Castiel’s mouth open with deeper, searching kisses, flicking at his plush lower lip with his tongue.
Castiel pulled away for a moment, his eyes blown wide. This newer-than-new thing —like chocolate and soft mattresses and warm bread before it— was startling for a very short while; he then took to it like a duck to water. A quick study indeed. Dean’s joy doubled knowing Castiel considered this a thing worth learning.
As he was about to possess Cas’ mouth once more, a hard thud sounded from the stern, tossing the boat roughly from side to side and knocking their teeth together.
“What the…?” Dean growled.
He turned sharply to look behind, and found a shadowy figure advancing on Benedick, knife drawn.
Before his mind could conjure even the spark of a strategy, the barge juddered again, and two more men appeared on the foredeck. The light of the lanterns reflected in the black mirror of their eyes.
Dean sprung to his feet —as did Castiel, to his great surprise— and the men were on them at once.
Dean was able to pick out one detail—the man’s thick red beard—before ducking a punch. Castiel, it seemed, wasn’t so lucky. One hit from the swarthy, dark-haired man sent him flying backward into their pillows, upsetting a tray with flourish.
In this moment of weakness, Red-beard managed to land a swift punch to Dean’s ribs, doubling him over. It was there, near-breathless and in pain, that he had a moment of utmost clarity: they did not want him dead. The rocks, the arrows…if they’d wanted him dead, Red-beard would have taken a knife to his guts and been done with it. A knife like the one that Dark-hair was currently pointing at Castiel.
Dark-hair lunged forward. Dean’s heart skipped a beat.
Castiel wielded the tray like a shield. The knife punctured through the silver to the hilt, embedding itself in the metal, the point held perhaps a foot away from Castiel’s nose.
Then Dark-hair flew backwards as if he had taken a hit to the chin, or a kick in the solar plexus. Dean’s eyes followed his path as he skidded, dazed, onto the foredeck.
An attempted punch to Dean’s kidneys reminded him he also had a battle to fight. He reached for the knife in his boot—still there, thank the gods—and sank it into the meat of the demon’s calf.
Red-beard roared in pain and stumbled. Hard.
The jolt caught up with Dean a split second later. His feet were splayed and his body half-hunched, so the movement of the Chevalier hitting the riverbank didn’t affect him half as much.
It took less than the blink of an eye for Dean to lean forward and plunge the knife into the demon’s belly. Two for the thing to die with a shout and a great burst of light from beneath its skin.
Dean turned to the rest of the party.
Castiel had taken his knife-and-shield and was going after a demon with short blond hair, currently crawling over Benny’s back. Dark-hair had found his feet again and was heading for them both.
He’d gone two footfalls in the direction of Dark-hair when he felt the vibration of Blond hitting wood. Dean pivoted on his ankle, rushing towards the demon prone upon the stern. He raised his arm for the kill—
And the coward smoked out.
Dean would later remember the way the black cloud streamed away from its host in a long column, the force of the expulsion palpable like wind or breath. The first time he’d seen such a thing happen in the flesh. Blond’s eyes were half-lidded, and his entire body went limp. Dead anyway.
That left Dark-hair.
A glance upwards saw Cas and Dark-hair circling each other: Cas looking for a place to strike, Dark-hair to recover his weapon. Finally, Castiel charged forward, knife-and-shield out in front of him. Dark-hair raised a hand straight out and tossed Castiel backwards with blunt force, knocking his head and shoulders against the side of the boat. The ersatz weapon rolled away with a clatter.
The name was barely from his lips before Dean was at his side.
Castiel groaned, but lifted his head to meet Dean’s eyes, and his hands looked for purchase on the deck.
Dean placed a hand on the back of Castiel’s head. No blood.
“Stay here,” he commanded.
Benny nearly avoided a punch to the face from Dark-hair, twisting it and letting it his shoulder plate instead. He took advantage of Dark-hair’s open stance to land a punch to his stomach, making him jump back.
Dean moved in to slam the blunt end of his knife into the creature’s face. The bones beneath gave under the pressure with a crack, and it groaned. With one more sweep of his arm he knocked the thing to the deck, then dropped to his knees for the killing blow. The half-broken face made the thing’s open, gaping maw all the more hideous as it screamed its last.
Dean stood, knife in hand, mouth open to inquire about his companions. Castiel was propping himself up on two arms, his legs drawn close. Benny’s hands were at his knees; he was bent over and panting. He saw Blond from the corner of his eye, alive and standing. But he couldn’t think to make a sound.
The knife was a mere flicker of silver before it was buried in Benny’s side. Then the red began to flow, staining the knife, splattering blood onto the deck.
The large man crumpled at the knees. The wet red stain grew and grew.
Blond smiled, his eyes dark, his teeth bared. Then he lit up like a macabre lantern, and crumpled lifelessly at Jody’s feet.
Dean scrambled to Benny’s side, laying him down, cradling his head. The pool beneath him grew and grew.
“Demons…” Benny sputtered, before coughing up a spurt of dark red blood. His lashes fluttered over half-glazed eyes, then went still.
“Benny?” Dean shook his plated shoulders. No response. Dean slapped at his cheek, regardless of the blood. “Benedick!?” His armor rattled, empty; he was lifeless as two silvers in a rag sack.
Something—someone—pulled at Dean’s shoulders, propping him up on his knees. He felt himself slowly coming back into his body— the racing pulse, the breaths that came fast and deep and made his head spin. How his stomach churned from grief and nerves, and cramped like something was reaching into him and squeezing.
Dean stared. He couldn’t help it. That body was Benny’s, but Benny wasn’t dead. He was at the rudder a few minutes ago. Where could he have gone?
In his line of vision came black boots. They stood by Benny’s shoulder, and moved so their owner could kneel. Two big hands clasped either side of Benny’s head, making him look fish-mouthed. Dean was about to remonstrate when a lightning-bright glow emanated from Castiel’s palms. Not quick like lightning, but with the sudden bright flare and steady incandescence of a candle’s wick.
Castiel’s eyes blazed with the same lambency, icy-blue.
Benedick’s whole body shivered, and his eyelids flew open. He gasped deep and loud, like a drowning man taking his first gulp of air.
Jody. Jody had pulled him up. Dean was alarmed by his own pliancy but still could not find his feet.
Benny sat up, still dazed. A nipperkin worth of blood fell from his mouth and dribbled down the front of him, joining the still-spreading stain on his gambeson. Behind him, Castiel’s slumped incrementally forward, falling slowly with a drunk and dazed look in his eyes.
Before Dean could blink, Jody was behind Castiel, helping him to sit on the planks of the deck. He propped himself up with his left arm, drooping heavily as if he were melting.
From one shore came the distant sound of voices, and the light of torches above the high grass. They’d come for Castiel, Dean thought. They’d seen the twin beacons of his eyes and were here for the creature with torches and pitchforks.
Jody was speaking to them. No- ordering them. Two stout men raised Benny to his feet, and threw an arm over each of their shoulders. They were helping him to the pile of pillows. A man and woman had Castiel by his ankles and under his arms. Dean reached out for Castiel, but found the weight of a blanket falling over his back.
“He’s safe, Dean,” Jody whispered close in Dean’s ear. “They’re both safe.”
The man and woman lay the nearly-inert Castiel next to Benny. Then the boat began to move.
The villagers had seen the attack as they gathered to the shore. Word of the king’s barge approaching drew them near, and they had seen the three men drop from the bridge. They summoned others away from their pyre, and followed with torches and makeshift weapons.
Two young boatmen took to the rudder; they traded regularly between East Edlundston and Millstead, and knew the river as the back of their own hands. An older man —father and grandfather to many, and veteran of more than one bull-goring— tended to Benny’s wounds and found them astonishingly shallow despite the blood. Castiel had simply fainted from shock, they surmised, and rolled him onto his side.
Dean sat with Benny and Castiel as Jody took control. She ordered the bodies of the two assassins bound, lest they have any life still in them. They would be sketched — perhaps even identified— at Victor’s before they were pitched and burned. A woman of middling age took up two torches, signaling to the furthest banks for what seemed like hours.
Finally, another pair of torches on a far bank responded. Reinforcements, the woman said, would be forthcoming; they were now officially under the protection of Duke Victor Henrikson.
The foods Dean gives Castiel are baklava, palace halva (also known as royal halva [and its cousin, pişmaniye] which is made with spun sugar and is fucking amazing), and of course, chocolate.
Rescue had come in the form of two punts, each with eight rowers. The prow of the royal barge was lashed to the smaller boats, and together with the quickening tidal current and the propulsion of the oars, the trip to Victor’s keep seemed to happen in a blink.
The Duke himself was there to greet them at the docks of the castle’s water gate. He was well awake despite the hour, his own Arthur’s Night celebration still in full swing. Half his costume—a brown fur-edged mask—hung from his belt. The contrast between the bear-skin at his shoulders and the look of utter concern on his face was almost comical. Yet so perfect for Victor, Dean thought to himself; his fierce exterior belying his gentle nature.
Dean glanced over his shoulder to see Castiel still out cold. And it looks like there won’t be time for formal introductions, he added darkly, laughing so that he might not cry.
The duke took the king’s hand, helping him off of the barge. Once Dean’s legs were steady beneath him, he made way for four pairs of men with stretchers who set about to gently moving Benny and Castiel. (The empty demon vessels were not treated so reverently—he wondered what information the woman had sent with the torches.)
“Come, your majesty,” Victor urged, “let us get you a warm cup of cider and a place to rest.”
Dean buried his nose deep into his porcelain mug, inhaling the scent of the brew inside. This ‘coffee’ stuff was a gods-given miracle. Between it and the healing power of bacon, he was beginning to feel less like hammered crap.
To say he’d slept poorly was an understatement. It seemed like every time he closed his eyes he saw black-eyed demons and replayed the image of Benny coughing up his own blood. He would wake up startled and sweaty, the sounds of the party below growing softer each time.
Castiel had clung to him in the night, for which Dean was thankful. Ever since—had his own eyes deceived him, or had Castiel resurrected Benny with light? From his hands? Had all that happened only last night? It already seemed an age ago.
Ever since his near-collapse on the boat, Castiel had been largely unresponsive. The physician had examined him —looked in his eyes, listened to his chest, felt his pulse— and pronounced him to be in fine health; he was only in a deep sleep. As such, even a little movement seemed a blessing.
Dean could only conclude that he was simply spent. That he had somehow poured his own vigor into Benny. But… how? Castiel had passed every test. It was said people could lift heavy objects in moments of great stress, but he would bet there was no proof in any library in the world about healing someone with light from one’s hands. Not to mention the glow in Castiel’s eyes…
The knife must have missed Benny’s lungs, the physician thought, but only just. The blood from his mouth was a tooth knocked loose, which had apparently happened. It was amazing what lengths science would go to to dismiss that beyond their scope. All that blood? That was a killing blow, no question.
He scooped some beans and tomatoes onto his fried bread, cramming it in his mouth with the last ort of sausage. (To Hades with table manners. There was no one else in the hall.)
And this seemingly impossible feat from Castiel was the least of his worries. He’d have to reimburse Victor for the gold paid out to the villagers (he couldn’t simply thank them and then send them away); there was the business of identifying the dead men, which was not his job, but would only lead to more questions. (Were they warlocks? Did they allow themselves to be possessed by demons, or were they taken against their will?) Then there was the issue of how progress should continue when his bodyguard was ill and everyone’s spirits were already sunk. This journey was only days old and had already taxed friends and subjects alike.
At least the cook had been awake. One less person to inconvenience.
He snapped from his reverie immediately, as if he were voicing the thoughts rather than thinking them. To his relief, it was only Victor. His dark eyes were dull and rimmed with red.
“Normally this is where I’d chide you for your eating habits, but I’ve ordered the same thing for myself.”
“Well, if you remember how often we drank, you’ll remember why I always ordered a full Edlundston breakfast.” Dean raised his cup. “This is amazing. I must have some.”
“There’ll be Ottoman traders at the Exhibition. You can buy the beans and the grinder, and the little pot to brew it in.”
Dean raised an eyebrow at Victor. He looked at the contents of his cup, inhaled, and ultimately shrugged. “Damn good bean water.”
Victor gave him a furtive smile. “I’m afraid I have to apologize in advance— my cousin Gordon is come to visit. He was further in his cups than I was last night, so we may be spared his company for the Exposition; but I do believe dinner with him is unavoidable.”
“You’re apologizing already? Am I to believe that somehow that Gordon’s temperament has gotten worse?”
“His temperament remains much the same, but is amplified by his two companions.” Victor sighed. “I’d hoped to avoid him until we were off to the South, but it seems he’s found us all out. I dare say he means to follow.”
“We’ll see how he behaves himself,” Dean said diplomatically. “If he or his companions prove too obnoxious… well, it’s surprising how effective a glare from Benny’s direction can be.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” Victor smiled. “Is he much improved?”
“A little weak, perhaps, from the loss of blood, but that’s to be expected. He is otherwise well.”
“Unshaken,” he lied confidently. “I hope the news travels far and fast, so that any other would-be assassins might think twice before making another attempt.” He hoped that the demonic nature of the assassins would be no part of said news, however.
“All the same, we’ll need to be particularly cautious while we’re out today. I have no less than four men flanking us.”
Dean bowed his head. “Thank you, my lord. Your vigilance is appreciated.”
Victor took the compliment with a little bow of his own. “And your…?”
“Companion,” Dean supplied. “He’s shaken, but otherwise fine. He’s still abed, no doubt recovering from the excitement.”
Victor’s eyes twinkled. “I suppose a knife fight on the royal barge would be enough excitement for any common man’s lifetime.”
“And the Millstead Faire besides,” Dean countered toothlessly. “I give him leave to sleep for a week, if he needs.”
“Forgive me, your highness, but…” Victor glanced over his shoulder. “Is it true that you found this man in a forest?”
Dean spared a look over his own shoulder, and at the galleries and curtains—anywhere someone might hide themselves to eavesdrop.
“Yes.” Dean’s eyes fell to his plate. “He saved my life.”
Victor squinted. “And you don’t find it odd that you should suffer two attempts on your life within ten days of meeting him?”
“I hear what you’re saying. Sir Robbett had the same concern. But he’s passed every test—no reaction to silver, loves the addition of salt…blessed water in the wine didn’t hurt him, though he almost spat it out for the taste.”
“And you’re sure that there’s no earthly reason for this coincidence?” Victor prodded.
Dean huffed a little. If only they could see Castiel as he did— the way he had begged for his life upon their meeting, the earnestness of his eyes each time they were close. The innocence in his kiss blossoming into ardor, perhaps even to…
“No. Wait until he comes down, Victor. Look him in the eyes and you’ll see there’s nothing malicious about him.”
The corner of Victor’s mouth ticked upwards in a sly smile; one that might be called wistful on another man. “I don’t know, Dean. You’ve always been a fool for a good pair of eyes.”
The king’s cheeks flushed with pink. “Shaddup,” he mumbled into his eggs.
Though Castiel was slow to rouse, he was eventually coaxed from their bed with the promise of good tea and a new type of jam. He moved with childlike, petulant sluggishness through most of the morning. It was this that endeared him to Victor, though Castiel went through his introduction by rote. (In the carriage, on the way to the exhibition, Victor confessed to the party that he’d had too much to drink and too little sleep, and that Castiel expressed in word and action the feelings he dare not exhibit at his rank. Castiel had no response—he had fallen asleep against Dean’s shoulder.)
The Edlundston Exhibition was as cosmopolitan as the Millstead Faire was bucolic. Sure, there were the same jugglers and children’s zoo, but the hawkers and mongers and traveling musicians were replaced by merchants and colporteurs. Beguiling beauties waved the men towards sellers of laces and silks; called to the women to examine the length and lustre of their hair, to show that theirs might be so with the purveyor’s treatment. (Jody wasn’t swayed by those feminine trappings, though she did buy a bolt of good black cloth and a necklace of jade beads.) There was music, but as Castiel complained, none of it was lively enough to dance to.
As was his fashion, Castiel was drawn to the most lively displays. A life-sized wind-up lion, whose eyes blinked and whose tail twitched like a pussycat. The lion’s maker sold tin men that really walked! Another exhibited a clock with a mechanical bird that warbled from its metal beak and stiffly flapped its wings on the hour. But the thing that held his attention most was strikingly simple—a looking glass. Dean smiled indulgently as Castiel stroked the smooth surface with a finger, blinking to watch himself blink back, and studying the shape of his own face like he had never seen it before. Victor, for his part, was graciously silent as this sylvan madman gazed at his reflection for five entire minutes. Jody only raised a knowing eyebrow at Dean.
And while the wonders of the exhibition were truly awesome, it seemed that neither Dean nor Victor could take ten steps without running into some lesser lord dressed in his best accoutrement, or an upstart merchant who had advanced himself to peerage. He was thrown flattery left and right, and was made to smile pleasantly until his jaw ached.
He envied Castiel, who was free to roam about, nantling through books and sampling little morsels of food. At the very least, they had left with plenty of treasures for their trouble. Nearly everything Castiel took a fancy to was shoved into their arms with goodwill by vendors looking for favor: a hand-held looking glass, a wind-up tin man, an ivory comb, a bag of dried apricots, and a book about the life cycles and habits of bees. He read the book from cover to cover on the carriage ride back.
Upon their arrival, the party was greeted in the main hall by welcoming sights and smells. Benny was on his feet with the help of a cane, and doing well enough to descend the staircase on his own.
“Your physician says I should be well in a few days,” Benny informed them. “Sooner if I rest. But damned if I was gonna wait for left-overs. This whole castle smells delicious.”
“I’ll say.” Dean breathed deep, filling his nose with the scent. “Venison?”
“I remember you liked a good venison roast,” Victor smiled. “If the king is visiting, why not indulge?”
“It’s certainly not on my account, cousin.”
All heads turned to the left wall, where Sir Gordon Walker could be seen descending the staircase, followed closely by two other men.
Dean’s jaw clenched, and he felt himself smiling politely so as not to sneer. He felt more than heard Victor’s sigh of defeat.
“Your majesty, you know my cousin Gordon. These are his friends, Sir Kubrick and Sir Creedy,” he gestured respectively. “Gordon, this is the Lady Jodette, Reeve of Millstead; and this is the king’s companion, Castiel.”
Castiel bowed at the waist. “I’m pleased to meet all of you.”
Clearly his lessons had taken, Dean thought, for he was quite sure that no one had ever been pleased to meet Sir Gordon.
Gordon glanced between the two of them before addressing Dean. “I heard you ran into some trouble on the barge last night. Assassins.”
“Yes,” Dean said coolly, “and easily dispatched by the four of us aboard.” He then added “My bodyguard Benedick was with us. He was urged to rest today.”
Gordon’s smile was on the edge of a sneer. “Yes, I understand that his recovery was nothing short of miraculous.”
What did he know? Dean thought. What did he know, and what had the villagers seen?
“You know the saying- ‘The gods are good, but the physician is better’?” He turned to Victor. “Your Nancy provides excellent care. Remind me to thank her before we leave.”
“I will, sire.”
Gordon opened his mouth to speak, and was interrupted by a gentle clear of a throat. A tall, stocky man stood amongst the company, waiting politely for every eye’s attention.
“Your majesty, your grace,” he nodded, “sirs and lady. I am to bid you come in for dinner.” He looked at Dean with a mix of pride and fluster. “I do hope you enjoy it, your majesty. It’s been prepared especially for you.”
Dean never much liked those words.
“I’m sure I will.”
“Thank you, Melvin,” Victor said kindly. The man bowed a little and excused himself, never turning his back on Dean.
Victor held forth a hand, letting the king lead them to the dining room.
There were at least a dozen other platters on that table that went unnoticed for the spectacle of the main course: an entire young stag—antlers and all—sat sphinx-like in the middle of the table. A round of gasps and murmurs passed between the diners.
Dean was all awe—the preparation must have been laborious! To cook it evenly to a roasted brown, to keep the head upon the body so smoothly and seamlessly…
Victor grinned in satisfaction. Even Gordon and his stooges seemed impressed. The admiring whispers continued as they took their places at the table.
“What do you think, Cas?” Dean asked over his shoulder. “Looks pretty ta—”
The sentence fell short once he saw that Castiel was shaking. “Cas?” His hands were clasped over his chest as he struggled for each pained breath. “Cas?”
Then he bolted. He turned on his heel and bolted.
Jody turned to the sound. “Dean, what happened?”
“I don’t know. He just turned and ran.”
She leaned in and spoke low. “Would you like me to go after him?”
“No, you stay here. They won’t start without me. Just let Victor know.”
Jody nodded, and left to join the other diners.
After some wrong turns —Damn this winding castle!— Dean found their bedroom; mostly because he could hear the soft sounds of weeping through the door.
He rapped at their door and heard a faint, strained “Enter.”
Castiel sat at the edge of the bed, arms curled upon himself. He looked up at Dean with the saddest, glassiest eyes, and Dean was struck through to his core.
He caressed that despondent face with a gentle hand. “What’s wrong, sweetun?”
“I knew that deer,” he said softly. “I ran with him as a fawn. I’d bring him apples down from the trees and he would show me where the ripest berries were. I cut his velvets from his first antlers because they were getting in his eyes…”
Dean stroked his hair as he babbled. “I’m sorry, sweet.”
“They couldn’t have known,” he replied sadly, muffled in Dean’s jerkin. “You couldn’t have known.”
Something in his voice pulled at Dean’s heartstrings. Castiel was trying to comfort him even as his own heart ached. Dean cupped his tear-strained face with both hands.
“Are you hungry still?”
“Yes,” he sniffled. “Only… only, please- don’t make me go down there. I can’t…”
“I won’t. I promise I won’t.” Dean patted Castiel’s wild hair down. “Would you like something brought to you?”
“Very well then. I’ll have them bring up soup, and fish, and salad— even bread and butter.”
He smiled then -truly smiled, if only a little- and it brightened his entire face.
“Once the table’s been cleared, I’ll have someone fetch you so you can join us for dessert. Then there will be fruits, and cheeses, and every good thing.” He bussed Castiel’s forehead. “And I have it on very good authority that there will be apple and honey cake.”
Castiel’s eyes widened. “How do you know?”
Dean grinned. “Duke Victor’s cook asked what I would most like for dessert. So I told him.”
A tiny furrow appeared between his brows. “But pie is your favorite.”
His thumbs, seemingly of their own volition, swiped the tears from Castiel’s cheekbones. “If it brings you joy, sweetun, I will endure ten feasts worth of apple cake.”
Castiel wrapped his arms around Dean’s waist, pressing his cheek to Dean’s belly and squeezing him. Dean wondered if Castiel could hear feel the great knot that had just bunched inside of it.
His head reeled with his own words- if it brought him joy? What pap was that? What poet nonsense? But he had said them, and no other part of him could argue it. His heart offered them, and they’d rolled unguarded off his tongue.
“All right now, I must be getting back to the table.” He patted Castiel’s shoulder, and the shorter man let his arms fall away. “They won’t serve a crumb without me, and Benny is likely hungry enough to gnaw on his own fingers. Or someone else’s.”
Castiel tittered a little at that, and Dean knew his job was done.
“May I kiss you, my king?”
He leaned down towards Castiel with a smile. “Cas, you don’t have to ask me when we’re alone. And you don’t—”
His mouth was stopped with a kiss; a long one, warm and humid with the breath from Castiel’s parted lips. It was the one he had given him last night returned a hundredfold- full of confidence and promise. Dean felt an immediate stirring between his legs.
If he didn’t excuse himself right away, neither of them would have any dinner.
“I’ll have dinner brought up at once,” he said, with all the calm authority he could muster. He did not look back at Castiel once as he turned to make his way back to the dining room.
“About time,” Kubrick smiled. “We were wondering if your consort was whetting your appetite.”
There was a round of hoots and whistles from the table. While Duke Victor may not serve the meal without the king, it seems that keeping their cups filled was within protocol.
“My companion is unwell,” Dean said coolly. He then turned to Victor. “I said I would have him sent up something more delicate for his digestion. Some bread and butter, and some soup. Perhaps a bit of fish.”
“Of course.” Victor nodded, and gestured towards a servant. He whispered an order, and the boy bowed- once to Victor and once to his king, before trotting off.
“More like he’s got a delicate backside,” Gordon said into his cup of wine, “having been stuffed with kingly cock for a fortnight.”
“Castiel is a commoner,” Dean reiterated, “he’s not had so much rich food in a lifetime as he has in this fortnight, nor in such bounty.” He inclined his head toward Victor, who raised his cup in thanks. “His stomach merely caught up with him at an inopportune time.”
“He doesn’t have a king’s appetite, then?” Kubrick jeered.
“Let’s see how much his majesty eats,” Creedy continued, subtle as a truncheon, “we’ll see if he’s lying then! Nothing makes me hungrier than a fight or a fuck.”
Jody cast him a murderous glance. Victor glared at his cousin, thoroughly unamused by the three of them.
“One shouldn’t speak ill of a man who is not present to speak for himself,” Victor said civilly. “He very well could be suffering from stomach upset. And I’ll thank you to keep such language away from my table. Leave it at the campfire or the whorehouse.”
This was enough to cow Kubrick and Creedy, though Gordon returned his cousin’s glare with impenitence.
"My apologies, cousin. Your majesty. I only meant it as an observation of the closeness between yourself and your consort."
Horseshit, Dean thought, but he would not let Gordon see him crack. “He’s not my consort.”
Victor’s stentorian sobriety cut through the japes like a broadsword. “Wait a moment…you brought him on progress, you paraded him through the kingdom on your barge—
“—while kissing like village sweethearts,” Benny snuck in.
“— and you don’t mean to have him as a consort?” Victor finished.
“He’s my companion, nothing more,” Dean said flatly, investing himself in the lie. “Something to keep me entertained until I find a suitable queen.”
“Isn’t that what your ancestor the Frog King said?” Kubrick jabbed.
“Shall we start the search for a brood-wife now,” Creedy said with a laugh, “or shall we wait until after the wedding?”
“Best start saving now,” Gordon chided.
Dean’s face soured, his dimples making deep furrows in his cheeks.
Mercifully, Jody caught this. “Now now, gentlemen,” she said, rolling her eyes dramatically, “I can practically smell the musk in the room, and it’s overtaking the scent of this lovely meal. So how about you all put your peckers away, and let the king take his choice cuts so we can eat?”
There was grumbling and some swearing, and a muttered something about a ‘battle-axe’, but each man sat straight in his chair and readied his plate.
Dean carved a bit from the loin, and passed the knife and serving fork to Jody with a lingering glance. ‘Thank you’ it said. She accepted them with the smallest nod of acknowledgment, and helped herself to a thick slice of roast from the deer’s hindquarters. Victor regarded the king with a raised eyebrow, and Dean only looked to his plate.
For the first time in his life, Dean did not enjoy the taste of venison.
When the table was cleared, and the bones and scraps were bound for the kennel, Dean imposed upon Benny to fetch Castiel.
Benny bowed at the waist, then then took up his makeshift cane. It took some effort to pull himself to standing, but he managed to do so with only a small grunt of pain. He went off towards the guests’ chambers, the scuff-tap of his boots echoing down the hall.
Dean hated to Benny put out, but he would not be made sport of by leaving the table again.
Victor commented -quite sincerely- on how Castiel looked ‘much recovered’ once he took his place beside Dean. There was a round of sniggling at the table, which the Duke cut through with a stern glance.
Dessert was laid before them on the best silver: a tart of goat’s cheese, topped with sweet poached pears and drizzled with honey; a cherry tart with rich custard, and the promised apple cake. There was also a board laden with sweet and savory cheeses—one blueberry, one cranberry, one apricot— served along with sweetened and spiced nuts. A wooden mazer filled with mead began and ended its round in front of the king.
Castiel ate them all, happily patting his stomach between sips of mead.
Dean wished that Cas could have shown the same enthusiasm for Jody’s simple offering of pie. East Edlundston was far better connected than Millstead, thanks to the river and the sea, and could afford to offer the king a bit more exciting fare. He immersed himself in thoughts of what fare Don Cesar might have for them, down at the edge of the country, near a port to the open ocean, and of what politesse might be waved in the presence of the Don and his husband. He may even be allowed a measure more of affection towards Castiel; to feed him grapes or a juicy segment of plum…
Castiel hiccuped loudly then, bringing a hand to his mouth. Dean turned to see him looking sheepish but unrepentant— a little simper on his lips, his eyes a little dim.
Dean sighed to himself. How had he grown so fond of this strange, wild-eyed creature so quickly? His instincts told him it was no enchantment, only human endearment— and that somehow made it still worse.
Castiel could be taught to behave, but to what end? Would not teaching him to bow and kiss ladies’ hands be an end to the unbridled joy of his being? Would he think twice about how loud his laugh may be? How his dancing was not to standard? Would not the very touch of courtly life corrupt him?
He could find a queen with a head for letters. One to curtsy and smile at all the right times. One who wouldn’t mind that her husband kept his lover at elbow’s length. Hells, she might be allowed one of her own—man or woman—once a suitable heir had been produced. If only he could find a gentlelady amenable to such an arrangement…
From the corner of his eye, Dean caught a quaking in Gordon’s shoulders. His forearms rested against the table’s edge, holding his cup in both hands. From above its silver rim, Dean noticed Gordon’s jet-chip eyes darting between both himself and Castiel. They were narrowed, nearly glinting, full of some emotion skirting both derision and amusement.
Gordon’s great swollen pride would one day lead to his charging into a vampire nest, Dean thought, or a loup-garou’s hideaway, and Gordon would end up a meal; when that day came Dean would not spare a whit of pity or sympathy.
Castiel placed a hand on Dean’s shoulder, stroking him softly. He leaned into Dean’s space to whisper low in his ear.
“That man’s soul is foul,” he hissed, breath sweet with mead. “It’s like…bog water. It obscures him. But you…Dean, your soul is so bright…”
“Thank you, Cas,” he said crisply.
“I mean it. It’s gold and bright and beautiful, like when the sun shines through a leaves on a sunny day.”
“I appreciate your saying so,” he said, sliding Castiel’s hand away, “but this isn’t the place for such declarations.”
Castiel promptly yoked his chin onto Dean’s shoulder. “Kiss me.”
“Not now, Castiel... Not in this company.”
“This is not a good time,” he hissed softly.
“Is something the matter, your majesty?” Victor’s face was set calm and sedate, but his dark eyes were twinkling with mirth.
Dean rose to this feet, taking Castiel with him. “My deepest apologies, sir, but I believe the mead has gone to my companion’s head. I will take my leave to put him down.” He bowed a little, avoiding the snide looks from Gordon and his men. “Sirs. Lady.”
He pulled Castiel away by the elbow, their chairs scraping indecorously over the stones.
Dean wanted to be furious- having to drag Castiel from dinner like a common drunk. For his outburst beforehand at the sight of the deer. But, truth be told, he was glad to leave it. He would be gladder still to leave this place, taking Cas, Jody, Victor —and only Victor— to meet Don Cesar and his husband at the seaside. One last chance to save this damnable trip.
And, though he hated to admit it, Castiel was absolutely adorable when tipsy. He became loose-limbed and affectionate, and it was hard to be cross with someone praising the light of your soul.
He lay Castiel on his back on their bed, unlacing the neck and wrists of his shirt, and began to work Castiel’s boots from his feet.
“You’re being very good to me, Dean.”
“I’m getting you ready for bed, you hedonist,” he teased.
Castiel squeezed his arm. “I like it when you smile.”
Dean felt his ears redden. “Does it make my soul brighter?”
“It does!” Cas beamed. “It’s so beautiful…”
“Uh-huh.” Dean humored Castiel, pulling off his second boot.
Then it was like Castiel grew eight arms, and all of them pawed and clutched and grappled at Dean. “It’s the truth. It’s sooo bright, Dean…”
“You’re drunk,” he chided, “on a maiden’s share of mead.”
“So what if I am?” His palm was warm against Dean’s jerkin. “Come kiss me.”
Dean wasn’t sure whether Cas pulled him down onto the mattress, or if he was the one who draped his body over Castiel’s. Either way, he found his knees bent between Castiel’s, their lips meeting as Dean hovered above him.
He let himself be directed by Castiel’s ardor; the crush of their lips slow and heady for a time, then deepening into a tangle of tongues. He braced himself on his forearms on either side of Cas, while the man beneath him caressed the hinges of Dean’s jaw with his thumbs. He carded his fingers through Dean’s hair. He mapped Dean’s broad shoulders like he meant to later sketch them from memory.
Dean was harder is his smallclothes than he’d ever been, and they hadn’t bared an inch of flesh. A twist of guilt tugged at Dean’s insides for even wanting this. But to see him now in the heat of passion…rippling muscle, unmarred by a single hair or scar, sculpted as a Florentine statue…
He sighed hotly against Castiel’s neck. “I want to feel my skin against yours,” he whispered, and received an eager nod in reply.
He had not expected that Castiel would be the one to pull at the laces of his jerkin, sliding the cord from its grommets and tossing it aside. His shirt was quickly pulled out from under his hose, and the shameless hands that perpetuated it were suddenly at Dean’s waist.
Dean sucked in a breath, releasing it with a quiet “Oh”. He hadn’t anticipated the strength of those big hands; the firmness of those long fingers as they traced along his ribs. As they brushed absently over his nipples, making him hiss.
He nipped at Cas’s bottom lip and drew a gasp of his own, along with a look of wide-eyed wonder. His irises were blown wide, a thin corona of blue ringing an eclipse of black. There was a flush to his cheeks now that couldn’t be purely due to mead.
He was beautiful.
Dean rose up upon his hands and knees, then adjusted himself so that he sat astride Castiel’s hips. His fingers took to Castiel’s laces four at a time, fleet-yet-reverent across his chest and belly, splaying open his jerkin and the fly of his trousers. Dean shucked his own layers before giving Cas the tender command of “Up”. He let Castiel’s jerkin fall, and pulled the offending shirt over his head.
He settled over Castiel, now skin-to-skin, and earned a heady puff of warm air over his clavicles. He nibbled on Castiel’s ear, and the resulting lewd moan went straight to his loins. By the gods, how was something so innocent already besting entire nights of passion?
As if in retort, Castiel’s mouth plowed into Dean’s, catching him off guard and rolling him onto his back. Dean’s head hit the pillow with a muffled groan, and he seized Castiel’s ass with both hands. To damnation with innocence.
Castiel was astonishingly receptive, rearing into the touch. Dean was sure he was leaving prints on the firm flesh of Castiel’s backside. Meanwhile, the hard weight of Castiel’s cock was brushing against the insistent swell between his own legs, just enough to tease.
Dean canted his hips, grinding their bodies together. Castiel growled deep, and the sound tugged at the tight furl of need building in Dean’s core.
Dean’s hands found the waistband of Castiel’s trousers and sunk his thumbs underneath, easing them down his hips, all while maintaining eye and lip contact. He beseeched Castiel with a look — Is this alright?— and received eager kisses in response.
Dean brought the fabric down over Castiel’s thighs in a slow sweep, his hands dragging down the firm and corded muscle, until the fabric pooled at his knees. Dean caught a glimpse of a thick and sizeable cock, almost full with blood, the rosy tip peeking from beneath its hood.
Dean’s hold on patience was tenuous at best. Castiel’s was blessedly nonexistent—he plopped down onto the mattress next to Dean and brazenly pulled the rest of his own trousers down his legs, then flipped onto his knees and pulled off Dean’s hose. He hung over Dean like mantle, warmth radiating from his taut frame.
Cas looked him over curiously, as if he didn’t have the very same elementary anatomy; as if the pubic and axillary tufts of light brown hair, and the liberal spattering of freckles somehow separated them as a species. As if the king’s naked form was something he’d never seen.
He traced a finger along the vein on the underside of Dean’s cock—now resting hard and proud against his belly— from base to tip. He dabbed at the bead of liquid gathered there, inspecting it as he did the rest of the man, before doing it again in reverse. Dean groaned with impatience and arousal in equal measure.
He rung his arms around Castiel’s shoulders, kissing him deeply, hoping to convey with touch what he feared to ask aloud. You wish this of your own will? Not because of drink, or to please me?
Castiel seemed to answer with a rumble into his ear. “Dean.”
He broke the kiss, and leaned to prop himself up on his left arm. The right hand he ran over Dean’s chest and stomach, before settling at his waist.
He tucked a kiss into the spot just behind Dean’s ear, lifting out a deep purr from the king. Then another, just below it. Then another. Then another.
The hum of Castiel’s warm breath across his neck, across the hollow of his throat…half of Dean wanted to seize the hand at his flank and place it against his own eager sex; the other half wished to revel in the pure sweetness of this sensation. For all Castiel knew, this was the apex of the act. And, as such, he poured his passion into each kiss.
He placed them all along the span of Dean’s broad chest and soft middle: some quick and delicate, others full-lipped and slightly wet and torturously slow. And they seemed to have neither tenor or pattern. His cock got three or four tame pecks best suited for the cheek. The meat of his outer thigh, however, got an attentive bite that he had not expected to enjoy as he did. Nor did he expect to shiver at having the soles of his feet kissed.
He felt a blush creep over him as he was urged onto his stomach; as Castiel trailed still more kisses over the back of his calves. It was a peculiar—but in no way unwelcome— sort of attention. Having the insides of his knees kissed was one thing, but even Lisa had never kissed him…there. By the time Castiel had finished a ladder of kisses up his spine, Dean was biting back moans. (Damned if he’d give Gordon or his stooges any more material for their japes and jabs.)
Castiel rolled onto his side next to Dean. The hazy bliss in his eyes wasn’t mead any longer. Not by a long shot. Dean pulled Cas closer, meeting him chest to chest.
Castiel kissed him now like a wild thing- more passion than finesse, and with a hunger that threatened to devour him. His hands were on Castiel at once, running his fingertips over the plains and valleys of what felt like acres of smooth, tanned skin. He imagined Castiel bathing under a waterfall like a nymph; sunning himself dry on a bed of moss. He imagined settling himself between Castiel’s legs there, sucking him all the way down until he cried out.
He was so very beautiful.
He nudged a knee between Castiel’s, rolling their hips toward each other; their cocks slid together, prompting a low whimper from the king and a sharp gasp from his companion. Dean smiled in satisfaction.
His fingers left whatever little patch of skin had taken his attention, and stole away to stroke the underside of Castiel’s sex, just as he had done to Dean.
Dean’s hazy, half-lidded eyes took in the absolute wonder and clarity written on Castiel’s face. Castiel nudged his own hips forward again, chasing the sensation. A tentative hand wrapped around Dean’s length, and it seemed that Castiel had reached some understanding: the things done to him could be done to Dean, to their mutual pleasure.
It was torture now, Dean thought. Pure torture.
Half his mind longed to roll Castiel over, open him up under his tongue and fingers; for Dean to coat himself in sweet almond oil and push into that tight heat. What sweet sounds would Castiel make unfettered by propriety? When he didn’t know he was supposed to hide his sounds of ecstasy in his pillow, or in the crook of his arm?
The other half was overwhelmed by the sweetness of his kisses and touches. For all his shamelessness, he was still so innocent. He touched Dean now with diffident fingers. He shivered when Dean took him in hand, gliding up and down his length. The tip of it was dark and slick, and he knew that Castiel had to be close.
The way he moaned so prettily and arched his back…the parted lips…the lashes fanning those high cheekbones…
He took Castiel’s hand away, nudging it down to where the roots of their cocks met, and put them both into Castiel’s grip. Dean then grasped them both in hand, gliding up and down, up and down, in his fist.
Castiel let out a moan; one that Dean felt in the coiling heat in his gut. Their open mouths would not meet; instead, they shared the same air, their eyes locked the way their lips could not, their veins pulsing in time.
It was one dulcet ‘Oh’ after another, until Castiel spilled over Dean’s fist with a great shuddering breath. That was all Dean needed, and he succumbed to his own swooning flux a pass or two later.
Their heads lolled against the other’s on their shared pillow, both covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
Castiel poked at the tackiness of it as it cooled, watching it stretch in a viscous web from his belly to his finger. Cas was in this, as in all things, shameless. Dean would have batted his hand away if not for remembering his own juvenile curiosity.
A thought found Dean in his haze: had Castiel done anything like this before? He’d never kissed, so certainly he’d never felt another’s touch. Never been held in a lover’s arms. Never lost himself to pleasure in a good bed.
He inched possessively closer to Castiel, burrowing into his neck. His lids were growing heavy, and his mind was growing dull; still he endeavored to etch the images of Castiel’s first passions into memory. If he would now be allowed to kiss and to touch, he would show him all those and more.
“What is a bedwarmer?” Castiel asked, voice both gruff and guileless at once.
Dean snapped awake. “Where did you hear that?”
“When you were riding, you told Lady Jodette that I was a bedwarmer. And then Sir Gordon knew me by that title.”
A bolt of pain, as real as that from any crossbow, lodged right behind his ribs.
“Yes, you’re a bedwarmer,” Dean said, smoothing the stray hairs on Castiel’s head with a hand, and the furrows in his brow with a kiss. “It is your duty to climb into my bed before I do. To see that it is safe, and to make it comfortable, and to keep me warm all through the night.”
“Oh,” Cas nodded, clearly considering his position. He had slept beside Dean every night, and he was often in bed before the king. “Yes, I see.”
“It is a very important and trusted position. I can’t leave it to just anyone.”
He felt the up-turn of Castiel’s lips against his skin and knew the lie had taken. “Am I a good bedwarmer?”
He bussed Castiel’s brow once again. “The best. The very best.”
A little sigh of contentment blew through Castiel’s nose. His whole body seemed to melt against Dean’s. He draped a long arm across the king’s chest; at the joint of his sternum, where an ache was gathering.
The lie had hurt like a spadeful of hot embers down Dean’s throat. But the truth…the truth he could barely swallow any longer.
The daylight came hazy through the diamond-paned windows of Victor’s guest suite. Bubbles in the glass, gauzy curtains, and a thick midsummer gloom all shielded the two lovers from the glare of the sun.
Dean yawned and stretched, blinking sleepily at the man beside him. Morning light was not kind to many, but Castiel wore it superbly. It spilled across his broad back, highlighting the strong muscles and prominent shoulder bones. It even revealed what might have been a bit of peach fuzz along his jawline.
It was when those shoulders shook that Dean realized something was wrong.
He inched closer to Castiel to find that his teeth were softly chattering, and that a layer of cold sweat doused every visible inch of skin. There was a high flush to his face, and a hand held to his forehead confirmed Dean’s suspicions: Castiel had broken out in fever.
All the possible causes came racing into Dean’s mind. They had eaten the very same foods at the market, shared the same cup at dinner, and Dean himself didn’t feel so much as a gurgle. Unless Castiel’s food had been poisoned? But here? Victor was a loyal vassal, and certainly not some jealous old flame. Would Gordon or his stooges sink so low? Surely whatever financial gain they might make was not enough to risk the king’s swift retaliation. (Swift and brutal, Dean thought hotly.) Jodette’s allegiance was beyond question. So what could it be?
Dean pulled the bedclothes up over Castiel’s shoulder, tucking them under his chin. He petted Castiel’s wet hair and muttered a brief prayer, then slipped a dressing gown over his shirt and ran to fetch the physician.
When Dean had imagined spending the morning abed with Castiel, he had imagined long kisses and caresses, not sitting at his side while watching him retch into a chamber pot. Nancy had administered an emetic straight away, lest poison be the culprit. It was some small relief that no blood came with it, but still his fever would not wane.
She asked a a seemingly endless stream of questions: had Castiel fallen? What had he eaten? Had he ever taken ill after eating cheese or honey before? They prodded his belly to see if any of his entrails seemed swollen or tender; Castiel reacted with indifference. What little urine he made had no unusual color or odor. The rest of the party hadn’t so much as a case of indigestion, making the illness all the more baffling.
Finally, she concluded that he be given clean water and clear broth, and porridge if and when his stomach settled. Time would be the best determiner of the illness, she advised, and left the king and his companion to their bed.
In the absence of reason, fear and guilt began to plague the king. It felt as if his white lie had come true: that something should upset Castiel’s stomach so much that it he truly needed bed rest. He’d fattened Castiel like a goose, he imagined, stuffing him with drink and cake and cheese until his poor peasant stomach gave out. That his good country lungs couldn’t take the miasma of town, with its oil lamps and open sewers. Or worse, that the very touch of him corrupted; that the lie itself had polluted Castiel, along with his lewd thoughts and defiling hands.
Dean played the noble courtier in Victor’s hall — presenting appointments, hearing grievances, dining with surrounding gentry— but would keep vigil at Castiel’s bedside at every spare moment.
For two days Castiel lay sweating and shivering in their borrowed bed. Upon the third, a decision was made: that king and coterie, laid low with injury and illness, would return to the capital. Word was sent to the three remaining destinations by courier and pigeon, along with the king’s regrets. Dean hoped that the assassination attempt would be excuse enough. To postpone a visit was one thing, but to postpone progress because his companion was ill sounded too decadent, even for a king. The ball, though, would take place as scheduled.
Victor’s best wagon was fit with a makeshift roof and curtains, and he gave the king the mattress Castiel had slept on so that he might be comfortable on his journey back. He also appointed four guards —the notion amused Dean, that it took four men to replace Benny— to escort them back to the castle. Benny would travel in the wagon with Castiel, both to keep an eye upon him and to spare his leg the labors of riding.
The king bid Victor a fond farewell. No matter what the gossips had to say about his appointment, he was an excellent man, and a good lord besides. They parted as friends, with Victor whispering “Take care of him” into the king’s ear.
Jody gave Dean’s hand a gentle squeeze as the party took to the road- the appropriate public expression of an assurance she’d given many times over the past three days: ‘He’ll be all right.’
Dean cast his eyes to the wagon behind him, where two meager lights kept a colorful vigil over their charge.
In his dreams, he was back in the clearing. The day was bright and green as new leaves reached eagerly for the sun. The air was sweet, and the birds sang their courting-songs across the forest. All was tranquil, as it should be.
Castiel reached out, extending a hand to the empty air. He knew this place—this barren place. He knew there should be more than empty air to occupy it. Old Man Oak was still present, his treen beard and wrinkled visage still gazing benevolently upon the vacant ground.
He dropped to his knees and began to dig.
It was buried. It had to be buried just out of reach. A stone, bit of thatch…it had to be underneath his feet because it couldn’t simply not be there.
He pulled up handful after handful of earth, not even sparing a wish for a spade. Once uncovered he’d have to touch it with his own hands, to affirm with his fingers what he knew in his heart; in the deepest recesses of his mind. It was there. Underneath.
He dug into the dark soil until it was wet; until red streamed down his arm, an easy river flowing between banks of dirt. But the blood was not his own. Not fully. He looked to the pit between his knees and found the blood to be bubbling up from the ground like a spring.
It was under his fingernails. In the creases of his knuckles. Everywhere.
That voice. That sonorous voice.
He looked up to see a man whose face—whose name— hovered on the edge of memory. Deep-set blue eyes, a crown of blonde waves. Thin lips set in a near-permanent smirk. And tall.
“Oh Castiel,” he sighed. He bent to gently kiss Castiel’s forehead.
Castiel’s eyes slipped closed. He knew this man. Craved his affections. Knew that somewhere in his being was a lingering desire that he could not yet place. A longing for that enigmatical closeness that followed kisses. A need to touch. To explore.
He opened his eyes to see Dean.
Dean, with his sun-bronzed skin and his gold-flecked green eyes, his hair wheat-blond in the scattered light. Castiel reached out to caress a freckled cheek with clean, unmarred hands.
With a touch, Dean began to glow.
Dimly shining at first, as if reflecting the sun, but then building, stoking into an aureole. It whited out all other things in his vision. The trees, the ground, the hand he vainly tried to lift over his own eyes—all were swallowed by the coruscant light.
Then came the pain: two sharp, bone-deep cuts into his back. He cried out, the force of it emptying his lungs. No sound came.
Castiel fell face-first into the ground, the shallow rut beneath him now full. He writhed. He curled. All was pain, radiating from those wounds on either side of his spine.
He looked up at Dean, who hadn’t moved a muscle to comfort him. Dean, whose eyes were all soft sentiment and calm, had flames licking at the soles of his boots.
Castiel’s mouth moved to speak, but couldn’t form words. Couldn’t do more than grunt through his pain. He tasted the cold earth and spat it out.
And the flames grew higher.
They caught the tinder beneath his boots: the stray twigs, the sloughed bark. The dirt and dessicated leaves too damp to catch but still they did. Everything around Dean began to burn.
Castiel felt the heat of it in the marrow of his bones, moaning as the flames consumed him, quiet and smokeless.
With his last breath, he pleaded for help. For mercy. For deliverance.
“DEAN!!” he cried out.
Sweat seeped onto his pillow; droplets gathered heavy on his forehead, shining like pearls in the moonlight. Must have been in the middle of a fever dream.
Meg looked down at the pale, writhing body on the bed, sparing a moment to imagine raking her own nails down that muscular back. Sinking her teeth into the swell of his ass. Maybe even guiding a polished ivory phallus between those cheeks and grabbing a thick shock of that hair…
She bit her lip. He moaned so prettily.
Maybe if she spared him, Lilith would let her keep him as a pet. Then again, sparing the king’s playtoy was no way to endear herself to—
“Meg?” His voice was a gravelly wreck. Deeper than she remembered, though it could have been the sickness.
“Yes, it’s me, Castiel,” she said sweetly.
He shifted slowly beneath his blankets. “Where am I?”
“You’re back at the palace, my love. In the king’s bed.” She smiled in the darkness. “You’ve been unwell.”
“In another bed. It’s after midnight.”
“Where is he…?” he mumbled, half-asleep.
“Shhh…” she pushed her fingers through his sweaty hair. “It’s only a nightmare.”
Meg bent low and careful, the leather sheath of her blade digging against her belly. The swell of her left breast barely concealed the handle under her bodice.
“Would you like some water, Castiel? Or tea? You’re burning up.”
She wondered if it would be sporting to kill him in his sleep. He was only in the wrong place at the wrong time, poor thing. Then again, seeing the life drain from his eyes, imagining the king’s reaction to the lifeless, bloody mess in his bed…both ideas seemed so promising.
Her hand ran down his neck, feeling the squirm of his pulse under the skin; he was still and quiet as she did so. Must have fallen right back to sleep.
What a pity.
She pulled the blade out carefully —she’d need this meatsuit just a little longer— and held it in a fist. No sooner had she turned its point at Castiel before she felt a cold, sharp blade at her neck, and a faint weight pressing at her back.
“I know you’re not human, but you can die like one.”
She swallowed, and one facet of the dagger’s three blades bobbed under it.
“What are you?” she whispered, sibilant in her fear.
“Do what you want to the king. Torture him, drink his blood, insult his mother, I don’t care,” the voice hissed, “but you leave my baby brother alone. Am I understood?”
The blade crushed against her host’s windpipe. “Am. I. Understood?” His voice was like the wind through carrion bones.
“Yes,” she hissed.
The weight dissipated, blade and all.
Her eyes fell onto Castiel again. She knew from the first moment that this was no mortal man. He was a thing, just as she was. But what?
Meg felt the heft of the man’s gaze as sure as she had felt the kiss of metal at her neck. She housed the dagger in her bodice again, tucking it away from view, and let herself out just as quietly and carefully as she had let herself in.
The king turned his cloudy head to the sound. When he told Gareth to bring the lumpiest nest of straw and horsehair in the castle, Gareth really outdid himself. He’d have had a better night’s sleep on the floor.
Bobby rushed up to him, concern plain on his face. “I was about to come looking for you. You slept awfully late.”
“I was catching up,” he groaned, stretching his back. “I haven’t slept well in days, even before I came back to this haystack.”
“What time’d you get in?”
“The sun was setting, so perhaps nine.”
“Why didn’t you call for me? I was awake.”
“I wasn’t,” Dean countered. “If it wasn’t for Victor’s guards I would have fallen from my saddle.” He pulled at his shirt. “I slept in these clothes.”
Bobby nodded. “So what happened?”
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. “How long do you have?”
“All the time in the world,” Bobby assured.
Dean looked over his shoulder, and once around the parameter. He cocked his head towards Mayre’s room, ducking inside. Bobby took one last glance around the hall and followed.
Bobby quietly closed the door behind him. “Start talkin’.”
Dean sighed. One from deep within his being. He needed another mug of that ‘coffee’ stuff.
“On Arthur’s Night, on the barge, some demons got the drop on us. Quite literally— three of them jumped from a bridge onto the deck.”
“Clever sons of bitches,” Bobby uttered. “If you can’t board, invade.”
“So they jump onboard— and here’s the meat of it: they weren’t trying to kill me. They came after Cas and Benny with knives, but the big one only had rope. Turns out there was a flat barge waiting at the river fork to take me away.”
Bobby puzzled. “How do you know that?”
“Victor told me a few days later. Anyway,” he waved, “they come after us. I managed to shank the big one, and Benny and I both took out the long-haired one. This other one, this blond one, smoked out before I could stab him, but then came back. He got Benny right here.” He pointed to the meat beneath his armpit. “Benny went down. Blood on his maille, blood on the deck…out of his mouth, everywhere.”
Dean swallowed. “He was dead, Bobby. I looked in his eyes and there was nothing.”
Bobby’s frown deepened, dominating his whole face.
“And then Castiel…” Dean shook his head. “Cas, he just put his hands on Benny’s head like this— ” Dean clamped his hands over his ears “—and his eyes began to glow.”
Bobby’s jaw fell slack.
“They were bright, bright blue. Like lightning. Then Benny woke up gasping, like he was drowning or something.” He stared at his feet. “Then Cas went down.”
“And he’s been down since?”
“No, he woke up the next day, and it was like nothing happened.We went to the exhibition, we ate dinner…” Dean’s voice grew thin.
“And?” Bobby urged.
Dean met Bobby’s eyes, guilty and repentant at once.
Bobby’s mouth closed. His brow relaxed, and his gaze grew softer. He understood.
“We didn’t even…” Dean trailed off. “And the next morning, he was like this.” Dean stared at his hands. His defiling hands. “He’s been like this for three days, Bobby. He doesn’t talk, he barely eats…” He sighed wetly. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Bobby nodded slowly. “And he’s seen a physician?”
“All right. I’ll go bring Ellen up and see if there’s something she can do for him.” He turned to walk away, but paused. “You got an herb stash around here? She’s probably got some of her own, but—”
“Herb stash?” Dean frowned. “What for?”
“So she can make a potion. Or at least a pain-killing draught.”
Dean blinked. “A potion? Bobby, if I didn’t know any better…”
The older man raised a questioning eyebrow.
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “Bobby…are you saying Ellen’s a witch?”
“Of course Ellen’s a witch!” Bobby grumped. “You never wondered how flus and fevers passed you by every winter? How you never broke so much as a finger?”
Dean’s shoulders slumped. “I thought because I was a prince…” he mumbled guiltily. “…good breeding…?”
Bobby cuffed him upside the head.
“Ey!” He rubbed the sore site. “I am the King, Robbett.”
“And before that you were a brat prince, chasing my milkmaids and bein’ the bane of my washerwomen,” he huffed. “I didn’t know one boy could make so much sweat and spunk.”
Dean went rose-pink at that.
“You think I would have let her go if you didn’t need protection? Both of you?”
He breathed out a huff, and took in a deep, deep breath. “I’m going to get Ellen, and we’re gonna see what we can do about your fella. Then we’ve got more to discuss about Lilith.”
“Lilith?” Dean’s brows shot up. “ What have you heard?”
“Nothing for sure, but there’s some whispers about when she might attack.”
“Bobby,” Dean sighed, “you have to tell me these things first! We’ve got to gather an army! We have to make plans!”
He looked Dean square in the eyes. “Would you have paid attention to a single word?”
Dean was struck silent. In his heart he knew the answer, even if he couldn’t yet put it into words. He only shook his head.
An insistent knock came at the door, shattering the silence and making them both twitch.
Bobby pulled the door open to see Meg wringing her hands and looking distraught.
“I hate to break up your privy council, your majesty, but…”
From the next room came an inhuman cry of pain, reverberating through the walls and echoing over the stones.
Dean shoved them both out of the way, bounding foot over foot to the front of his bedchamber. He swung the door wide open and fell still. His mind ground to a halt.
Bobby, right on his heels, fell in line after him. He too stopped short. His eyes grew wide- almost afraid.
“Son of a bitch,” Bobby muttered.
There was some blood. Not much. It trailed down his back in red rivulets, falling to linen and staining it. It was hardly noticed, however, for the sight of Castiel’s great white wings.
Once, as a boy of ten, Dean had hunted fowl with his father, Rufus, and some of their vassals on progress. After training to Rufus’ satisfaction, he was given a new bow and his first clutch of arrows, and allowed to come shooting with the men. They rode to the edge of a forest, where a low hill sloped into a wide pond full of birds. Ducks, swans, geese— all manner of them. There, with the forest canopy above them for shade, they waited.
His first shot fell helplessly in the water, rousing the geese to flight. There was a great fluttering of dozens of wings, and in his youth and panic, he nocked and drew and aimed at everything. At nothing. He was so desperate for a bird —to be good, to make his father proud— that he shot three arrows into the fray.
When the flapping of feathers had stopped, there lay a single bird on the ground, an arrow through its breast. He sat stunned as they thumped his back in praise; as a hound drug the carcass from the shallow water and happily brought it to his masters. It was a great white swan, with wings that were wider from end to end than he was tall.
In his ears was talk of roasting it with pepper and butter, and he was all but deaf to it- too lost in his own head. The size of the the thing! He put out a timid hand to touch its wings, feeling the feathers’ give under his fingertips; their stiffness and strength.
Seeing the enormous wings spread to either side of Castiel, he could almost feel them again; could almost smell the bright red blood streaming over the snowy-white down.
“Dean!” Sam came thundering down the hallway at full charge. “I heard a scream and…DEAR GODS!”
Dean came into his senses as he heard the soft sob Castiel hid in his pillow. Before he could command his feet to move, he’d already hastened to to his lovers’ bedside.
Dean placed a palm to Castiel’s forehead. His fever had broken —that much was clear— but he was still cold and clammy, and dripping with sweat. He was not prepared to see those eyes red-rimmed from weeping; the anguish in those normally bright pools of blue went straight to his heart.
“They hurt,” Castiel whined, his voice faltering.
He threaded his fingers though Castiel’s limp hair, plastered to his face with sweat, lifting it away. The wings twitched —seemingly of their own volition— and sent Castiel writhing with a fresh burst of pain.
Dean glanced over his shoulder. “Meg, is it?” She nodded. “Go to Ellen and tell her to brew a pain-killing draught. Strong, and plenty of it.”
She nodded again before turning on her heel and leaving.
Dean petted Castiel’s face and hair, noticing the stubble that had sprung up seemingly out of nowhere upon his angled jaw. A twinge of guilt ran through him; that Cas should be so beautiful in dolour, that he should be so much more appealing looking rough and swarthy…
He spied a pitcher and basin on the table opposite, as well as a cloth. He rose from Castiel’s side, crossed to the other half of the room, and poured out a little water onto the cloth. The faint smell of mint hit his nose, and he knew immediately that Ellen was responsible. Every tea she’d forced on him, every foul poultice… they all made sense now.
Dean wrung the cloth into the basin, and moved to sit beside Castiel once more. He placed the cool cloth against his lover’s forehead.
“There now,” he said. “Your fever’s broken, but you still need rest.” He daubed the cloth at Castiel’s cheek, and at the back of his neck. Castiel nearly melted in relief, letting out a soft sigh. “You had me worried.”
Dean traced a finger over his jawline, tickling lightly beneath his chin. “I promise we’ll take good care of you.” Castiel smiled a little- something that may have been bliss at any other time.
“Thank you, Dean.” He pressed a kiss into Dean’s wrist. Dean blushed to the tips of his ears, glancing at Sam and Bobby to see if they had caught the gesture.
By the looks on their faces, they had. Sam’s brows were halfway to his hairline. Bobby merely frowned.
“Uhm, Your Majesty?” Bobby cleared his throat. “A word?”
Dean softly patted Castiel’s head once more, and padded quietly over to Bobby.
“We have a problem,” he hissed.
“And a fool wears bells, Bobby,” Dean hissed back.
He looked at Dean, his face grave. “No, I mean we have a problem.”
Dean puzzled, unconsciously adapting the same head tilt as his lover. Sam merely continued to stare.
“Meet me in the Library. Both of yeh.”
Bobby turned and opened the great door, only to find Meg on the other side, mid-reach for the handle.
“I’ve told Garth,” she reported. “He is run to tell Ellen.”
“Good,” Dean nodded. He spared a glance at Sam and one for Castiel before looking back to Meg. “Bathe him, and change his linens. Wait for the draught that’s coming and do not let anyone else see him. Understood?”
Meg curtsied shallow. “Of course.”
Dean eyed her from head to toe. He’d have sniffed her like a dog, if he thought it would elicit any hint of treachery. He met her dark eyes for a long second, and silently pronounced her acceptable.
“Keep him comfortable,” he said, his tone softer now, “and let him know that I’ll be back to him as soon as I can.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
With that, he and Sam shouldered by her and towards the great library.
“Were you followed?”
Sam and Dean exchanged a wary glance as they closed the doors behind them.
“No,” Sam said, “why?”
“Because I’ve got to tell you boys some serious shit.” He gestured towards two stuffed leather chairs centered in the middle of the room. Between them was a table, with a jug of wine and three goblets.
“What’s this, Bobby?” Dean gestured at the wine.
“It’s for you,” he grumbled, snatching the jug and filling his cup to the brim. “You’re gonna need it.”
Bobby took a long sip, draining half the cup in a two swallows before settling down on a footstool facing the brothers.
“Your boy’s an Enochian.”
Dean scowled. “A what?”
“An Enochian,” Sam chimed in, “a race of natural-born magickals with wings.” He blinked quizzically. “But I thought they were extinct.”
“They’re extinct because your father made them extinct,” Bobby said gravely.
Both brothers’ mouths flopped open like caught fish. Bobby settled his weight onto the stool, as if bracing himself.
“What do you know about how your father and I parted ways?”
Dean frowned. “He told me that he gave you your own hold so you could ‘be his eyes’ on the outskirts of the kingdom. That we needed fortification…”
“I don’t know anything,” Sam admitted.
“Then you should know that your father didn’t send me out to fight the good fight, he simply banished me politely as he could. Hells, if he didn’t need to save face he wouldn’t have given me a horse.”
“Bobby…?” Sam asked, eyes wide.
Bobby sighed loudly and took one more long pull.
“We parted ways because we argued. We argued because your father went on a killing spree.” Upon seeing the look on their faces, Bobby spat “Oh, don’t look so shocked. Your father was a wreck after your mother died and you know it. He was a wreck for the rest of his days. And he thought magick was to blame.”
“Magick?” Sam huffed a laugh. “Are you serious?”
But Dean and Bobby did not share in the joke. Their lips pursed, and they shot each other meaningful looks.
“There’s no such thing as magick,” Sam said sternly. “It’s all storybook stuff. Werewolves, witches, black-eyed men…” he shook his head. “It’s all from the minds of bards and balladeers, isn’t it?”
Dean and Bobby remained silent.
“What, Dean?” he challenged. “What do you know that I don’t?”
Dean was silent for a long moment.
“I’m the King, Sam,” he said finally.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that it’s my duty to keep the kingdom safe. From all threats.”
A few heartbeats’ worth of silence fell between them, tension thick as mud.
“So you’re saying that it’s real?” Sam snarled. “That it’s all real?”
The older men’s silence spoke volumes.
“Are you joking?” he yelled, bolting upright. “Why am I only learning about this now?”
“Sit down, boy,” Bobby grumped, “and I’ll explain.”
“I don’t have to listen to you, Sir Robbett,” he sneered.
“Then you’ll listen to your king!” Dean growled, jumping to his feet. The ‘boy’ had grown much broader in the shoulders, Dean realized, when Sam stretched to his full height. But Dean had stared down bigger creatures than him before; he didn’t blink then and wouldn’t blink now.
It was Sam that tore away first, his nostrils flaring, his eyes still full of fire. He slammed himself onto the chair, not looking at Dean nor Bobby.
“As I said,” Bobby began again, “after your mother died, your father thought that magick was to blame. Muttered somethin’ about curses.”
“A curse?” Dean repeated incredulously.
“Or curses, plural. I never got much out of him in the way of specifics. I only know of one.”
“When the hell was anyone going to tell me?”
Sam couldn’t resist muttering “Now you know how it feels” under his breath.
“Enough!” Bobby barked loudly. When a few heartbeats’ worth of silence had passed, he continued, sure in their attention.
“About 22 years ago, your father held his last tribunal. Supposedly a coven of three witches—real witches, not some potion-granny, or a hedge witch selling love charms, I mean honest-to-gods conjuring women—were found with a boy who’d gone missing less than a moon’s turn before.”
“Ugh. Witches,” Dean spat.
Bobby shot him a sharp look— one that colored Dean’s cheeks.
“This woman… her husband testified that their son had taken ill. They’d tried every healer and apothecary within two days’ ride of the village and nobody could fathom what was wrong with him. So his wife suggested that they seek help…elsewhere.”
The brothers exchanged a glance; Dean nodded for Bobby to continue.
“The husband refused, so she wrapped the boy up and took off under cover of darkness. Didn’t know where she was headed- only that the cart tracks led in the direction of Thompson’s Wood. So they formed a search party.” Bobby sighed. “Found her and the child two weeks later. Father swore that the son looked ten times worse than when he left—that the witches must have drained his life force away.”
“He died on the way back,” Bobby said, gravely and pointedly, at Sam. Sam offered no rebuttal; not even a change of expression.
“So the ‘Verti rounded up the witches and the mother and put them in the cells. Meanwhile, your father calls on Lord Deacon and a High Priest named Murfay to be part of the tribunal.”
“Four men to be on a tribunal for a coven of female witches,” Sam huffed.
“Sounds like him,” Dean offered bitterly.
“I didn’t like the sound of it either.” Bobby shook his head. “And it gets worse. They’d been interrogated by Kristian—a distant cousin of your mum’s and a real piece of work. They came in all bruised and bloodied, and I knew that this trial was already half over. Told your father so, too.
“One by one the crimes got read. Every witch pleads innocent and has the same story: the mother comes to them with a sick boy. Witches say they can’t help—too far gone. Then the mother up and says they’d better try, or she’ll call the ‘Verti on them. They were in the middle of making up a nonsense ritual when they were found. Then the mother comes in. Says that all of it’s a lie. That the witches bled him; fed him potions. Chanted dark words that made him sicker. That she tried to take the boy away but they threatened her.
“Now I know a pile of horse shit when I smell it. She was tryin’ to get off light—if she was innocent in all this she wouldn’t be punished for gettin’ involved with witches in the first place. Deacon wanted to banish the coven, and Murfay was ready to hang the lot.” Bobby sighed. “I didn’t buy a bit of what that woman was sellin’, but it was three against one. So your father passed the sentence: death for the coven, the cells for the mother.”
“Wow,” mouthed Sam.
Dean blinked for a long moment. “Harsh.”
“Then the whole room is wailing and screaming. The women are dragged away pleadin’ for their lives. The mother starts hurling curses as they took her away. She said that each of us ‘commoners’ —I’m guessing that was Deacon, Murfay, and me—would all die without a son to carry on our names. She cursed Jon and your mother…”
Dean noticed that Bobby’s eyes had glazed somewhat; he stared at the lip of his cup as if it held all the mysteries of the world.
“I’ll never forget her words to your father: ‘Your line is now twice cursed, Jon Winchester. The fruit will rot on the vine, and poison all hope.’”
Each brother hung his head. Each, unbeknownst to the other, reproved himself.
“She said…” Bobby sighed, “she said that his son would be the last of the kings of Wintan-ceastre.”
Dean’s heart dropped into his stomach. This was tantamount to a death sentence, was it not? Moreover, it was a condemnation. If he’d only done his duty and produced a son instead of sticking his prick into any willing body…
But what of Samworth? Would he become king? Or was he just as doomed?
Dean came back to himself to discover his head was shaking.
“What does it all mean, Bobby?”
“I don’t know! It’s a gods-damned curse, boy, not a royal decree. She might not have even had the magick to back up that big talk.”
“Surely there’s more to it than that,” Dean insisted. “There can be no curse without spilt blood… where’s this cousin of ours? Kristian, you say?”
Bobby shook his head. “Taken in the same fever that took my Karen years ago.”
“And the mother?” Dean asked.
“Brought to the black cells and never heard of again.”
“Wait a moment…” Sam interrupted. “Twenty-two years? I wasn’t even born yet. Depending on the month, I might not have even been conceived! Where does that leave me in this curse?”
“I don’t know, son. I don’t think your father knew either. Your mother wasn’t quick with you yet.”
“So what does that have to do with Enochians?”
Bobby’s face fell grave.
“You took a long time to be born, Sam… Days. Midwife said you were turned wrong, and you came out pale. And there was blood. Lots of it.”
Sam was knocked silent.
“Mayre was confined to her bed afterward, and she stayed there for…hells, a week at least. She got a little better, but not much. But she was your mother, and she was stubborn as anything. So she decided that she wanted to get up and get some fresh air and sunshine. To play with her little boy.” Bobby took a deep breath. “She made it as far as the hall before she fell down dead.”
Both brothers gasped.
“He never told me that…” Dean muttered.
“That same morning, a basket had arrived. There was an amber necklace, and a doll, and a note written in Enochian. And that’s all it took for your father.” He turned his cup in his hands. “Four days after her death, he got his guards together, told them to take no prisoners, and pointed them in the direction of the village.”
Village! The word hit Dean like a brick to the head. Castiel spoke about the guardian of their village... Ye gods, he really was the dumber brother. So Rowena—
“So you’re saying that dad had a whole race killed because of one supposed curse?” Sam croaked. “ ‘Poison all hope’? Because of three stupid words?”
“Yes and no,” Bobby conceded, “not entirely. The Enochians were already dying out.” His eyes met Sam’s. “I don’t think your father even gave the curse any serious regard until your mother died. Then all he saw was evil. Everywhere.”
Sam’s gaze fell to his shoes.
“You can’t blame yourself.” His tone was palliative and warm. “Your father—”
“You think I don’t know grief, Bobby?” Sam’s eyes were deep and green and full of fire, and for a moment the other men swore they could see the ghost of King Jon in his eyes. “I lost my mother before I knew what she looked like. I lost the woman I loved most in this world…and I never once thought to burn down a village.”
Dean tried not to cry. That his mother died on the cold stone of the hall… Knowing now what depths his father sank to…for what it might mean when Castiel came to his senses…
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this, Bobby?” Dean whispered.
“Or me!” protested Sam.
“What part of ‘banishment’ and ‘exile’ don’t you understand?” Bobby growled. “Hells, if he hadn’t died I’d probably have never set eyes on you boys again,” he added with a snort.
“That’s horseshit! You had years—years!—to tell me this and you never uttered a word!”
“Well ‘scuze me for not realizing you’d cuddle up to an Enochian in twenty-five years!”
“The curse, Bobby!” he whined. “The fucking curse!”
Bobby looked to the empty cup -and the equally empty jug- for solace; there was nothing now to soften the blow. “Your father did what he felt he had to,” he muttered. “I didn’t want you to think less of him for it.” A slight shrug rolled across his shoulders. “I know what it’s like to feel unloved by your father, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. ”
“Yeah, well it was already too late for that.”
Bobby’s eyes were glassy when he raised them to meet Dean’s. “I don’t think you understand.”
“What don’t I understand?” His gaze was hard; his tone, a challenge.
“When he sent you to me, he wasn’t expecting you to come back.” Dean went chalk-white. “He thought you were the poisoned fruit, Dean.”
The impact of those words squeezed tears from his eyes. Rot. Poison. Cursed.
He turned to Samworth. “Dad said to keep you safe.” His tone grew bitter. “He used his dying words…to tell me to keep you safe.” Dean sniffled wetly. “Like I was already gods-damned lost cause.”
Bobby extended his hand. “Dean…”
“That’s why he gave you books and lessons but sent me out to the country to live with an old hunter-knight.”
Sam’s lips were pursed tight, but only just. A tremble was ticking at the corner of his mouth.
“You were supposed to be king, weren’t you? And I was future dead weight getting in your way.”
The brothers shared a long, tense look. Each seemed on the verge of words or blows or tears.
Bobby let a small green book fall onto the table between them. Linen-bound and accented in faded gold, it bore a one-word title: Enochians.
“You boys got a lot to talk about. But now ain’t the time.”
Dean scowled at the book. Sam stared at it, wide-eyed.
“How have I never seen this before?”
“It’s a big library,” Bobby shrugged. “You can’t find it if you ain’t looking for it specifically.
Dean’s eyes narrowed to angry slits. “You mind giving me the abridged version of that?”
“The abridged version is that you should read the damn book!” he barked. “Your consort just sprouted wings, Dean! Ain’t you wondering at all why?”
Dean bit back his common protest. “My apologies Bobby, but I was a bit distracted by them before you mentioned I was cannon fodder.” The acid practically dripped from his tongue. “I haven’t really had time to philosophize just yet.”
Bobby raked a hand over his face. “Gods give me strength…” he muttered into his palm. With a sigh that wracked his whole body, he closed his eyes and began.
“Let me explain… No, let me sum it up: there are different classes of Enochians, just like there’s different classes of people. Some of ‘em are just plain folks- your cooks, your tailors, your shepherds… even they can read souls and cast spells. Then you’ve got the warrior classes- the strongest, fastest ones. They’re the front line of defense for the clan. Or village, or whatever.
“Then you have your in-betweens: your healers. They follow the warriors to the battlefield, or they stay behind and treat the sick. Sometimes it’s potions, sometimes it’s touch healing. And if that whole ‘laying of hands’ thing about Benny is true, it’s likely he’s one of them.”
“So if he’s not a healer, he may be a warrior. And if he’s a warrior, it may only be a matter of time before he finds out that your father razed his village and he kicks your arse. And any other arse he can find.”
“He’s not some soulless assassin, Bobby—that’s Cas in there. He’s not going to hurt us.”
Bobby shot him a skeptical look. “If you woke up knowing your fella’s father had your entire clan murdered, how would you feel?”
“He recognized me, Bobby,” Dean argued. “I don’t think he’s put two and two together yet, if he knows at all. He’s still recuperating.”
“Well, that’ll buy us some time to find out what he remembers, if anything.”
“So what do you want me to do? Just lock him up until we can figure out what kind he is?”
“Not as such. But we need to keep an eye on him.”
Sam threw up his hands, letting them fall limply against his legs with a smack. “Great, so he’s a prisoner too.”
“You’re not a prisoner, Sam,” Dean carped.
“Like hell I’m not! I’m confined to the castle, kept completely in the dark—”
“And when was I to be told any of this?? Were you two just going to—” He gestured wildly “—fill my head with stories? Keep me off to the side like some… some prince under glass?”
“I was doing what Dad told me to do, Sammy, okay? I didn’t know either. He lied to you, he lied to me—”
“You kept lying to me! After he died! For years. Now you’re conspiring to keep Castiel in he dark!” His eyes narrowed. “I bet he still thinks he’s here because he saved your life; that he’s sleeping in your bed out of the kindness of your good, chaste heart.”
Dean’s jaw clenched tight. “It’s different now, Sam.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
He averted his eyes. He would not discuss the matters of his heart with Samworth. Not now. “ It just is.”
“That’s always been your excuse,” he snarled. “ At least I know what you’re hiding.”
“You know what, Sam—”
“Fuck you, Dean,” he sneered, blunt and cold.
It was not the way he said it that hit Dean and Bobby, but the way he eased himself up from his chair and left without a single parting glance.
Village. The word pestered the king as he paced through his solar, alternating with Sam’s snarled ‘Fuck you, Dean’ in his head. Both seemed to mock him in entirely different ways.
Samworth simply needed time. Cooler heads would prevail, and they would speak no more of it. But the Enochian village—‘our village’, Castiel had said— that stuck, for there was little that Castiel’s mind clung to aside from his diminutive friends and his own name. (Friends who were curiously absent, he realized, in the well-warded holds of his vassals.)
An experiment was needed.
Sam tromped through the palace with all the fury of a stampeding elk. He knew not where he was going, only that his determination to get there was such that staff pressed themselves to the walls to give him a wider berth.
It was enough that his own brother should keep him in the dark, but that there seemed an entire confederacy dedicated to it... How deep did it go? Sense would argue that it was not confined only to Bobby, their father and Dean. Was the whole palace aware? Their vassals? Their constables? Just how big a laughing stock was he?
Prince Samworth, who couldn't see the world around him for the book at the end of his nose.
Worse still, that they should heap all this misery upon him in the library! The singular place in this castle that he felt was something like sanctuary. Like his very own.
Dean was likely still inside, forming some half-cocked apology or waiting for him to make his. Sam had felt like a spoilt child almost immediately, running out as he did, but otherwise held not one fiber of remorse in his entire body.
He found himself downstairs, still at a trampling pace, though he seemed to have found something like direction. He had not taken three conscious steps before he'd arrived at the doors of the great hall.
Perhaps it was some incognizant curiosity that compelled him there- a need to see the place empty before the throng of courtiers took to the virgin parquet, smashing food and snuff and wax into the crevices with their shoes. Perhaps it offered the type of solitude that the library had often granted him. More than quiet, it seemed to offer isolation. Or simply —and, perhaps, more basely— it had been where he'd met Ruby.
She'd all but disappeared since that first day, returning only to deliver the first six sets of curtains. More were on the way, she promised, 'twas only that her father's shop was small, and that having oceans of fine fabric next to his clumsy apprentice was to court disaster. The excuse seemed flimsy as chiffon, but Sam was glad of her company. He discovered that they shared a secret grim interest in the reign of King Azazel; he loaned her a book of some of the earliest tales to be written after the Dark Times ended. And the kiss she'd thanked him with had him blushing for hours.
Inside the hall, the delivered curtains had been hung with care. The deep blue did indeed play off the white of the walls and the gold of the sconces, making them seem brighter. Now, with the full light of midday streaming through the naked windows, the place looked alive once more. Through them he could see the greens of distant hills and wide swathes of blue sky, and what looked like grey storm clouds gathering in the east.
"Seeing anything interesting?"
He turned to find Ruby at the threshold, in the same scarlet dress she'd worn when they first met.
"I am now." He let himself smile. "I apologize, that was as tawdry a jest as has ever come from my mouth."
"Luckily I'm here to deliver more curtains. Were I here for your jests alone, I would leave quite unsatisfied."
She crossed the room to meet him, making a place for herself in his arms. "It is true, though," he insisted. "I would rather look at you up close than the world through a window."
"Come now, Samworth—truly I cannot be more interesting than the view from the palace."
"Ah, but you are," he teased, leaning in for a kiss. "You are."
Somewhere in the moments between touches of their lips, the words of his japes and teases took on a startling clarity.
"Let's run away," he blurted.
She blinked at him, cocked her ear toward his lips. "I'm sorry, but... what did you say?"
"Let's do it. Let's run away."
"Samworth, are you well?"
"Yes. Perhaps. And even if I'm not..." He licked at his lip. "I realized today how little of my life is actually mine. How it's all been directed by my father and my brother, and how little say I've had in any of it." He was staring distantly now: over Ruby's head; leagues and leagues away. "I need to leave the palace, even just for a little while."
"Where are you proposing we go?"
"I'm proposing that we go to a tavern. A swimming hole. That we find a carriage to take us to the next town over, even if it's just for supper." Sam held her by her delicate shoulders. "I want to show my brother that he cannot control my every move. Not any longer."
"I would have to return my father's wagon to his shop first," she said nervously, "and I would have to be home by nightfall."
"That gives us—" Sam bit his lip as he calculated "—five hours. That sounds like the perfect length for a first adventure."
The bowl of cream Dean had set out in the library went untouched for hours. Likewise the very ripe peach, and the last piece of sweet honeyed pastry from the Ottoman ambassador. Not a bite stolen. Not a crumb out of place.
This ruled out any number of faeries, sprites, boggards, and elves.
There could be only one answer left.
Dean carefully constructed the salt circle, making the line thick and pouring extra in into the gaps between stone tiles.
It had been some time since he’d needed to crack a spellbook. Not since he’d had to expel the ghost of a stable boy who’d taken a hoof to the skull. Luckily there were herbs enough left in the cabinet. A pinch of wormwood, a dash of mugwort, and a piece of parchment upon which he’d copied the sigils to the letter.
Dean lit the candles at each of the four directions, then placed the saltglass lamp inside the circle. He read from the piece of paper upon which he’d copied the spell: “Amate spiritus oscorte tae quadaramos aramos nobiscume guarde ahpule nos chikitara.”
And when he put the paper down, he saw the the lamp filled with golden light.
Vengeful spirit. Why did he have to be right?
Gabriel stood inside, clapping slowly, with a look of utter contempt on his tiny face. “Bravo, Dean. You figured out the plot twist.” He lazily slapped his two hands together. “Brah-VO.”
Dean dropped to one knee, leaning in for a better look at his smarmy little face. “Start talking, insect.”
Gabe folded his hands across his chest. “I think you know the story now, Dean.”
“Only half of it,” Dean barked. “I want to know Why and How.”
“You know, your majesty,” he waggled a finger, “you’re lucky that you’re a handsome fella, because if you had to get by on your brains alone…”
Dean lifted the lantern to eye level. “One more word and I sink this thing into the moat.”
“Oooh, tough guy,” Gabriel ‘quaked’ in fear, “threatening someone who’s already dead.”
Dean’s lips pursed in a tight frown.
“So what caused the big epiphany?” Gabriel pressed. “When we didn’t fix your shoes, or pick your beans?”
“I had my suspicions. You were in the boat on Arthur’s night- you threw that demon halfway across the deck because he was attacking Castiel—”
“Well someone had to watch out for him.”
“—but you did it without touching a single sweet. A spread like that? Any faerie would have eaten thrice their weight in chocolate without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’.”
“You know, I was always more of a cheese guy? A creamy Gloucester; an earthy Yarg—”
“Then Castiel got sick.”
That stopped Gabriel’s rushing mouth.
“If you were fae —you or Anna— you would have healed him yourself. Or you would have called upon your queen, and she would have manifested whenever she damn well pleased and done it for you.”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed, his mouth ticking up in a smirk. “You thought Rowena was a faerie queen?”
“A faerie queen could have visited while we were on the journey back. But Rowena can’t, can she? She’s mortal, just like I am. Like you were.” Dean raised a finger. “So when he fell ill, either you knew what was happening and were powerless to stop it, or you were letting things go exactly to plan.”
“You think I planned this for my brother?” he asked quietly. “That I wanted him to be a monster? Look at him! He’ll never be anything but a creature now! And it’s because of you.” His golden glow had stoked to a a white-hot blaze. “He was happy. He was serene. And then you came with your poisoned words and your rich foods, and your luxurious feather beds.” His lips curled impartingly over the last words, striking rue in Dean’s heart. “You poisoned him, just like I knew you would.”
“Then why did you let me take him?” Dean’s voice was gravel and ash. “Why do that to your brother?”
“Because part of me wanted him to remember,” he hissed. “You don’t know the Castiel that I knew. The boy who wanted to be a warrior.” A mirthless laugh escaped him. “I wanted that Castiel to rise. I wanted him to remember that you, and your brother and your father were the reason his whole damned village was razed to the ground.” His eyes found Dean’s, small though they were. “I hope he remembers how to use that blade and cuts your gods-damned throat.”
Dean turned his head to see Anna—not as a demurring orb of soft, lavender light, but as a woman a least a head shorter than himself, with sleek red hair that fell over her shoulders… and a pair of dove-grey wings. Dean sprung to his feet in shock.
“Your majesty, you must understand. Rowena only did what we asked of her. We prayed to keep him safe.”
“Safe? A grown man that barely remembers his own name, all alone in the woods by himself? You call that safe??”
“We protected him,”Anna shot back, angrier than Dean had ever seen her. “Gabriel and I. We scared humans and demons alike away from the cottage. Rowena granted him the universal tongue, so that he might speak to the animals and show them no harm. He had a peaceful life, Dean.”
“He had a child’s mind in a man’s body. What kind of life is that?”
“What kind of life is being alone?” Gabriel snapped. “Being the last of your kind? Knowing you’ll never have a mate, or children? That you’d be hunted —hated— for what you are?”
“You never gave him the choice!”
“Yeah? Why don’t you take a look at your own glass house before throwing stones?”
“ENOUGH,” Anna thundered, flaring brightly. The outburst stunned the two men into silence.
“I let him go because I hoped he might be happy,” she continued. “You promised him a warm hearth, and food, and a good bed for as long as he might want it. We didn’t know the spell would fade.”
“I still can’t believe you were willing to give Castiel to this ass,” Gabriel muttered.
“Because I want to move on, Gabriel. It’s only with Rowena’s blessing that we haven’t lost our minds already.”
“But turning over our baby brother to a killer? To the implement of so many magickals’ destruction?” He snorted in disgust. “I’d rather go insane.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it,” she said in dismay. “If gains him happiness, love —even revenge— it’s better than letting him die simple with no other mortals for company. That’s not the life we wanted for him, even if it is safer.”
She took a last glance at Dean —her eyes were brown, he noted— before fading, feathers and all, into a mist. To dust motes. Then there was no more of her, and would never be again.
Dean walked from the library at full clip, slamming open his chamber doors without offering Castiel so much as a warning knock. His wings flapped with a start behind him.
“Dean!” He rolled off of his stomach and onto the floor, wincing only slightly at the weight of his wings. “Dean, what’s the matter?”
“Sam’s gone!” he barked.
“Gone. Flown the coop. No note. Didn’t even take a horse.”
“Where’s he gone? And why?”
“I don’t know where he’s gone. And if he didn’t take a horse he couldn’t have gone far.” He dug in his armoire for the Arsenal, and looped it to his belt by the cinch-rope. Dean spun on his heel, heading towards the door once again. “I gotta go find him.”
Castiel made to follow. “I’ll go with you.”
He darted in front of the door, barring Castiel. “No, Cas. We can’t have you going outside this room, let alone the castle, looking like that.”
Castiel’s familiar squint appeared, along with a newly-acquired scowl. “Dean, I can help. I’ve lived in the woods all my life. I can help track him—”
“No.” Dean’s voice was firm. “You’re too vulnerable right now, Cas. There are too many people looking for—” Creatures. Things like you. Monsters. “—anything out of the ordinary.”
“But if I can fly, I can—”
“Get shot out of the sky like a duck for Sun’s Day dinner.” He shook his head. “I know you want to help, Castiel, but it’s just not safe.”
“I’ve been abed for days, Dean. I’ve not been able to spread my wings to their full span and I’m aching.”
“I know, Cas. And we’ll figure that out. Together. But right now, I need you to lay low.” At Cas’ still-present scowl he conceded, “Maybe, if you put your cloak on, you can go to the library.”
The only thing they could find to keep them effectively covered was a heavy bale buff winter cloak, the weight of which—along with his newly-sprouted wings—pulled unbearably at his back and shoulders.
“Castiel, please. I know you don’t understand…you can’t understand.— ”
Castiel glared at him. “I am many things, Dean, but I am not a simpleton.”
A little sort of clarity seemed to find Dean’s face then; a little something like understanding. “Cas, I—”
“Go,” he said, turning back into Dean’s bedchamber. “I’ll wait until your search party has left, and then I’ll see myself to the library.”
Dean moved in for a kiss, one that Castiel turned his lips away from, letting it land on his cheek. The king seemed offended, but could not let it bother him now.
He squeezed Castiel’s hand in something like a promise before slipping out the door.
Castiel was surprised to find the library in such an active state. The sofa was always popular, but the chairs and tables rarely saw anything resembling discussion, though such a thing was entirely possible and comfortable within its confines.
A footstool stood beside two matching chairs with a table between them. A jug of wine and three empty cups rested on a tray on the tabletop. Beside them, was a small green book, easily held in a single hand. Upon the front cover was a lone word in washed-out gold paint:
Inside, a title page expounded more fully upon the subject.
A Volume Detailing the Social, Devotional,
and Anatomical Peculiarities of an Endangered Sub-Species
Charles C. E. Shurley
He flipped past the Acknowledgements —of which there were a great many— and dove into the Introduction.
“As a young man, it was my great privilege to have spent a spring season amongst the Enochian people. As the numbers of this—I cannot think to call them a tribe, as they have not the strange custom of those barbarians of whom blood sacrifices are still demanded; nor can they be called a race, as their particular anatomy and physiology are too akin to those of men—I dare say, sub-species have dwindled since the glorious beginnings of Arthur’s reign”…
Castiel thumbed through the volume of the book—perusing random pages, eyeballing it to see if the author’s prosaic tone carried throughout—when it yawned open to a forgotten scrap of parchment, pressed into a tight gutter between chapters like a bookmark.
‘Wings’, the coming chapter was called.
Before the ages of ten and twelve, an Enochian child is all but indistinguishable from a human child. With good health, regular meals, and a varied diet, both will begin to exhibit primary characteristics of maturity: lowering of the voice for males, the onset of menarche for females, and the development of facial and bodily hair.
Unlike a human child, however, it is at this age that an Enochian child begins to grow his or her wings. (It is not possible from observation to ascertain why the wings appear as a characteristic of maturity. One hypothesis is that a growing child’s spine is not yet strong enough to support the weight of the wings without affecting a curvature. Another is that the absence of wings at birth may have evolved to ease in childbearing, as Enochians are mammals.)
Each child is born with a set of secondary scapulae—usually located at or below the second rib. Note that the primary scapulae are tilted, and slightly smaller than those of a human. This is to allow for the secondary set. (see fig. 1) Each wing contains a humerus, radius and ulna, as well as carpal and metacarpal bones, connecting to a secondary set of deltoids and triceps, which sit above the trapezius muscles. (see fig. 2) This, in effect, makes the Enochian wings a second set of arms, albeit one absent the same range of movement.
As an Enochian reaches maturity, these bones —already present in the child— will begin to protrude from the skin of the back, not unlike the eruption of wisdom teeth from the gums. (The exception, of course, being the bones surface enveloped in layers of muscle and skin.) The bones become larger as the child grows, and the muscles will compensate. It is vital for Enochians to have good posture, as it may affect the ‘carry’ of the wings.
Once each of the major flight bones have erupted, pinfeathers -also known as “blood feathers”- begin to emerge. These are often the covert feathers, followed by scapulars, then by the primaries and secondaries. The mantle feathers—those closest to the spine—are last to materialize, as they are largely cosmetic in Enochians. (It is often a point of pride amongst young Enochians to grow feathers quickly—those without are often mocked as ‘hatchlings’ or ‘chickens’.)
Most young adult Enochians will have white down upon first growth, and lose them upon their first molt, wherein the color of the adult feathers become visible.
It is customary to save these first feathers, as well as those from subsequent molts, until the young male or female has chosen a mate, whereupon the feathers of both mates are used to stuff the bed upon which their new family sleeps. (See: Mating; Familial and Social Rituals)”…
Is that what he was? An Enochian?
He had wings, but they had only just grown in. Back in the cottage was a feather bed, though he knew no family to have ever slept in it. He’d certainly never had a mate.
It was always just him, alone.
Castiel removed the bookmark, carding his thumb across the fore edge of the tome for any other mysteries. He found none; only the detailed anatomic figures referenced and more dully informative prose. He was about to put the mark back in place and leave the book where he’d found it when he felt something rigid inside the parchment. Something like a bone. Firm, but with a slight give. Almost as if it were hollow.
He set the book down—he’d find the chapter again, if he must—and turned the parchment over to reveal folds at three sides. A quick flick of his nail parted them, and he cautiously peeled the makeshift envelope open.
A feather. White, with a faint yellowish hue at the tip. A little oil from it left an imprint against the goatskin.
He held out a finger to stroke the quill; what posessed him to do so he did not know.
At the moment he did, a great and terrible vision captured his senses. Scenes played out before him that had sat dormant in his brain, coiled deep like a snake in a hollow log, waiting for the shock and venom of its discovery.
The shouts of men in armor, their horse’s hooves like thunder across the forest floor; tight in formation, swords drawn. The baying of their hounds. The sulfur and lime stench of their torches growing stronger as they drew closer. The sun-and-star upon their tunics.
The words he spoke low and frantic; vespers in a tongue he’d long forgotten as he hid in a bramble bush. He had begged the Lady of the Forest to watch over himself and his kin. A child’s prayer, for he was no more than a boy. Ten, he remembered, and not so much as a stump of a wing.
Balthazar had such beautiful wings—white, with a golden yellow hue in the sun. They reminded Castiel of buttermilk.
He needed to grow his wings before Balthazar chose a mate. He must! He must prove to Gabriel that he was old enough to be betrothed. Show Balthazar that though was a healer he was fit to defend their future nest with fist and blade. When told the warrior as much, Balthazar only chuckled a little and bussed his forehead, as if being six years his senior made him that much wiser.
He had to show them both that he was not a child anymore.
Thorns cut into his arms; his neck and his face. Still he did not cry out, for he was not a child. But still he hid.
He hid until the king’s men rode away in a loose pack—some laughing, others looking somber. Some bloody. All dirty. Some went away with Enochian blades tucked into their belts. A man led Ezekiel’s cart-horses on tethers from the back of his own mount. One wore a cape that Gabriel had finished that morning.
He prayed their names as he ran. Gabriel. Anapiel. Balthazar. He was a healer. The little magick in him could help.
Castiel’s breath left him as if he’d been punched.
The village square was carnage. The bodies of his kith and kin lay strewn with the sheep and goats, slaughtered with equal brutality. Even Old Man Oak’s face was lacerated by axes. He called out the names he’d prayed and earned no response. An effluvia of sulfur and lime hung thick in the air with wood smoke and burning straw, along with a smell he dare not imagine the source of.
He was no man; he was only a craven boy.
Balthazar lay on his side by the village altar, his curls gone rutilant with blood. His face was bruised almost beyond recognition, half his skull flattened into the dirt. He died with blade in hand, as befitting a warrior.
He found Gabriel by his golden wings, spread limply to his sides. He had died fighting. Judging by the blood between Anapiel’s teeth and the meat beneath her nails, so had she.
One by one, he accounted for the whole of the village. His neighbors, his friends…his brother and cousin. All dead. All save for him.
This was purgation, surely. He had died and was in purgation for his cowardice. The gods had tried him and found him lacking.
He fell to his knees and wept.
A pale, delicate hand appeared on his shoulder. The Lady had heard his prayer.
She spoke thick words in a language he couldn’t understand. She cooed promises in his ear, stroked his hair until his eyes grew heavy; until he could smell naught but cedar boughs and berries, and recognize the songs of the birds above.
‘There now, Castiel… that’s a lovely wee boy… sleep. Sleep and put the whole of it behind you…’
He came back into himself slowly, as if from a dream.
How long had it been? Castiel shook his head, as if he could dislodge the memories jammed inside.
The cape. Gabriel had finished the cape. A blue velvet, with silverwork along the hems. He’d used the cloth cuttings to make a bag. A bag for the amber necklace they sent for the new prince’s presentation day, and tiny shoes for the rowan-seed doll that would protect him from evil spirits. The crones had sewn it, and the few children had gathered the seeds.
It was a late spring—still cold enough to wear their cloaks. They could go to market and sell the village’s wares—their preserves and cider and lace— and drink from the barrels of mead the king would send down to toast the baby’s health.
Baby Samworth, the second prince of Wintan-ceastre in memory.
It had been over twenty-two years.
His hands began to shake, his stomach roiling and threatening to spill over onto his boots.
He had to leave. He was already half a prisoner here, and might be more when the king returned. He may be killed—‘dealt with’, like other monsters before him. Or worse, he may be kept cloistered here until the end of his days. Dean would do to him as he did to Samworth: to swaddle him in captivity and call it safety.
He mustn’t be here when the king returned.
Castiel rose to his feet, running from the library and to the king’s bedchamber. Where were his clothes? His simple, Enochian clothes?
He threw open the trunk of Sam’s altered things, forsaking all the princely finery and finding the humblest shirts. Nothing better than wool or linen. Nothing of his life as the king’s bedwarmer, however brief.
The blade! Where was his blade?
He flung wide the armoire, turning piles of velvet and cloth-of-gold over into heaps on the floor. It would be in here, surely, safe next to the King’s Arsenal and—
“Looking for this?”
Castiel spun around to see Meg, swinging his Enochian blade by the pommel with two fingers.
Her soul was a tenebrous tyrian purple, skirting the edges of black.
“You’re a demon!”
“And a bear shits in the woods,” she grinned. “Took you long enough.”
“Where’d you find that?” Castiel demanded. “And how?”
Her bow lips turned up in amusement. “Sweetun, I’ve been exploring this castle for weeks. I could tell you where the king keeps his silky pink smallclothes.”
“Give it to me.”
“Ah-ah-ah,” she piped, “not so fast. First you have to help me.”
He narrowed his eyes at Meg. “Why ever would I do that?”
“As I said, I’ve been using this castle for a one-woman game of hide and seek. I know every back stair and corridor. You want out? I’ll get you out.” She spun the blade by it’s handle. “You could try and walk out the front gate wearing a cape on a midsummer’s day. I’m sure no one will notice the king’s prized unicorn leaving the stable. Or that he’s suddenly grown wings.”
Castiel glared at her. If only he could smite her like a warrior could.
“So what do you say, Feathers?”
His expression eased from hate to mere mistrust. A demon wouldn’t offer aid without expecting some remuneration — what purpose would he serve?
“Demons aren’t known for their benevolence.”
Meg scoffed. “Benevolence is my last motivation.” She rolled the blade’s handle in her palm. “You get to roam free, and the king gets a taste of the misery he’s been heaping on our kind for two hundred years.”
“I doubt our kinship as outsiders is any part of your motivation.”
She rolled her eyes. “And because your big brother threatened me with this thing, okay? It’s self-preservation, pure and simple.”
“My…?” Castiel’s face blanched. “Gabriel…!? Where?”
“First you bring me that little pig-sticker the king keeps under his pillow, then I’ll take you to your brother.”
Castiel sighed. He was almost angry with himself for how quickly he betrayed Dean, yet the budding sense of just how Dean had betrayed him led his feet forward. He lifted the pillow and took the knife with no trouble, then brought it back to Meg.
She swaddled it in a large scrap of leather and tied it with twine, taking care not to touch it. Castiel wondered if the runework on the blade had rendered it caustic, or if it was merely the materials from which it was made. She tucked the thing against her body as if it were both fragile and precious.
“Now where’s Gabriel?” he growled.
Meg pushed past him, back into the hallway. “Follow me.”
She walked with long strides for such a bantam thing, making it all the more surprising when she stopped short.
Her face squinched in thought. “Where are you going, anyway? Once you get your brother back.”
That much hadn’t crossed Castiel’s mind. His first instinct was to return to the cottage, but then the thought of returning to the site of a massacre roiled his stomach.
“I don’t know.” He hated how familiar a refrain the words were; how he couldn’t shake them even with the spell broken. “I…I don’t have a place to go.”
She smiled like a cat loose in an aviary. “I think I know someone who can help.”
By the fifth league afoot, Sam’s determination had somewhat subsided.
They’d had their adventure— drank in a grimy tavern along the docks of the capital’s south side, strolled through a street market rich with the sounds of a dozen tongues— and Sam had loved every minute. They were on their way to Ruby’s father’s estate when she demanded the carriage driver stop in the middle of a dirt road. She paid the man and then shooed him away, leaving them to walk the remaining distance through the woods.
Half his mind longed to call it quits; to turn back to the main road and flag down any carriage that had room. To admit to himself that the hand-pie he'd bought at the dockside was so vastly, disgustingly different from Ellen's that he could scarcely believe they were the same food. Perhaps even to make amends with Dean, now that he had asserted some independence.
The other half resented all thoughts proffered by the first. Ruby was bearing the trek without complaint. In fact, she had hardly broken a sweat. She only stopped now and then to tilt her head towards the wind, as if listening for a distant sound. If she was finding her way home by her senses alone, he would not be the mimsy prince-under-glass who could not endure the blister on his toe.
“Ruby,” he entreated, after what must have been a mile of silence, “how much longer is it to your father’s estate?”
“We’re almost there, my prince,” she said dulcetly. “I promise you this is a shortcut.”
Sam glanced around, noting that the wood got thicker rather than thinner as they walked. The path was weak and overgrown, and sunlight was growing scarce. “Was this truly necessary? I don’t feel that the carriage driver recognized me…”
She turned sharply to face him. A brief flash of impatience crossed her visage before she found her coquettish pout once again. “We wouldn’t want anyone to see us, would we? If we continued on the road, why, we might as well have left a trail of breadcrumbs for your brother to follow. I already believe someone’s on our trail.”
“I don’t know! But can you imagine the scandal if we were caught? The draper’s daughter seen running away with a man? We’d be ruined, Sam.” She frowned, a defensive pout to her lips. “And you, dragged back to the castle in irons when your brother finds you…”
Sam puzzled for a moment. Angry or worried as Dean may be, he’d never do such a thing; no part of him could believe that.
He was about to object when another line of thought jumped to the fore. “And what of your father? You’re sure he won’t realize that a prince has come to supper?”
“Well…” Ruby tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “How many people have truly seen your face? Your brother had you locked away so tightly—”
Sam’s face soured.
“But there is a bit of good in that, Samworth—you can be anyone you want.” Ruby patted his chest. “I can say you’re a merchant’s son from East Endlundston. That would do to explain your clothes. Or perhaps a tailor’s apprentice!” She smiled at him sweetly once again. “We can tell him you’re the prince, or that can be our own little secret.”
“Ashamed of me already, are you?”
“Not unless I introduce you as an apprentice who doesn’t know what a basting stitch is.”
“Then we’d best make up something believable,” he said, leaning down to kiss her again.
Their lips were only a finger’s breadth apart when Ruby’s neck craned suddenly to her right.
Sam blinked once, twice. “Ruby?”
“Do you hear that?”
He shook his head. “No…”
Ruby’s dark brows knitted together. “You don’t hear that? It sounds like…screaming.”
Sam looked over his shoulder. “We should go.”
She nodded, and turned to lead him hand-in-hand through another clump of trees.
It wasn’t long before trees grew sparse and the land grew even. Something like a country house stood before them: a brick foundation with three jettied stories, one over the other, accented with timbering and white plaster. There were many windows—a sure display of new money—and a brick chimney piece at the other end.
There was no smoke rising from it, which Sam thought peculiar, nor any lamps lit inside. If Ruby’s father was home, surely he’d be sitting down to supper by now. Perhaps a few candles might be seen in his study, if he’d eaten; maybe one in a servant’s room.
A bit of worry lay heavy in his gut- was her father away searching for her? Why had no one stayed behind? It all seemed wrong somehow. And that the whole of the place was awash in the blood-red light of sunset helped naught.
Rather than going through the front door, they snuck in through a servant’s entrance at the side. The prince’s hackles raised.
The smell hit him across the face before he could even process the sight. There, slumped over his own desk, was the bloated form of the draper, still clutching his quill. A knife was jammed into his back, making him look like so much meat to be carved. Sam only saw the blackened digits of a hand before he turned away in disgust.
Ruby stood between him and the door, her dark umber eyes now fully and entirely black.
“Demon,” he whispered.
Ruby laughed evilly. “And it’s said you’re the smarter brother.”
Sam’s eyes darted around the room —trying very purposefully not to look at the body— for anything he remembered that hurt them. Salt, yes. Iron? Blessed water- where would he get blessed water here…?
She stalked towards him “When I snuck into the palace in this pretty little collop, I thought I’d simply kill the king and be done with it. But then came you, Samworth…” Her white teeth and black eyes glinted as she smiled, “I believe watching his baby brother do the deed will be much more fun.”
Fireplace poker, Sam noted as he backed carefully away. Salt cellar on the table.
“I know Lilith likes wearing girls,” she continued, “but I’m sure she’ll make an exception for a big, strong man like you.”
“You’ll have to kill me first,” Sam growled.
“If you insist.”
She jerked her chin in his direction, and Sam felt himself suddenly blown backwards, as if propelled by a sudden burst of wind. He hit the mantelpiece with a deep grunt of pain before crumpling to the floor.
“Brother slaying brother… the curse ringing true... She’ll be so pleased.”
Bobby was right, he thought dimly.
Sam rolled onto his stomach, determined to rise up. He lifted himself up with one arm; when he moved to rest his weight on the other, a searing pain lashed over his shoulder, and he fell to the floor again.
Mud-caked velvet shoes padded closer, silent over the carpet. Sam rolled onto his good arm (to the remonstration of his bad one), and turned his head up to face the demon. She held a serrated knife in a clenched fist, the sharp clip point aimed right at him.
“Last chance, Samworth. Say yes like the obedient little prince you are, and when it’s all done you can be my pet.” Her mirthless grin sent a chill through Sam. “I’ll have to leave all this behind,” she gestured to her stolen body, “but I can find a new—”
She dropped the knife mid-taunt, clutching her hands over her ears and wincing in pain.
“Get it out of my head!” Ruby’s eyes glazed black. “MAKE IT STOP.”
A trickle of blood poured from her nostril, rolling along her lip as she gnashed her teeth. Her chest rolled with pained breaths but still Sam heard nothing.
Then, suddenly, it was as if all the light had passed from the room. The candles grew dim, as if they too cowered in fear.
“MAKE IT STOP!”
Blood began to drip from the corner of Ruby’s eyes as she squeezed them closed. Black smoke seeped from her ears as she clamped them to her head.
Sam rose to standing with his good arm. With the other—and with a terrible moan of pain—he reached for the dropped knife.
She lifted a hand from her head, but jumped back as if physically struck.
“What’s happening!?” she shrieked.
Sam passed the knife into his good hand. “I'm sending you back where you came from.” He thrust the knife into Ruby’s guts.
The knife seemed to light her up from the inside like flint to steel. There was a spark —once, twice— and she crumpled to the floor in a heap, extinguished.
Then Sam heard the screaming. He plugged his fingers in his ears, watching as the sound began to adopt a shape.
The darkness seemed to thicken- to clot. To form the fearful disembodied shape of gnarled hands and hunched back, moving through the air with a whip-like tail. The thing turned upon Sam and his saw its true horror: Eyes like dying embers, mouth aglow like a stub of a candle in a neep-lantern, gaping and grotesque.
It scratched out at Sam, clawed hand extended. He ducked underneath the thing, and felt a chill all the way to the marrow of his bones.
This only made the thing scream louder, making the blood throb inside his head. On his lips was the faint taste of copper.
He had to run. He had to—
Every candle and lamp in the house flared to full, luminous brightness. Sam’s eyes slammed shut.
He willed them open to see two hooded figures at either side of the room, each standing in front of a tangled, swirling sigil he’d never seen before, drawn in — Sam almost went faint— fresh blood.
The creature roared louder.
The figure on the left slammed their small, thin-wristed hand against the wall at the same time as did the taller one at the right. The creature slammed against the right-side wall with an audible thud, the dark mist materialized into something like flesh.
The hooded figure produced a shining gold blade, and thrust it into the body of the beast.
The creature dissipated into mist once more, never to materialize again.
So strong was the blowback that it knocked the hood off of them. Off her.
The woman —her hair a jumble of dark curls, her face flushed with effort— pulled the blade from the wall, and brushed a tendril away from her forehead with a bleeding hand.
She turned to face Sam, and thought he saw a soft, wordless gasp pass from her lips. He certainly felt his own breath hitch.
“Who are you?”
“She can’t hear you.” The other woman turned slowly, putting her hood down around her shoulders.
Sam gasped at the sight of her. In place of her eyes were two crudely-sewn empty sockets half-sunken into her skull. It was a fine face otherwise, with an upturned nose and a wide mouth. She might have even been pretty once— a knowledge she seemed to carry with her.
“Who are you?” Sam asked.
“My name is Pamelina. That’s Eileen. You’re Prince Samworth. And that—” she pointed at the heap of a body known as Ruby “—was a demon.”
Sam’s head volleyed between the two of them. “How did you know all that?”
“I see,” she said, drawing slowly nearer. “I am her ears; and she, my eyes.” Pamelina was close enough now that Sam could catch the latticework of thick scars that held her eyelids shut. “I didn’t need them to know what was following you, handsome.” She breathed out a dry laugh. “Wasn’t expecting that banshee, though.”
Sam’s voice ticked up. “Banshee?”
“That creature that just tried to tear you to ribbons? That was a banshee.”
Words fell unspoken from his open mouth. The day before, there was no such thing as magick. Today there were demons and banshees and…
“Eileen’s right— you’re too young to have made that kind of an enemy…”
He shook his head. “How…?”
Pam tapped her forehead. “I told you, she is my eyes. I hear her, and I see.” She raised a hand to cup Sam’s chin and gasped. “You’re cursed.”
“Yeah,” Sam breathed, “my father made some enemies not long before I was born.”
Pam shook her head. “Oh no, sweetun. This is…beyond. Your soul is so cloaked in shadow I can’t even begin to see…” She cocked her head to one side— in lieu of squinting, he supposed.
Her hand dropped to her side, gathering up her cloak. She put the other into Sam’s good hand, dragging him out the door. “We need to take you to Mazuri.”
Sam wondered, with only a little hyperbole, if he should ever leave the castle grounds again. He was very nearly killed by a demon, and a banshee, and was now currently being led by a blind seer and a deaf mage into the very heart of the forest…where he was to see another witch. Likewise, he would now be forever careful what he wished for. He very much wished to know how just how much of the magick he’d learned about was real; clearly he was not prepared for the field research.
“I know this sounds foolish, but…you’re not going to make me into stew, are you?”
Pam’s laughter was like the tinkling of bells. “A stringbean like you? Stewing would turn you chewy as leather.”
“Eileen’s right,” she added. “You’re much better alive. And we’re nearly out of onions, so we’d almost certainly have to roast you instead.”
He then rolled his eyes. “You’re jesting with me, aren’t you?”
“Not in the slightest, Prince. Only babies are tender enough for my stew.”
“I concede,” Sam grumped.
Pam smiled. “You asked.”
The motley party stumbled through the dark wood, a single candle leading the way, until they came to…well, it was not a cottage, exactly, for cottages were wood or mud or daub. They were not hewn into the sides of rocks and halfway burrowed into the ground. But it had windows and a door, and looked warm and inviting inside.
Pamelina knocked twice, then once, then three times before the door opened seemingly of its own accord. The women ducked their heads a little to enter. Sam, after a moment’s thought, crawled in on his knees.
Once beyond the threshold, the space was enormous—or comparably enormous, anyway. What he had suspected to be no bigger than a mudhole was the size of his bedroom at least, and was outfitted with a table and chairs, wall shelves crammed with books and jars, and a waist-high brick hearth and chimney. There was already a round iron pot above the fire, which gave him pause. Over the mantle hung bunches of dried spices that he recognized from the palace’s own kichen.
So taken was he by the wonder and mystery of the place that he stayed upon his hands and knees for much longer than necessary, only rising to his feet when he saw a new face puzzling at him.
She was short and plump and acorn-brown, and her dark curls peeked from a red head wrap. “No, no, go on— not too often I have a prince on his knees for me.”
Sam rolled his eyes, and brushed the dirt from his hands and trousers.
“I’m Mazuri,” she said, before he could quite finish thinking the question. “And you’re Prince Samworth.” She took him in from the boots up before shaking her head. “Twenty-two years.”
“Pamelina said you could help me?”
“I will,” she said, deadpan, “as soon as you stop wondering when we’re going to eat you.”
“I…” he stumbled, “I wasn’t…”
“I know the truth of hearts and souls, boy. I know what you’re thinking.”
“You know better,” she said, not unkindly, “but your head’s all filled with stories about grinding bones for bread and turning princes into frogs that you can’t help but wonder.”
Sam started to speak, but thought better of it.
“That’s a good start,” Mazuri nodded. “Now come sit down so I can get a look at you.” She pulled out a chair and pointed at it.
Once seated, she urged his mouth open, examining it. She prodded his belly with a finger, and took his face in both her hands. She looked in his eyes, unblinking, until he had to turn his head out of her hold.
“So can you fix me or what?” he asked irritably.
“Oh no, child… this is old, old magick.” She looked at the whole of him for a long moment; Sam felt as if she were staring right through his clothes —through his flesh— straight into his soul. “Mother Magick’s got nothing on this. But what we can do is get that Banshee taint out of you. Then we can get a good look.” She rolled up her sleeves. “Now brace yourself. We’re gonna fix that arm first.”
Sam sat quietly upon the chair while the women worked. The pretty one—Eileen, he corrected himself— took various pots and jars from the shelves and placed them on a small table set near the hearth. She then took out a new pot, rubbing a dollop of salve or ointment onto her injured hand.
Their eyes would meet across the room every so often; Eileen would turn back to where Pam and Mazuri, respectively, stirred a pot and added herbs and flowers to the brew. Sam would suddenly find the tips of his boots very interesting.
He didn’t dare look at her, knowing what he knew.
The mother Bobby spoke of, Mazuri explained, likely had her soul twisted in grief. In death, someone wronged as she was might become a vengeful spirit—a wraith or a banshee. “And if she was so determined to keep from you having sons, well… that might explain a few things.”
‘A few things.’ They had names. Jessa, and Zarah, and Ami. And Ruby, for what that was worth.
Rot. Poison. He couldn’t subject Eileen to that.
She sat down next to him and held the cloth out. When he took it, she held out her injured hand.
“Oh!” Sam moved his chair closer. He lay her hand on his knee, palm up. The gash was deep and nasty-looking. It had to have been painful; and she couldn’t have cried out if she wanted to. A whole new wave of guilt passed over Sam.
“Oh for Frigg’s sake!” Pam groused. (She undoubtedly would have rolled her eyes, back when she had them to roll.) Still seeing through Eileen, she took long, quick strides up to Sam, and aggressively tapped his forehead with two fingers.
“There!” she said, turning in Eileen’s direction. “Talk to him! I can’t concentrate with all that noise in my head.” She turned back to the cauldron, picking up her spoon.
‘What the hells does that mean?’ Sam thought.
‘She’s tired of hearing my thoughts.’
Sam’s eyes bugged wide. He’d heard the words, but it seems they hadn’t bothered going past his ears. ‘You’re…you’re in my head.’
‘Do you not wish me to be? It seemed like—’
‘No, no. You can. I only…I wasn’t prepared. It’s…disconcerting to say the least.’
‘Don’t apologize.’ Sam smiled. ‘I suppose it’s better this way in the long run. Not to have an intermediary.’
Eileen smiled too. ‘Pam said if she had to hear one more thought about your strong arms she was going to take a needle to her Third Eye.’
Both of them blushed pink.
He took up the bandage again, gingerly winding it around her hand. ‘Strong arms, eh?’
‘You slew a demon,’ she argued. ‘That’s very impressive.’
‘And you slew a banshee by drawing a sigil in your own blood. That’s nothing to sneeze at.’
‘I’m a witch. I’m nothing if not resourceful,’ she shrugged. ‘Besides,’ she added sadly, ‘it’s not as if I can chant a spell against it.’
Sam’s mind was all static as he tried to form the question. ‘So you’re mute as well as deaf?’ he thought finally.
Sam frowned, his eyes falling at his shuffling feet. ‘I feel should say I’m Sorry, but—’
‘Don’t be. I’ve survived as well as anyone with my lot can.’
‘You’ve more than survived, as far as I’m concerned.’ He looked at her from under his lashes. ‘You’re quick, and clever… and damn good with a blade.’ He tied the bandage in a little bow at her knuckles.
Eileen’s smile was cool, but her eyes were merry and bright. She flexed her hand; the bandage seemed to fit just right .‘You’re not so bad yourself, handsome.’
“You know, it is possible to think too loud,” Mazuri cut in.
Both Eileen and Sam tore their eyes away from each other. Eileen’s fell to her own feet; Sam’s latched onto Mazuri, who had lifted the spoon from the cauldron up to her nose. “I believe it’s ready, prince.”
Sam stood to attention, edging closer to the two witches, watching them as they watched the potion, pouring it carefully into a pewter cup. The two let out a sigh of relief when nothing at all seemed to happen. Perhaps that was the plan…?
He stuck his nose out, trying to get a glance at the stuff. “Do I—”
Mazuri turned sharply to face him. “Drink,” she ordered, urging the cup into his hands.
Sam raised the still-warm cup to his face, sniffing at it and finding it surprisingly pleasant. “What’s in this?”
“Lemon, jasmine, and rose essence in spring water,” said Mazuri. “It should help lift the curse from you.”
He looked over the cup to Mazuri’s face, writ with impatience. He glanced at Eileen who gave him the smallest nod.
With a shrug, he took up the cup with both hands, leaned his head back, and proceeded to dump the contents down his gullet. The witches watched him expectantly.
For a few moments, there was nothing. Not a word, not a breath, not even a tingle.
Then, quick as a blink, a thin sheen of sweat sprung up upon his face. Sam tasted bile at the back of his throat, no doubt brought up by the great wringing and writhing taking place in his guts. He breathed in and out with great sucking gulps of air, as if he was drowning in his own skin.
He fell to his knees in front of the nearest bucket and retched.
The stuff seemed to pour out of him thick as treacle. It coated his throat and lips, tacked his hair against his chin. Yet with it came an immediate, bone-deep relief that made him feel a stone lighter.
Sam wiped away the remnants on his already filthy sleeve. He found his breath again. His eyes, gone crossed in his haze, began to focus. They then caught the opaque gray sludge left on his chin and on the fabric. The stuff in the bucket was black as night, and burbled like a bitumen spring.
He stumbled backwards, pale and shaking. “Good gods!”
“We’ll need to burn that bucket,” Mazuri said stolidly.
“That…!? That was inside me!?”
“Not as such,” Pam elaborated. “The elixir purged the corruption from your soul. Your body simply followed suit.”
‘We wanted to make sure you were cleansed,’ Eileen added silently. ‘This was the surest way.’
“Thanks,” he croaked, only half meaning it.
Mazuri raised an eyebrow. “That’s just to start. You still need a smudging and a full salt bath. Your brother too, probably, just to get any residue off him.”
“Best of luck with that,” he scoffed, dusting off his bottom and his knees. “Dean’s not overly fond of witches.”
“Well, if he wants to keep being king he’d best get fond,” Pam spat.
“There’s a storm coming,” Mazuri agreed. “Dark clouds ahead.”
Sam looked between them. “What do you mean?”
“Evil,” Mazuri tutted. “Pure evil.”
He glanced at Eileen, beggaring some explanation. She merely shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me— I’m just a spell caster.’
“There’s still a curse,” Pamita said, “a different one.” She was giving him that same assessing gaze that Mazuri did, her empty eyes making it eerier still. “It can’t be cleansed…it can only lifted by spilling the blood of the one who cast it.”
Sam swallowed hard. “Ruby said something about a curse come true…brother slaying brother. That Lilith—”
Her name sent the women aback as if they’d been physically hit.
‘The Albertus Curse!!’
“So it IS her!” Pam said breathlessly.
“I didn’t think it could be true,” Mazuri whispered. “I didn’t think it could be true…”
“Wait,” Sam snarled, “you knew?”
‘I’ve only read the name,’ Eileen offered .
“We don’t know,” Pam shot back, “we only see.”
Sam’s eyes were daggers. “What’s the difference?”
“You only saw a pretty girl,” Mazuri replied calmly. “You didn’t know she was a demon.”
“But you did,” he spat back.
Mazuri folded her arms against her chest. “We saw a man traipsing through the woods, about to follow his pecker right to an early grave. We didn’t know he was the prince.”
Sam’s mouth snapped shut.
‘I’m sorry. That was harsh.’
“No, no…she’s right,” he said aloud, his voice tightening over each word. With the cloak of shock and fear stripped away, shame sliced through him like an icy wind. He shut his eyes against the onslaught. “She’s right. It’s my fault.”
Pam placed a calming hand on the back of his neck. “Demons lie, sweetun. You couldn’t have known.”
“And that brother of yours certainly didn’t do you any favors by keeping you in the dark,” Mazuri snipped.
Sam shot a look to Mazuri— the question How did you know? hadn’t reached the tip of his tongue when it was answered by a single arched eyebrow and the tight line of her lips.
“Right,” he muttered, “truth of hearts and souls.”
Sam heaved a sigh. “So, first, I’m to return to the castle with my tail between my legs—”
“He’ll be glad to have you back, boy,” Mazuri said, not unkindly. “He’s already beside himself.” She patted his shoulder. “Sometimes you can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. And that goes for both of you.”
“Then he or I or we can only break the curse by killing a demon—”
‘Archdemon,’ Eileen interrupted, her tone apologetic.
“Archdemon,” Sam grumbled, “and that’s going to somehow solve all my problems?”
“It’s a fine start,” Pam said.
“Easy for you to say, you’re the ones with all the magic powers.”
Mazuri grabbed him by the front of his jerkin- still covered in blood and grime and whatever that extracted curse was made of. She was two heads shorter than he, and yet when she pinned him to the wall of the cottage, her strength was easily twice his. Even her voice seemed to loom over him.
“Now you listen here, Sam Winchester. You got two choices: you can let the wind blow you along like you’ve been doing, or you can take control. You hold all the keys to a beautiful life if you’d just pick them up and use them.”
“What keys?” he pleaded. “I’ve picked up more books than swords. I’m not a warlock, or even a scholar. I’m a prince with a library and too much gods-damned time on my hands!”
“That’s more than enough,” Pam said.
‘You have us,’ Eileen offered. ‘We can help.’
“And it’s a damn sight more than most people have,” Mazuri scolded. “You’re a prince, for Aja’s sake! Start acting like one.”
Sam straightened up. “Then I’m going to need to know where I can get at least three horses,” he said, “because I’m not going back to the palace on foot.”
Dean broke in his solar.
He bathed and dressed in mindless, rote motions like Cas’ mechanical toy. He had tied his own sleeves for years, and, really, how long had he had someone to do it for him? Weeks? A month, at most? He looked on Castiel’s clothes—still occupying space in the armoire—and felt nothing. Not improved, not relieved, only nothing. His breakfast tasted like ash, and he ate very little.
He put one foot in front of the other and found himself in his private room. Outside, the sun was low under a canopy of gathering storm clouds, swaddling the land in its light. Through this window, from end to end, was his kingdom. So many souls that depended on him; looked to him. Trusted him to keep them safe.
His knees gave out, and he pitched backward into his chair with a sob.
Safe. What had safe done besides drive away his brother, and cause his lover to flee? Could there be safety in the face of this evil? Here he sat in the single most warded room in the palace— salt glass and sigils, silver cups and iron blades— while his people went about their lives unaware, with nothing but superstition to protect them.
‘Keep Samworth safe.’ Jon had used his dying breaths on those words.
Dean had damned his people, as he had damned Samworth and Castiel.
The voice of his self-hatred mimicked Jon’s; the same timbre, the same hiss of disgust. ‘What kind of a king are you, failing your people? Shaming your family? What kind of man weeps for someone he’s known for less than a moon’s turn? And a—’
No. He wouldn’t finish that sentence, even in his own head. He would not deride or dismiss Castiel by calling him a creature.
It had been thirteen years and still his father’s voice haunted him. It never appeared in bursts of pride or glory, but in times of loneliness and doubt. Perhaps that, deep down, was the reason he’d never tried too hard to marry nor secure an heir; so that Jon Winchester’s words would never be spoken in his own voice, and would not mar another generation.
And, for a dark, dark moment, he wished that arrow hadn’t missed.
The kingdom would have a smart and capable ruler— the king his father had always wanted— and he’d have never gazed into those bright blue eyes.
A small, entreating knock sounded at his door. Only one person would dare disturb him here.
Dean dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, as if he could force the tears back inside. Last time he’d wept in front of Bobby was Jon’s cremation; his final act before taking the crown. It was perhaps the last time he’d truly wept in front of anyone.
The door opened and shut with a faint creak. Subdued footfalls died away mid-step. The old man must have been struck by the scene before him; Dean couldn’t find the will to be ashamed.
His voice was small when he grew the nerve to speak. “Bobby…? Did I cause this?”
“All of it. What if…” Dean swallowed hard, “what if being the way I am…” He ran a hand through his hair, pulling at it in tiny clumps. “If I cared only for women, I might have a queen, and an heir—”
“You bite your tongue, boy!” Bobby snipped. “You were made as you were made. ”
“But if I had only…” Concealed it, Dean thought. Ignored it. Done my duty like every other king…
“You were made as you were made,” Bobby said again, gentler this time. He placed a hand on Dean’s shoulder. “You can will it away no more than you can will the sun to shine. You can pretend you have control, but come some morning you’ll have to face the truth.”
Fresh tears fell down his cheeks.
“I’ve made a mess of everything, Bobby,” he sniffled. “My family, my kingdom… everything.” His throat was raw. “I was supposed to protect them and there’s no one left to protect.”
Bobby sat next to Dean, resting on the punched and painted leather-back chair. He pulled it closer to where Dean sat; close enough for Dean to catch the smell of his woolen shirt and leather boots, his hand on Dean’s shoulder all the while.
“Dean, I’ve known you since you were a babe in arms. And if it weren’t some kinda treasonous I’d call you my son. But you are Jon Winchester’s boy in every way.”
No, Dean begged silently. Please, no.
“The worst thing your father ever did was to pretend that control was the same thing as safety. He thought if he could control Samworth, he thought he could keep him safe. If he could control magick, he could keep the people safe. The more people he could get to pretend with him, the safer he felt. And he never gave ground, he only fought back harder.”
Dean nodded. “They…the physicians… they said he had a weak heart. That kings died of weak hearts because they had so much of a burden. That it just…” his words trailed off into a whimper.
“You do it too, Dean.” There was warning in his voice. “I know that your burden in life is a heavy one. But you can’t be like your father—you can’t pretend you control everything and everyone. Not any longer. Not if you want your people to have a fighting chance.”
“I pretended with him,” Dean croaked. “Defended him. Did everything he asked.” He wiped his tears on his sleeve. “I’m only my father’s implement. Only a big, dumb hammer to swing in the darkness.”
“You are Jon Winchester’s son, Dean, but you are not your father.” Bobby lifted Dean’s chin with a calloused hand. “And you’re not some dumb blunt object neither.” Bobby sighed. “You were only a child. You didn’t know what you didn’t know.”
“And that makes it alright!?” His voice cracked over the words. “I fucked up everything, but I didn’t know I was fucking up so it’s alright??”
“Gods no,” Bobby said firmly. “But you know you’ve fucked up. That’s the first step on the journey to fixing things.”
Dean exhaled wet and heavy. Fixing things.
You are not your father.
“Where do we start?”
Bobby scratched thoughtfully at his chin.
“We need to find Samworth,” Dean stated. “First and foremost.”
“Agreed… We need to cancel the ball. If this is some kinda trap—which I don’t doubt it is—we need as few bodies as possible for the demons to inhabit. We need to put our army through its paces—and fast.”
Dean nodded. “And we need to warn our allies. The last word to them was that I was returning to the capital.” He chewed at his lip. What preparations he was he spoiling? How much flour would go to the weevils for his returning? How much good fruit gone to rot?
“Once the nature of this is revealed,” Bobby said, “your allies will understand. I’m doubtless of that.” He huffed a little. “They’ll need those stores of meat and flour anyway.” If they intend to wait out a siege, Dean’s mind finished.
If they did not succeed here, would his vassals even have a chance? The farmers of Millstead, the merchants of Edlundston, the sailors of Wonsport… what could his people do if they failed here?
If he failed?
“Family don’t end with blood, remember?” The old man laid a hand on his shoulder. “So let your family help you, Dean. Me and Ellen. Jody. Benny.” He chuckled to himself. “I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Tran, would you?”
Dean laughed; the sound was foreign in his ears, but welcome.
The king licked his teeth, thinking over the motion. “Kevan’s off to university soon, and can help draft letters. Let’s start that at once.”
“That’s the spirit.”
His tone grew bolder. “Put Jody in charge of raising the army—she’s the best trained of all of us. And many here in the capital hail from Millstead, or have family there. They’ll respect her family name if naught else.”
Bobby nodded. “We’d better set the cooks to feeding that army. I’ll give Ellen the news.”
Dean almost smiled. “You’re a brave man, Robbett. You’re like to end up with a spoon to the head at best.”
“What can I say?” he shrugged. “I like ‘em feisty.”
Dean’s face positively shriveled in disgust. He did not need that thought in his head—about what had gone on between the lord and his cook for gods-only-knew how long.
Then the notion struck him like lightning- for the first time in days, he felt. He was impelled by more than the clockwork needs of his body or the demands of his station. But more than that, he felt something akin to hope.
Gareth then burst into Deans solar with nary a thought for knocking, breaking their reverie and causing both men to jump nearly out of their skins.
“Sire!” He heaved the word from his dry throat, his breath coming fast and wheezy. “Prince Samworth!””
“Sam!? What happened!?”
“He’s here! He announced himself at the gate. And he’s got—” he paused to catch his breath “—he’s got three women with him.”
Dean’s mouth formed the outlines of questions, but no sound came forth.
"Where is he?"
"Coming," Gareth puffed. "Coming this way."
Dean looked to Bobby, at a loss for quite the right words. "Ehm...Thank you, Gareth," Dean said. "Your...your dedication to duty is admirable."
Gareth smiled, still a little dazed from the run, and flashed Dean a thumbs-up before exiting through a wide-open door.
"Strange fella, Gareth..." remarked Bobby.
Moments later, Sam let himself in through the open door.
The king leapt to his feet, hurtling halfway across the room to meet his brother. He opened his arms to embrace him, but reconsidered as Sam stood straight and unyielding. He settled for clamping his hands to his brother’s shoulders.
“Jupiter’s oak, Sammy- you scared the life out of me! Where did you go?”
“Away. I had to be anywhere but here.”
“I get it. I do. And I’m so sorry.”
Sam held up his hand. “I followed a demon yesterday, Dean. One in the body of the draper’s daughter. She led me through the woods, to her ‘father’s house’- and she tried to kill me with this.”
He held aloft a knife similar to Dean’s — the same chicken scratch etched into the blade. Dean stared at the thing with awe and disquiet.
“That looks like mine,” Dean puzzled.
“It’s a Kurdish demon-killing knife. So say my new friends here.”
He flicked his head towards the door, his hair swishing in time; in strode Mazuri, proud and unfazed by the men before her. Eileen followed, head held high. Pamelina brought up the rear, swaying in easily.
“This is Pamelina, Eileen, and Mazuri. They’re witches, and they saved me.”
Dean quickly squelched his horror at Pam’s scars, and instead took to a study of their clothing. Pamelina wore a fitted gown and an equally fitted sideless surcote, both as black as her hair. Eileen’s front-laced green gown marked her as Hibernian, as did her yellow chemise with scarletwork at the cuffs. Mazuri shamed them all with a long dress in a colorful pattern, the warm yellow, green, and orange tones bright against her skin.
They looked like no witches Dean had ever laid eyes on. Then again, neither did Ellen. How many other witches had passed by him unnoticed?
“And that’s not all,” Sam added irritably. “Afterward, I was attacked by a banshee.”
“A banshee?” Bobby sputtered.
“Yeah. A banshee. And if it wasn’t for Pam and Eileen, who knows what would have happened?”
“No, you listen, Dean! Because of you, and dad, and even you, Bobby—” He punched an accusing finger at the older man “—I was utterly unprepared to go anywhere on my own! Can you imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t read Glynn’s Book of Demons? I’d be dead. And it would have been on your hands.”
Sam glared at his brother.
“You’re right,” Dean repeated. “I thought I was doing what was best for you. I thought I was keeping you safe. But I did it the wrong way. And I’m sorry. For everything.”
Sam cocked a skeptical brow. Dean never conceded this easily. The word ‘wrong’ had rarely ever passed his lips- especially not in reference to himself.
“He speaks the truth,” Mazuri said kindly. “His heart is lighter, now that you’re back.” She looked Dean up and down, subjecting him to that soul-scouring gaze. “But there’s still a piece of it missing.”
The prince’s eyes went wide. “Cas is gone?”
Dean bristled at Sam’s assumption, but nodded anyway. He wasn’t wrong. “Yesterday.”
“He’s still alive,” Pam blurted, unbidden, “and he’s not in any great danger. At least, not yet.”
“I’m sorry,” Dean grumbled, scowling, “but who are you again?”
“My name is Pamelina. I’m a seer.”
“Don’t you dare laugh at that, boy,” Mazuri scolded. “It ain’t funny.”
“I wasn’t—” Dean put his hands up. (It was kind of funny, though.)
Pamelina plowed on. “That’s Mazuri. She sees the truth of hearts and souls.” Her lips twisted in a smirk, knowing the shame that swept over Dean. “And this is Eileen. She’s a mage.”
“Eileen is deaf and mute,” Sam said sharply, daring Dean to laugh.
“Are you here for a reward of some sort?” Dean pressed. “Gold? Favors?”
“We’re here to help,” Pam offered.
“We—Eileen, Pamelina, and I— believe we can help defeat Lilith.”
“Lilith?” Dean and Bobby gulped in unison.
“What have you heard?” asked Bobby.
“Very little,” said Pam. “Nothing written in stone. Only whispers. A virgin bride missing on the night of her wedding. Men who drank too much wine on Arthur’s Night and wandered away from their homes and families.”
“A growing darkness,” Sam added, acting as Eileen’s voice. “A palpable change in the air.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Dean barked. “If you even thought that this ultimate evil was…growing like you say, why’d didn’t you let someone know?”
Bobby scoffed. “As if you would have listened to witches!” Mazuri hummed her agreement.
“We told those we knew would be sympathetic,” Pam explained. “We understood that the young mistress of Harvelle’s House had your ear.”
“She does,” Bobby confirmed. “Joh’s practically my daughter.”
“So how do we stop her?”
“We can only do so much,” Pam said sadly. “You have to be the one to kill her.”
“Why me?” Dean shook his head. “I mean… I understand Why Me. But why me specifically?”
“Because you’re the king,” she said. “And because sending Sam up against her is daring history to repeat itself.”
“Sam? What does…?” He shook his head.
The witches exchanged a glance- one they shared with Sam. “What do you know about The Albertus Curse?”
Dean looked to Sam, then Bobby. “The Albertus Curse?”
“When you told us there might be more than one curse, Bobby,” Sam said, “you were right. One was on me alone: the banshee. The woman who was sent to rot in the black cells.”
“The one who took your wife,” Pam nodded to Bobby, whose spine went stiff.
“And took Jessa, and Zara, and even Ruby,” Sam continued. “But the other —The Albertus Curse— that’s on the whole line; from Arturus on down.”
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “Albertus? Like demon-blood-monk Albertus?”
“Exactly! The lore says that Arturus and Albertus fought Azazel together, but that’s not entirely true. Arturus and Azazel fought man-to-man, but Albertus fought Lilith in a battle of magick. She supposedly used her last breaths to curse Albertus’ line. That’s why Albertus became a monk. If he didn’t have any sons, he thought the curse would die with him. Only it didn’t.
“Think about it, Dean: We’ve no uncles or great-uncles with Winchester blood. None that have lived, anyway. And the succession has gone from father to son almost directly. No usurping, no squabbling—only peaceful ascension. Historically, the chances of that are pretty damned low.”
Bobby edged closer. “You’re saying that Lilith has been killing second sons?”
“I’m saying Lilith put a curse in place so that there wouldn’t be any. And not just second sons— two sons period. Until Dad.”
Dean’s brow knitted in confusion. “Wait, what?”
“Grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth, remember? If her baby was a boy, that would make Dad the second son.”
“That would explain what’s got her so riled up,” ruminated Bobby. “And if you’ve both managed to live this long—”
“Wait, hang on,” Dean dug in, “Where’s this coming from? Where did you hear about a first wife?”
Samworth pinched the bridge of his nose. “Read a gods-damned book, Dean!”
“Just a moment now, Dean’s got a point,” Bobby interjected. “How do you know all this? I’ve read every lore book I can get my hands on—hells, I learned to read Strega—and I’ve never heard any of it.”
“Albertus became a monk in Mamucium, which is mostly true. He became a scrivener, but in the evenings he would write down what he’d learned from memory. Magick, lore— he spoke four different languages! He took on students- hunter-scholars to help hunter-kings. And they’re still there to this day. They call themselves the Men of Letters.”
“If she’s a so-called ‘Man of Letters’, what’s she doing down here?”
“Practical study,” Pam answered for her. “An apprenticeship, if you will.”
Dean dammed up before he could embarrass himself with further questions; he knew very well why they’d kept to themselves. If Jon had known there was a library’s worth of magick somewhere…
“Eileen is a legacy,” Sam expounded. “Her father and his father and so on. She’s seen all this with her own eyes. She’s read Albertus’ handwriting— touched his books.” He looked at his brother with pleading eyes. “With their powers, my knowledge, and your resources…! We can fix this, Dean. All of it. Together.”
The brothers’ gazes locked from across the room. As long as Dean could remember, that look —that glassy-eyed, hang-dog expression— got Samworth everything from the last slice of cake to Latin lessons, and he was all but powerless against it.
Dean sighed. There was no point in lying- not with a mind-reader in the room. “How do I know I can trust a witch, let alone three of them?”
Each of the witches huffed; Bobby’s annoyed grunt rung counterpoint.
“Because I trust them,” Sam shot back, “which is more than I can say for you.”
“Me?” Dean sputtered, incredulous. “You don’t trust me? I raised you, Sam! I gave you every damn thing you ever wanted.”
“You lied to me! You lied to me for years just because Dad told you to. And you kept lying after he died!”
“I’m not Dad.” He then added, a little quieter, “And I don’t want to lie to you any longer. I want to make it up to you.”
“Yeah? Prove it.”
“Tell me, Sam. Tell me and I will. I promise.”
Sam’s stood straight, as if bracing himself. “I want to know the truth. All of it.” He nodded resolutely. “I want to see every book, every parchment, every scroll.”
“What, Dean?” he snarled. “What are you afraid of? That I’ll try to depose you? That I’ll instate rule by magick with ‘my coven’ by my side?”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Of course not. I’m not going to sic an army on someone because different is somehow equivalent to evil. I’m telling you, I’m not Dad.”
“I know you’re not, just as I’m not a child nor an imbecile. And I’m telling you I want to know everything.”
“Everything takes years,” Dean countered. “You’ve already read more books in your life than I ever will and you’ve still not scratched the surface.” He licked at his lip, eying the witches once more. “It’ll have to wait until after the battle. If the three—four of you—can’t help us now, there’s no amount of lore or history in this room that will change that.”
Sam glowered at him. If looks could kill…
“I promise you,” Dean repeated. “I promise you that I will show you books and scrolls…I’ll go over them with you, as will Bobby.” Bobby nodded his accord to both brothers. “I will share with you everything in the scope of my knowledge. But I can’t do that in a single day. And if I could, this day would not be it.” He exhaled a long breath. “So I’m going to need you to trust me.”
Sam’s glare softened, little by little, until he hung his head and sighed. “All right.” He slumped, defeated. “All right.”
“I promise you, Sammy. As soon as this is over—”
“Sam,” he insisted. “Sammy is a pudgy twelve-year-old with a nose too big for his face. Sam or Samworth. From now on.”
“I promise you. Sam.”
“For what it’s worth,” Mazuri entreated, her voice gentle and small, “he means what he says.”
The prince’s last blaze of ire fizzled into cautious skepticism, the spectre of King Jon all but exorcised.
“What would you have me do?”
“Do any of you need a moment to rest? Refreshment of any sort?”
“If we’re so short of time, I think it best to forge on.” Sam looked to the three women, who nodded and murmured their agreement, before turning back to Dean. “Do you have anything like a plan?”
“For the kingdom, yes, but nothing on how to beat Lilith. You?”
“Perhaps. But we’ll need to comb the library, plus any spell books you might have.”
“They’re at your disposal.”
“I think perhaps our new friends should meet Ellen,” Bobby cut in, brows raised in impartment. “They might have a few things to talk about.”
“A fine idea,” Dean said. “If you ladies are amenable.”
Mazuri replied quickly: “We would love to. And we’ll be right back to help you with those books.”
Dean could hardly think —let alone voice— any objection before Sam piped up. “Excellent. I’ll stay here with Dean and gather the books we need. Then we’ll meet up in the library.” Sam looked to Bobby. “How does an hour from now sound?”
“Fine for me,” Bobby replied evenly.
Sam turned his gaze to Eileen. They said nothing, but seemed to speak a language of the eyes. Dean could not help but notice the affection present in their wordless declarations.
Mazuri placed a guiding hand on Eileen’s shoulder, bringing the both her and the prince back to the present. Eileen smiled sheepishly, throwing one more look Sam’s way before nodding.
“Lead on, Sir Robbett,” Mazuri said.
Bobby’s mouth ticked up in a cocky half-smile. “You read my mind for my name, or did Sam tell ya?”
Mazuri only laughed, and followed.
The brothers stared at each other in the newfound silence.
“So…you and Hecate over there, eh?”
Sam’s cheeks colored, and he remained silent.
Dean turned to his bookshelf and began to pull down the most important volumes. Hesitant as he was to place these in the hands of witches, there was no dark magick to be found in them; no great mysteries to be solved. Still, he cradled them close in his arms.
“What happened to Castiel?” Sam asked quietly.
Dean flinched. Even the name hurt. “He was free to leave at any time it pleased him,” he said tersely. “So he left.”
Sam hummed a quiet assent. The air was so thick with the unspoken question that Dean’s throat grew tight.
“Is it because of—”
“We don’t have the time, Sam. Now that you’ve returned our first priority is defeating Lilith. We can’t spare a moment.”
“Not a moment, Sam,” he stated curtly. Dean shoved a small stack of books into his brother’s arms. “Hold these.”
Sam took up the books, not trying very hard to muffle an escaping sigh.
The king spun towards the sound, wielding a tome on herbs as a weapon.
“Sweet Mercury, Jody!” he huffed in relief. “Does no one knock any longer?”
“…Sam?” she blinked. “You’re back?”
Sam flushed to his ears. “I’m back, Jody.”
“Oh, thank the gods.” She heaved a breath, found her equilibrium, and spoke: “Dean, you need to come downstairs.”
“Very well, Jody. First we needs take these books to the library, and I’ll meet you there.”
“Oh,” Dean gulped. Sam looked at him curiously. “Leave the books, Sam.” To his furrowing brow, Dean answered “You wanted everything? You’ll get everything.”
Dean and Sam followed Jody down the worn, narrow stones of the staircase. Sam shivered as they descended into the dungeons— whether from the drop in temperature or the absence of light he couldn’t be sure. Jody’s torch was now the only light to guide them.
“They found her at Harvelle’s House,” Jody informed them. “Joh’s been putting blessed water in everything these days. Not good for business, but…” she shrugged.
She handed the torch to Dean, then chose a key from the ring at her side. The sounds of the creaking lock and moaning hinges seemed to echo off the grey stone; nothing in this place did not reek of misery.
The torch illuminated the body of shackled girl: her kirtle muddied, her curls disheveled, and two beetle-black eyes gleaming starkly against her pale face.
“Hi handsome,” she slurred.
The back of Dean’s neck prickled. Sam froze where he stood.
“A little blessed water and a little salt got her talking.” Jody glared at Meg. “Why don’t you tell them what you told me, sweetheart?”
Jody pressed the flat head of the key against Meg’s cheek, making the flesh sizzle. Sam retreated at the sight, as well as the unearthly scream that came from her lips.
“I’ve got all night,” said Jody.
Meg smirked as if she were somehow at an advantage. “Your feather-blanket is still alive. For now.”
“I’ve already gotten that news. And from a far less fallible source.”
Meg’s grin split her face. “Perhaps. But I know where.”
Dean’s breath caught in his chest, betraying his stolid mask. “Where?” He grabbed her by her raised arms and pulled her little body so that they were nose to nose. “Where is Castiel?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be found. Not by the man whose father murdered his family.”
“Then let me hear it from his mouth. I don’t trust a word from your lying demon gob.”
“I’m not lying.” Meg swayed in her chains. “But you don’t have to believe me. I only wanted to spare you some heartbreak.”
“Where. Is. He?”
Her tone was sing-song and mocking. “He’s gone to play with Crowley.”
With the slim white crescent of the moon still hanging in the morning sky, each of the kingdom’s guardians began the longest day of their lives; one measured not by hours, but by the volume of worry that weighed upon them as the the day progressed.
Each ally was tasked to their strength: Jody roused the villagers, in their halls and cottages and taverns. She called to the soldiers who knew their time would come, and rallied the unenlisted until there was no doubt in their hearts. For those whom age or ailment had made unfit, she begged them practice with the young and eager, and to gift them their swords and armor. She gathered the mothers and elders that they may gather the children, and take them to the palace should the damnable bells be rung.
Sam, and Kevan, and any other learned man of their employ took to their quills to write. They scratched their message small so that it might be carried by pigeons and ravens alike. They were addressed to the allies not yet visited, and the deputies of those that had: a dark army had assembled around the capital. Rather than requesting their troops, they begged them instead to gather their salt stores and hard rations, show their people to safety, and await further word. Though, they post-scripted grimly, there may not be further word.
Ellen took her stance as best she knew— rather than standing over a cook’s shoulder as he stirred a sauce into rarefied creme, she barked orders over kettles big enough to drown in. They made porridge and sausages and loaves of bread at a time. Even Tran, in her prim gowns and set hair, rolled up her sleeves and set to cutting and grinding slabs of meat. Ellen pressed every stout man in the palace—Benedick included—to pumping the well and sealing clean water into barrels.
And, more quietly, Ellen would pluck a handful of herbs—mint and sage and more— from the larder and bring them to a much smaller cauldron, over which three other witches presided. From the pot came more pain-killing draughts, and potions to prevent blood rot.
As king, Dean’s duties seemed light. He sat in his solar for a long while- philosophizing, strategizing. Would gold be enough to turn Crowley? Or would he need something more? Necromancers were known to use souls to power spells…would it mean giving up his own? The one Castiel claimed shone so brightly?
Castiel. Even his name sent the king into further contemplation. If Dean were to see him there amongst Crowley’s ghouls, what possible words could be enough?
He sat, and he thought, until it was time to ride.
The clouds seemed to darken with every hoofbeat, growing evermore gravid with the threat of rain. Not unusual for this time of year, but portentous in a way that Dean didn’t care to consider. It was with this cloud and this breeze swirling around him—caressing and clawing in alternate measure— that he rode to meet the captain of the mercenaries.
Crowley’s encampment was cleverly nestled into a little valley in-between two steeply sloping hills, with a clean, coursing river on one side. Any intruder or raider would have to enter the camp from either front or back; Crowley’s pavilion sat straight in the middle, escape possible on every side. Clever dick.
Then again, Dean thought grimly, he’d met few dimwitted mercenaries and even fewer dimwitted necromancers.
He rode Babe straight into the camp, tall and proud, letting the shining circlet at his brow announce him.
The reaction was mixed, to say the least. Some men —if they could be called that— stopped sparring mid-blow to stare at him as he passed. Others eyed him over their whetstones, squinting in disbelief, as if they had seen some spectre taking on the form of the king. A few regarded him as less interesting than the contents of their stewpot.
Dean kept his head straight and his chin forward. He would not go searching for a pair of white wings.
Crowley’s tent stood out wildly from the rest of the camp. His was a thick sailcloth dyed red, at odds with the rest of the rough, buff, dirt-spattered fabrics of those with the means to afford even the luxury of a tent. Few men claimed any family name, if their unadorned shields were anything to go by. Crowley’s crest of a bull’s head flew from the peak of his tent, and decorated banners that hung on either side of its entrance.
Two large men, tall as he and twice as thick, also stood guard at the entrance to the pavillion. Neither so much as raised an eyebrow at the king’s presence.
Dean dismounted, tying Babe to a crude hitching post not far from where the men stood. He whispered praises and assurances in her ear— what a good, brave girl she was, and that he would not leave her here long, and that she would have an apple when they arrived home if he had to snatch it from a barrel himself.
He then raised himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders. He would—
“Business is done inside the tent,” a voice stated. “And they’ll be no pages to escort you.”
Whether by magick, or by the disruption of the sounds and smells of the camp, it seemed that Crowley had anticipated him.
The guard to his left held open the entrance to the tent, and Dean stepped in wearing his bravest face.
It was comfortably warm inside, with rawhide lanterns hanging from the supporting posts and beams. Crowley’s bedroll in the corner seemed to rival his own, and was laid out with furs and silken pillows. He kept a pitcher and basin, which Dean eyed warily. Would a man such as he need to wash, or was it for some other purpose? To his left, sitting at the head of a long table —one made of dark-oiled wood, sanded smooth as glass— was Crowley.
The man himself was clad in a black velvet jerkin with deep skirts, embroidered with sumptuous gold panels. Across his padded shoulders was a collar of gold, linked with rubies the size of apricot stones. It was all this, Dean supposed, that earned him the moniker ‘King of the Underworld’— he certainly flaunted his wealth like one.
“Your majesty.” The little man lifted a golden goblet in salute, sloshing a drop of dark red liquid onto the table. “May I offer you a glass of wine?”
Dean’s eyes flickered suspiciously between the goblet and the tabletop. Crowley’s followed Dean’s. “Just wine, I assure you. From the grapes of the Rhône. Lovely vintage- quite robust.” He grinned from under his beard. “Are you sure you wouldn’t care for some?”
Dean’s glare softened, but he declined nonetheless. Perceptive little shit, this one.
“Well, you’re shrewd at least,” Crowley groused, sitting up in his chair. “I wouldn’t take offered wine from my enemies, either.”
“If you were going to kill me, you would have done it the moment I entered this camp. No need to poison the wine.”
“True enough,” he conceded, “but I’m not being paid to kill you. Or, rather,” he corrected, “not yet.” He gestured for Dean to sit.
Dean pulled out his chair, eyes never leaving Crowley. “So those were your men in Manner’s Wood.”
“Some of them, yes. You are exceedingly difficult to unhorse.”
“You didn’t try very hard to kill me there, either.”
“It’s my understanding that Lilith would like the honor of cutting the royal throat herself. Ancient feud, revenge, so on and so forth.” He waved one hand dismissively, and raised his goblet with the other. “Apologies for the arrow, by the by.”
Dean fingered the bridge of his nose. “Revenge?”
“Azazel had allies, no matter what the balladeers would have you think. He paid myself and my men very handsomely to keep you worthless meatsacks in line.”
“To spread fear,” Dean accused. “To keep us running scared. ”
Crowley leaned in. “And what do you think the Winchester line has done for two hundred years?”
“We’ve kept the peace.” His jaw was set stern. “We save people by hunting those things.”
Crowley almost laughed. “Those men out there…do any of them look ‘at peace’ to you?”
“I’m sure some of them don’t deserve it,” he said, trying not to think on Castiel, “but some of them are unflinching, unflagging monsters.”
“Plenty of humans are unflinching monsters, yet they live to see another day. My men simply don’t have the advantage of hiding in plain sight.” Crowley’s eyes narrowed. “Wasn’t your brother just kidnapped by a demon wearing a draper’s daughter?”
“He wasn’t kidnapped, he ran away.” The king raised an eyebrow. “And how did you know?”
“I’ve got eyes everywhere. You don’t get to be where I am without them.”
Meg, Dean damned himself, had to be Meg.
“How fortunate those witches arrived when they did. The death of the prince might have put a damper on the bicentennial.”
Anger burbled in Dean’s belly. This simpering, smarmy little troll seemed to have him hemmed in on all sides.
“It seems you hold all the cards,” he said cautiously. “You have spies in my castle, an army of monsters, the backing of my enemy… So why the clandestine meeting? Why not hand me to Lilith and be done with it?”
“Because this is war, you louse! It requires nuance. Restraint.” He hissed through his teeth. “You can’t simply ride in with your black horse and your big brute of a dhampir, kill everything with fangs and be back in time for tea!”
Dean’s throat seized; everything located between it and his roiling stomach seemed to burn. The tent—the world—spun for a few heartbeats before Crowley’s smirking face came back into focus.
“Benny’s a dhampir?” he choked out.
“Nothing gets by you, does it?” Crowley fleered into his cup. “Must be why they made you king.”
Dean suppressed the urge to vomit. Tried to mold his features into a practiced neutrality; tried to ignore the bile bubbling up at the back of his throat.
After all the things he tried to be —the man he tried not to be— yet both his subjects and his most trusted guard did not trust him. Did they —the thought tugged at the back of his eyes— did they fear him as they had his father?
All he had wanted was to be a good king. Keep the kingdom safe. Keep Samworth safe…
He would not lay this pain bare in front of Crowley. He would not.
He had aimed to sound hardy but only produced a rasp. “So why did you agree to meet with me?”
“I want to make a deal.”
“For my soul? Never.” His head shook. “I’ll die a warrior first.”
Crowley rolled his eyes. “Put down your sword, Cato— I mean an earthly deal. You get to keep your kingdom and that shiny soul of yours. ”
“What about Lilith?”
“What about Lilith? My loyalty is to the highest bidder. And you can sweeten the pot in a way Lilith never could.” His pointer finger flicked in Dean’s direction. “You, my dear lovesick king, can give us one thing she can’t.”
“Oh…? And what would that be?”
“A life lived out of the shadows. That is, for those of us who can bear the sunlight.”
Dean’s lip curled. Crowley had all the affectations of a man: he drank, he ate. He was not unpleasant to look at—he certainly had no fangs or claws. And perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, he was no more evil than any other mercenary, necromancy aside.
“Pardon the presumption, but doesn’t your side want Lilith to prevail?”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t just gather every demon, necromancer and magickal into a collective ‘side’.” There was a growl of malice to it, but it seemed almost a purr in Crowley’s deep, silky voice. “But let’s only say Lilith isn’t a model stateswoman. Too capricious. She breaks contracts. Plays snakes and ladders with souls between earth and the underworld. Whereas I—” he placed his palm to his chest “—am a model of efficiency and order. No contracts broken, no extensions granted.”
“But if I win, you lose your army,” Dean squinted. “Doesn’t that concern you?
“It was business venture,” he shrugged. “Assets become insolvent. Men lose limbs, I pay them out; we sack a city, someone claims they killed more soldiers and are due a larger share, blah. blah. blah. Trading in souls provides much better return on investment. And it stinks far less.”
Crowley’s casual weariness was disarming, and had Dean not had the future of his kingdom weighing upon him, he might have even laughed.
“Too much dead weight, if you’ll pardon the expression,” Crowley continued, smirking at his own joke. “If your situation wasn’t so utterly hopeless, you’d almost be doing me a favor.”
Dean leaned against the back of his chair. “And if I say no?”
“When Lilith wins, I get your soul and she gets the rest. Then my army eats your army. Dead or alive- they’re not picky.”
“And my people?”
“That’s for Lilith to decide. Blood sacrifices, a thousand years of darkness, that sort of thing. Makes no difference to me.” He tipped up his palms in a gesture of indifference. “Whores and mercenaries- we’re both paid to leave when the deal is done.”
“So why care now? Why do you want to bargain for the good of your men?”
“Because I am a plain-dealing villain. I acknowledge it. I thrive in it. But there are those in my company—such as your feathered friend out there—who find themselves here by no fault of their own.” Crowley almost smiled. “Halflings. Natural abominations. Orphans that you and your ancestors made.” He steepled his short fingers. “These men are the cost of your peace.”
Dean’s eyes fell into his lap.
Castiel’s beautiful alabaster wings didn’t belong amongst these red eyes and sharp teeth, yet he could not deny that his father would have—no, tried to—slay Castiel as quick as any of them.
“How do I know you’ll keep up your end of the bargain?”
“We sign a contract, bound in blood. You pay in gold, my boys slay Lilith’s demons. Any man caught playing both sides gets the pointy end of my sword.” He looked at Dean from under his eyebrows. “And, lest ye forget, your bedwarmer is still indebted to me for two hundred gold pieces. Should you forget to honor your part of the agreement, I will remind you every day. Piece by piece, feather by feather.”
“Don’t you touch him,” Dean growled.
“He can be included in the price. All you have to do is affix your seal to this simple decree.” A scroll appeared in his hand in a blink. Dean reached for it, but Crowley pulled it away. “It merely states that you, King Andean, agree to outlaw the hunting of any and all natural-born magickals, and puts an end to all offensive —not defensive— warding, spellwork, runework, blah blah blah.”
Dean shook his head, his eyes never leaving Crowley’s. “I’m not affixing a seal to anything until I read every last word.”
Crowley leaned back in his chair with a toothy, satisfied smile. “And they say you’re just a pretty face.”
With a flick of his wrist, the contract unfurled at length and fell to the table, rolling across the full distance of it and not stopping until the signature line fell into Dean’s lap.
“Let’s get started, shall we?”
That golden hour of dusk was hidden as Dean emerged from Crowley’s tent. Instead, purpling clouds bruised the sky, despoiling the colors of the sunset. Arthur’s Night had passed, he thought quietly, and the days would only grow darker now.
In this light, Crowley’s men seemed not just to stir, but to thrive. Men who sat languidly as he entered were now up and sparring. He knew sunshine was anathema to any number of magickals, and to see them come alive in the half-light made him ponder if a battle near high noon put him at a great disadvantage.
And in this light, Castiel’s white wings stood like twin beacons above the jumble of men and mud and detritus.
It has only been days, but somehow he seemed all the more beautiful. His hair fell onto his forehead, tousled and sopping with sweat. The stubble on his jaw was thick now, with the beginnings of a beard, and those features that would have been called fine became chiseled: his cleft chin, his hooded eyes, his full mouth.
The short, shining blade stood easily in his hand, as if he was born with it in his palm. His wings moved with him, no longer a burden strapped to his back but a weapon in themselves. He used them for thrust as he lunged at his opponent. They flared to his sides in defense, keeping would-be attackers at arm’s length. Even with silvery bracers and guards, and a chest piece that looked like it weighed a tonne, his movements were dynamic and graceful.
Dean must have been staring far longer than he thought, for when Castiel and his opponent had finished, it only took a moment for their eyes to meet and Castiel to turn away. He nodded to his partner, sheathed his blade in some unseen place, and began to walk away.
Before Dean could find any regal bearing—and even after, as the idea was forgotten—he was chasing after Castiel like a devoted hound.
“Cas!” He barked. “Cas!”
He pivoted sharply, wings looming above Dean with menace. “What do you want, Dean?”
Dean’s heart fluttered. Even in anger, it was a joy to hear his name on Castiel’s lips. But he found his own voice empty; a dry rasp. Too many words jumbled in his throat, and none could find their way out.
Castiel turned away again, trodding angrily in the other direction. Dean raced to catch up with him, and pulled at the crook of his arm.
His eyes were sharp and cold as his silver blade.
“I only…” Dean wrung his hands; watched them as if they were separate from his body. “If…If I ever touched you, or kissed you…” He sighed in exasperation. “I wanted you, Castiel, but I never wished to take you. And if I—”
“You’re as bad as Gabriel,” he sneered. “Do you think I never had my own mind? Do you think I didn’t welcome your kisses and caresses?” His wings twitched with ire. “It was I that pulled you into bed, if you’ll recall.”
“I remember,” Dean murmured. Guilt struck him behind the ribs, sure as a knife’s point.
He could confess that despite tumbling dozens of lads and lasses, none had ever felt so good and right in his arms as Castiel. How he was equally content with him in layers of linen and velvet and skin against skin. And he would have, if he thought it would make one ort of difference.
“Did you come just to make apologies? I appreciate your effort, but I’m still not moved.”
Dean’s face soured. “I’m here to deal with Crowley.”
“To ‘deal with him’ as you’ve ‘dealt with’ so many other monsters?”
“To make a deal, then,” Dean grumbled. “Wintan-ceastre hasn’t had an army in…years. Decades. They’re not hunters; they’re barely soldiers! If I send them into battle against a horde of demons I’m condemning them to certain death.”
“And yet you’re willing to pay magickals to take their place.”
“I’m willing to pay mercenaries to fight beside them,” he clarified. “Had I time to call my vassals and allies…” Dean looked away.
“That…that’s not true,” he said finally. “If I hadn’t been complicit in spreading fear…if my people didn’t fear censure for even raising the subject I might have found out about it all sooner.” He looked at Cas under his lashes. “I’m going to fix this, Castiel. Once we defeat Lilith, I’m going to fix this. All of this.”
He huffed. “And you believe that the people will trust you then? When you reveal just what you’ve been keeping from them?”
“I haven’t kept it very well,” he confessed. “This progress has taught me so much…chiefly that the old ways have crumbled everywhere save the palace gate.”
“And you —King Jon’s son— will be the leader of the New Way?”
“I am not my father.”
“But what of his father? And his?” Castiel spat. “How are you not the sword sharpened by generations of hatred? A weapon bathed in the blood of magickals?”
Dean was silent.
“‘Be good to the people of your kingdom, and they will be good to you.’ Isn’t that what your grandfather taught you, Dean?” Castiel’s eyes were narrow slits. “My village was quiet. We were isolated, but loyal to the crown. Were we not Your People?”
Dean hung his head. “I. Am not. My father,” he gritted out. “It’s different. You’re different.”
“Because I love you,” he said it low like a secret, lip trembling all the while.
He leered at Dean for a long moment. “You loved simple me. Docile me.”
“I want to know you—the real you—and you left before I could.”
“You locked me away! How was I supposed to feel?” he cried. “I’m confined to the bedchamber of the man whose father murdered my family…you run off with terse words about Samworth —someone you claim to love— so that you can drag him back to the palace…and I’m simply supposed to wait for you?”
“I never wanted to exhibit my power, or to strike fear into you. I only wanted to keep you safe.”
“And how did that strategy work with Sam? It very obviously backfired on Gabriel.”
“I understand that now. And I see that you don’t need me to protect you.” He sighed. “I saw you sparring with that creature just now. You move like water, Castiel, even under all that armor. You have such fire in your eyes… Even if it is hatred, and even if I am the cause, I would rather have a crumb of that man’s passion than all a docile boy’s love.”
Castiel’s jaw was square and set, but he was listening.
“I have been courted by all kinds,” he continued, speaking to the ground beneath his feet. “I have been offered the sons and daughters of nations. Women who would have me only to cement alliances. Boys with no inclination towards men, willing to be taken for power, and for the glory of their families…” He swallowed the burning feeling in his throat. “And if you loved me at all, you loved me despite rank, despite power…”
Dean laughed mirthlessly. “You wanted no more from me than kisses and apple cake. And I’m sorry if I left you wanting for either.”
He swallowed, feeling the weight of it bob in his throat. He struggled to meet Castiel’s assessing gaze; to not look down and guess what fault he was finding.
“I’m making a poet of you,” Castiel said at last. “But you can’t give me sweet words and kisses and cakes any longer— I won’t swallow them. I know what they’re worth.”
“Then let me give you all that is in my power to give,” Dean begged. “Help me, Castiel. Please. Fight with me. Teach me to be a better man. A better king.” He took Castiel’s hand in his. “Only…stay with me.”
He considered the king’s hand—its calluses, its scars, the still-soft tips of his fingers—before letting it slide from his grip.
If it truly were possible for the human heart to break, Dean was sure he was feeling it now. Pain clawed at his chest from the inside out, scraping him until he was hollow.
“Cas…?” His name was a prayer. A supplication.
“I’m sorry, Dean.” He shook his head sadly. “I simply can’t.”
Dean’s voice was brittle. “Why?”
“Look at me! I will never be without these wings! I can’t simply cut them off and everything will be as it was!”
“I’m not asking—”
“You’re asking me to hide myself away again, and I won’t. I won’t be held captive as your pet magickal.” He shook his head. “All I’ve ever known is the cottage and the castle, and I didn’t truly have the mind to choose either. I chose this, Dean. I don’t get to choose much, but I chose this of my free will. I know the debt that’s due, and I know that I may die before I meet it. But I will not die a fool.”
He nodded gently; barely a movement. If Castiel would not have him, he could at least keep him from danger.
“I’ve paid your commission,” he said softly. “You’re no longer in Crowley’s debt.”
“You’re free to go. Or stay. Whichever you please.” He ducked his head, trying to hide the tear rolling down his cheek. “Perhaps I, and my father, and all the kings before him… we’ve forced your path here. If this is all that is available to you as a magickal in my kingdom… that’s my fault. I wanted to remedy that.”
“You don’t have to fight tomorrow. That’s another choice you can make for yourself.”
He looked at Cas, his eyes gleaming wet. “I promised that if you ever grew unhappy, you could return home any time you like. Now you can.”
The tight pinch of Castiel’s brow relaxed for the first time since he set eyes upon Dean; his whole stony visage seemed to relax, feature by feature.
Each looked at the other for a long moment, eyes locked. They were beyond words.
Dean wondered if his soul was still bright, or if it was as tarnished and corroded as it felt. He didn’t ask. He lowered his eyes instead.
The king turned away, chin held high, teeth clenched so hard that his jaw ached. He schooled his features into practiced, regal neutrality, and stalked towards Babe with his back and shoulders straight. If he did not, he would double over in the mud and weep.
He held the pain in his bosom for a long while —out of Crowley’s camp, away from any hillside that might carry an echo, away from any forest where someone might hear the king’s lamentations— before breaking out in sobs against Babe’s neck. They came dry at first, and silent, before spilling over like a dam in wails and wet, snotty tears.
He would collect himself for a time, wiping his eyes or nose on his gloves and sitting straight. Minutes later he was sniveling again, begging the gods to open the clouds so that no one would see their king blubber like a lovelorn maiden.
Babe walked the road home by instinct. The gods did not favor him with rain.
Dean arrived at the castle safely, and only slightly more in control of his composure than he had been en route. Creaser, thankfully, took Babe into the stables without a word. Upon his entrance to the hall, Tran offered no greeting; only a small bow of her head, and the accepting eyes and open heart of a mother.
If he embraced her, he would fall to pieces all over again. Instead, he croaked a command.
“Get word to Jodette. Tomorrow, we ring the bells.”
Just a note to let you know you can mouseover the words/chants to see what they mean. (Yes, it's really chopped-up Scots Gaelic. I thought it appropriate. Only like 76% sorry.)
The morning was gray and heavy, the humidity thick enough to smother. Sweat already coated every soldier’s forehead like glaze.
According to the books, Wintan-ceastre hadn’t had a standing army for nearly a hundred years. There’d been little need for one. Constables had been enough to settle intra-kingdom disputes, and an international web of trade, policy, and marriages had made allies of old enemies. Instead, civilians were trained and outfitted, and waited only for the Ringing of the Bells.
Most would never hear the alarm in their lifetime. A generation had grown and married and made children of their own without hearing them. Yet they knew what they were to do if and when it happened: they were to gather their arms, to leave all but what they could carry on their backs, and to walk to the safety of the palace.
The townspeople had swarmed to the gates at dawn, and were led into the receiving hall. Each was given breakfast for their trouble, with the army alloted twice the portion. Sam had noticed more than one soldier giving their extra to a growing child or a nursing mother. He wondered if they, like he, were simply too nervous to eat.
Sam surveyed the hall with a fearful apprehension. These men and women were about to face the sharp ends of demon blades, risking life and limb for the protection of the kingdom. He was going to say words.
A mother wept over her son, her head buried in the boy’s chest- as he had no doubt done in hers a mere fifteen years before. A young couple held to each other, breathing each other’s air, and kissing between rounds of sobbing. The only thing keeping them from pressing every inch together was the woman’s gravid belly, which her short-haired soldier would often press their palm to.
He was going to keep these people safe with words. Words.
Sam’s belly began to flutter, and his heart began to race. It felt as if the very air was snatched from his lungs.
He was no warlock. He wasn’t even a scholar. He was a prince who stuck his head in too many books. As if those things alone made him fit. He’d never sparred, never camped…
A hand touched his shoulder and he cringed, withering his pride further still.
He filled his lungs with a deep breath, and pushed it out slowly. He tried to quiet the buzzing hive of his mind so that he might be clearly understood.
‘I can’t do this.”
‘Yes you can. I believe in you.’
He almost sobbed at that notion. ‘Why?’ he huffed.
‘Because I think you’re brave.’ She held up a finger. ‘No—I know you’re brave.’
‘How am I brave, Eileen?’
‘You looked a demon in the eye. Most people would run, or scream, or lose their water. You just…kept fighting.’
‘I didn’t win. And if you and Pam hadn’t shown up—’
‘You kept fighting, Sam. That’s what matters.’
‘It’s comforting that at least one person believes in me.’
‘Plenty of people do. That’s why they want you here.’
‘Yeah?’ he huffed. ‘My father thought I was made of porcelain, my brother thought me too delicate to be told the truth—I don’t believe anyone thinks of me as a fighter.’
She rested a hand on her hip.‘How do you think of you, Sam?’
‘What do you mean?’ he blinked.
‘What do you know about yourself? In your heart? What’s one thing that your father, or Dean, or any black-eyed demon can’t ever take away from you?’
Sam considered for a moment. ‘That I’m smart.’
‘That’s good,’ she nodded.
‘That I love my brother. No matter what.’
Eileen smiled. ‘Also good.’
Sam was silent, lips and mind and all, for a long while. ‘That I want to be more than a prince under glass.’
‘You are, Sam. And maybe you’ll see that after today.’
Glassy-eyed, he turned to Eileen, his mouth ticked up ever-so-slightly. ‘Thank you. In case I don’t see you again after today, thank you. For…everything.’
Eileen rolled her eyes with amusement. ‘Have faith, Sam. We’ll come out of this yet.’
‘I just wish I could be as sure as you.’ He sighed out loud.
Eileen grinned still wider, making a swirling hand motion that lifted her off the ground—just high enough to meet Sam’s mouth and surprise him with a kiss.
Sam leaned into it, once his mind caught up to his lips. The buzzing and the whirring and the nagging little voices seemed to go silent, caught up in the awe of it. It took his breath and gave him life all at once. It was, in a word, magical.
His eyes opened to find Eileen’s feet on the stones again, still beaming. ‘I don’t kiss cowards,’ she said. ‘Of that I’m sure.’
Sam threw his head back and laughed—truly laughed, his troubles forgotten for a moment. (And though he did not know it, the first ray of sunshine had fallen upon the dormant bulb of his heart.)
With a thumb, he shooed the wetness from the corner of his eyes. He heaved one last merry breath. He took the radiant little witch in his arms and hugged her tight to his chest. He would survive, he told himself, if only see where this one kiss might lead.
‘Will you ride with me?’ he asked.
Castiel slept poorer than he had in a very long time. He had tried willing himself to sleep, reminding himself that a life-and-death battle was only hours away. Had he grown so used to a thick feather bed and a warm body beside him that sleep was impossible otherwise?
He had not allowed himself to think on Dean. Not as he woke at the whim of the sun, hiding under a gray dome of sky. Not as he sleepily reached for Dean and came back with a handful of damp earth. Not as he was given a thin slice of blood sausage and a ladle of gruel for breakfast, and wished for even one spoonful of jam.
He had grown adept at donning and shucking his own clothing and armor— of that at least he could be proud. His greaves and vambraces were easy enough, but was reliant on help with his breastplate; that is, until their armorer fashioned him a harness with a strap between his wings. After that, he didn’t need a single bit of help from anyone.
“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” Gabriel said softly.
Castiel tugged at the straps on his shoulders, ensuring they were snug. “I have to.”
“You’re not one of them, Castiel. You can admire them, and you can love and lust after them, but you’ll never be human. Not completely— not in their eyes.”
“I don’t wish to be human, Gabriel, I wish to help them. If my path forks into darkness and light, then I must take the light path. No matter how poor the road, no matter how long the journey.”
Castiel absently pulled at the same straps again. Rolled his shoulders, folded and unfolded his wings.
“Just…” Gabe sighed, “don’t expect him to be at the end of it, is all I’m saying.”
“There’s more to humanity than Dean Winchester.” Castiel willed himself to believe his own words. “I intend to live through this, if only to spite him.”
The king’s forces could be seen coming from miles away. Even in the murky midmorning light, their plate and maille shone brightly. And as they drew closer, he knew who had come to fight from the shapes of the men and horses at the fore. Benny was tall and proud upon Solitaire’s sturdy chestnut frame; likewise Bobby, whose own powerful white horse stood stark against his leather and chain. Link sauntered along under the ridership of a small, dark-haired man—Kevan, Castiel supposed. And out in front, gleaming gold, was Dean, riding an armored Babe into battle.
Something like a whisper of excitement bubbled around him; in this company of inhuman hisses and snarls, it sounded like a pack of wolves preparing to hunt, or a maul of hungry bears awoken from hibernation.
A loud harumph of a dry cough sounded from behind him, and Castiel swiveled to catch the source. Whilst his eyes were set upon the man he was determined not to dwell on, Crowley had made himself the center of a loose circle of his cohorts. Surprising how such a small man could bring such a coterie of creatures to order with little more than a displeased clearing of his throat.
“Now that you’ve all gotten a look at King Brassypants and his company of tin-pot soldiers, you may assume I’ve gone a little mad. ‘Why him?’, you might think, if any of you had brains enough to do so. Why not the demoness who wants to plunge us back into darkness?”
Agreement sounded up from their cursed lips. Crowley raised his hands, calling for silence.
“Because there’s no beer in hell, boys. There are no soft beds, there are no warm women, and you can never eat gold. But if we fight for that man’s cause, you can buy all the meat and ale and company that this gods-forsaken heap of rock has to offer. And you can do it all in the plain light of day.” A low rumble spread over them. “Should King Andean prevail, you’ll be free men with fat purses. So says his contract.” Crowley smiled, his teeth white against his patchy brown beard. “And we know what happens when we break contracts.”
Castiel startled as some creatures roared in laughter; only the most sadistic of them, he realized, the most cruel. If there was amusement to be found there, the punishment for breaking a contract must have been unspeakable.
“So fuck the king— win one for yourselves, ya bastards.” Crowley then turned his back with a flourish, and got lost in the purling wave of voices and bodies.
Castiel stood stone-still, struck too dumb to speak or move.
Could it be true? Could the man he had seen strike three demons dead in less time than it took to peel an apple have had a change of heart?
His pulse drummed in his ears— was he the cause?
‘I am not my father.’
“Oh, Dean…” What fools they’d both been.
Was it better to seek him out now and make amends? Or would it drive him to distraction? Would it give Dean heart to know that he was fighting for the same cause? Or would Dean’s attention be on him? And if he was distracted for a mere moment…
Dean and Babe trotted ahead of the line to meet up with one of their own. Lydia, an Amazon with a mean streak and one of the few women in Crowley’s employ. They spoke briefly, and each nodded in accord with the other before turning and riding back to their respective battalions.
Lydia gave the order: they were to march ahead to meet Lilith’s army, joining them as per the original plan. The collective would march through the meadow and over a hill, to where a camp had been set up the day before. It would look as if the king’s men were few, and vulnerable. Then, upon the charge, they were to turn against Lilith’s army.
This method, Castiel reckoned, seemed too simple. Perhaps Dean’s faction existed to surprise them from behind, wedging the demons in with their executioners? There must have been some trick up his sleeve.
A few straggling men joined the faction now winding between the hills. Off towards uncertainty, danger, and perhaps even death. Castiel knew he ought to join them, but couldn’t resist hanging back as Dean rode from one end of his front line to the other.
Castiel crept closer, hiding under and behind tents, so that he might clearly hear what Dean was now saying to his troops:
“Some of you may have grown up hearing tales of battle from your fathers and grandfathers—the gods know I have. How we fought the dark forces. How we brought peace and prosperity to this kingdom.”
A few shouts of assent came up from the crowd.
“Now you know as well as I that not every tale can be true.” He pulled Phoenix from its sheath, gleaming silver in the gray mist. “This sword is said to have been forged from Arthur’s own armor. That its power is in its making. I don’t know if it’s different than the sword of any man here. But it’s sharp, and I know how to use it.”
A few hoots and roars, mostly men; a few eye rolls—and a couple of appraising eyebrows—from the women.
“I know you’ve heard tales of monsters: of witches that will make off with your children. Of weres that can never control themselves, full moon or no.” A few nods in the audience. “That these monsters must be condemned or feared. That only humans can be trusted.”
He expected roars of accord; of blood-thirst. Instead, in the silence, were willing ears.
“And I expect even more of you know a natural-born magickal of some type. A wise-man who can predict deaths as if he ordered them. A dhampir working as a butcher, or a barber-surgeon, living quietly in the shadows. Good people, burdened with a bad lot by the gods.”
More nods now; a few determined faces.
“This day, you will fight alongside they that you were taught to fear, and who have likewise come to fear you. Weres. Witches. Enochians.” A buzz of whispers grew in the crowd. “The True Darkness threatens us all. An army of the underworld gathers to see this land—this kingdom—thrust back into the Dark Times. Against such evil there can not be man or creature or monster. There can only be Us, and It.”
Castiel’s belly fluttered with the sight of him: his eyes bright, his chin set, the light of his soul burning hot enough to shame the sun.
“You will stand beside them as brothers in arms. And after we win—and we will win—we are going to treat them as equals. Every man, woman, and child. Anyone found striking their fellow soldier—human or no—will be put in irons and made to stand trial. We will value no loyal being above another. Not in battle, and not after.
“So if anyone here says they will not stand with a magickal to save their land and family, let them go now.” He held Phoenix aloft, the point aimed at the palace. “Let them go in front of all eyes present, so we know them for cowards.”
Dean cast a daring glance across the gathered army. There was glancing and shifting amongst them, but none moved to back away.
“So will you still stand with me?”
Ayes and Yays and roars of wordless unanimity sounded from the troops.
“Against the darkness?”
“For your homes? Your families?”
The words and shouts came louder still, until there were chants of his name and the clanging of swords against shields.
Dean nodded. “You are my people, and I have never been prouder to be your king.” He raised Phoenix above his head. “To victory!”
Castiel’s guts wriggled as if a clutch of snakes’ eggs hatched inside him. He wanted to rush to Dean’s side. To tell him that he understood now. To kiss him. To hold him close and know the strength of those arms again. All that, and whatever came after.
But Dean had already turned away from his foot soldiers, leading Babe through the back of the camp. Castiel rushed to join the trailing end of his own band before he could be spotted.
Determination fixed on his features, steeled his spine as he dashed. He would survive this, if only to know that good man —that good king— and perchance to stand by him once more.
Dean did not allow himself to see the arches of Castiel’s white wings peaking high above the dirty tents of the mercenary camp. He would not ruminate on what Castiel’s running away from him might mean. Not now. Not in this assembly. Now there could only be thoughts of war: his kingdom, his men. He could spare a thought for Samworth and no more.
‘She said that his son would be the last of the kings of Wintan-ceastre.’
If the scout’s calculations were correct, the collective army —sparing any unforseen horses on Lilith’s end— would reach the decoy camp in roughly an hour whilst on foot. This meant an hour of waiting behind, both hoping and dreading that demons and monsters would descend upon his own troops.
‘He wasn’t expecting you to come back.’
What if they hadn’t brought enough salt? Would the crude etching of a dead language onto a common knife make it a demon-killing weapon?
He willed himself onward. He willed himself to believe that three witches held him no animus, and had purged the damned curse from them both. That curses would not rule him as they had his ancestors. That his people, at least, might be worth dying for.
The men of his company marched in time with the demon army. They did not blink, and they did not waver.
Castiel wondered if any of them could read minds. If the demons already knew of the double-cross that awaited them, and would soon turn all their knives to their new enemies.
The camp looked desolate enough— a dozen tents, give or take, and a couple of paltry cookfires. A young man tending to his horse, adjusting the weight of two heavy bags on either side of the saddle. It was Kevan, he realized, and Link.
He held in his breath of surprise. That Kevan should be in battle…did he know how to fight? If Kevan was present, then, this battle would be won or lost on wits and reflexes. Where was Sam? Surely he—
Before he could think on it one moment further, a cacophony of roars and shrieks and battle cries sounded around his ears. Swords, clubs, and war hammers punched the air, and the charge began.
The war cry sounded, and Sam felt his bowels clench in pure terror.
He was no warlock. He was a prince with a book and a hope, inside a tent and surrounded by a salt circle. He was with three witches, their backs to each other, reading from a book a spell that he had learned to pronounce the previous day.
From what he understood, he was summoning the north winds to gather more clouds, so that they might congregate, and bless the land with their fertility.
He didn’t wish to believe rain was the aftermath of the fornication of clouds, he did believe that the rain was needed. That he believed with all his heart.
The war cry had sounded. King Andean and his men broke into full gallop, tearing across the meadow to the camp.
They crested the hill to find the battle underway. A few scattered dead- from which side he could not be sure. They were muddied, face-down and bleeding. From somewhere came the unmistakable nidor of burning flesh.
How far behind had they been? Had Kevan begun his circuit? And what of Sam?
His eyes scanned the morass for a tall young man, and instead found a young woman. A beacon in this pit of blood and filth. A creature of unspeakable power.
Dean had imagined the form of Lilith countless times in his mind. He conjured a creature with deathly pallid skin and the black mirrored eyes of its underlings. A horror in flesh. But her skin was creamy, her lips pink. Her flaxen hair fell over her shoulders in waves. She looked like the kind of girl he would have tumbled not so very long ago.
Their eyes met across the distance, and she smiled.
What daunted Dean was that she wore no armor- not so much as a single shoulder plate. Instead, she wore a clean white gown, her bare feet visible against the hide of her white horse.
She was taunting him.
Lilith turned her filly away from the battle, and rode for the woods beyond, bidding him chase her. She would not sully her dress with the blood of common soldiers. It was just as well, for there was only one knife whose pedigree could not be questioned. Only one of Arturus’ line could break the curse.
Only one of them could truly walk away.
They chanted, the four of them, while the thick vapour of salt peter and sage mingled under their noses.That was the signal. Unmistakable to those with and without sight and hearing. That the cloud of smoke should burn the eyes of their demon foes was merely a fringe benefit.
The perimeter had been secured with salt. Kevan had lived at least long enough to put the powder bag to the fire.
It was up to them and the gods.
The blade sang in Castiel’s hand: the percussive thud of its pommel against demon skulls, the crisp, clean clash of metal against metal. The demon that dared pull out a feather took it in the throat. Slowly.
Crowley’s men wore a red band at their shoulders. The king’s men wore a badge with Arthur’s star. Castiel had no need of them to know who was on what side. He didn’t even need to aim. He simply thrust his blade into the blackest part of the demon’s soul and watched them fizzle. Heads, hearts…who knows?
He had just struck another when his vision lost color. The day seemed to go grayer still, all light sucked away by the swirling black void that passed him. He had just gazed into absolute darkness. Lilith, fleeing from the battlefield.
A horse! He must have a horse to follow after her. He called out in Enochian, and waited.
In a trice, a little filly named Nicky trotted to his side, offering her service, and dragging a demon behind her besides. Castiel buried the point of his blade between the demon’s eyes before he even realized the horse had stopped. He pulled dead thing’s foot from his boot, and the boot from her stirrup before mounting her and directing her onward.
Cas couldn’t hear him. Couldn’t know that he was supposed to stay on the camp grounds and within the salt circle. “Gods-dammit Cas!”
Why couldn’t have gone home? Gone somewhere where he could be…
He dug his boots into Babe’s flanks, letting Cas’ wings guide him. “Come on, Sweetheart. Don’t let me down.”
“Come on,” Sam muttered. His tongue was arid in his mouth, and there was a weariness in his bones that could not be accounted for by mere standing.
Magick, Mazuri had said, was a system of give and take. Faeries and their little powers could be appeased with cream or shiny objects. Vampires might trade immortality for the simple pleasures of food and sunshine that made a long life liveable. But true gods were hungry things. Sometimes energy was enough. And sometimes…
Nicky ran and ran as fast as her young legs could carry her, but she was fading. Her breaths came faster, and the exhaustion in her aura was palpable.
“Just a little further. Please.”
He stood in the stirrups, spreading his wings to their full breadth and splaying his feathers. All attempts at sustained flight —every fall, every fumbled landing— had been in preparation for this very moment. He flapped them once, twice.
“Thank you, young friend. You’ve been most helpful.”
He… Dean blinked. Once, twice.
Castiel flew. Not terribly high— not even enough to skim the tops of the trees. But he flew straight and quick, like a great feathered arrow.
He was magnificent.
He caught up to her in the clearing, and swooped down upon her like a hawk.
Lilith looked over her shoulder just before they collided, sending her to the mud and knocking the horse on its side. The beast whinnied in pain and shock, but Castiel offered it no solace. He would live to run another day, if another day even came.
His blade flew from his hand in the collision, and the two wrestled upon the slick, wet grass; they crawled on their bellies as they struggled for grip. He pulled at her hair. She elbowed his face.
Lilith took possession first, rolling onto her back underneath Castiel and aiming the blade towards his back. He caught her wrist as she struggled to free herself, and pinned her knees to the mud.
“Why are you fighting me, Castiel?” Her voice was ragged, her grin mirthless. “You should be joining me. We who are most like the gods— we weren’t made to submit to them.”
His eyes were flint and steel. “My ancestors fought yours at every turn. Even then you could not be trusted with magick. That’s why we sent you to the depths.”
“And man? Man could be trusted?” she spat. “You trusted them, and you lay with them, and this is what they made you. Weak! Powerless. And extinct.”
She dropped her arm to the grass, her body laying prone and pliant underneath his.
She saw her moment and seized it. Their lips collided with all the ungainly aggression of a drunken punch. But it took. She captured his lower lip between hers, and his vision turned to black.
The girl’s body seemed to simply wither as the plume of smoke left her; the muscles of Castiel’ arms and legs went taut as the smoke invaded him, the excess curling from the corners of his mouth.
He struggled to his hands and knees, his movements stiff and jerky; a marionette fighting for control of his strings.
Dean rushed to his side, scooping him up from under the shoulders, trying to get him to stand. “Castiel!?”
He fell onto his knees, bending over nearly double, his eyes wide with pain and fire and tears. “Dean!”
“You gotta fight her, Cas!”
“I can’t hold her back!”
“TRY!” he cried.
He turned his head to that they were eye to eye, struggling for every movement. “Kill me.”
“I’ll hold her in! It’s the only way to end it!”
“Don’t throw the world away for one man, Dean.”
“Cas…” His chest heaved, the pain in his heart real as a blade between his ribs.
“MAKE IT QUICK.” He gritted the order through his teeth as another spasm of pain wrung through him, driving his cheek into the dirt.
“Cas, no…” he whimpered.
Castiel turned one blue eye to his lover, still clutching at his belly. “If you love me,” he growled, “you’ll make it quick.”
Cas whipped backwards as if yanked by the hair, head thrown between his shoulders. When he met Dean’s eyes again, the blue had disappeared, leaving only white. His mouth was now drawn up into a wide, toothy smile.
Castiel raised his arm in a swatting gesture. Dean felt his feet swept out from underneath him, and then the dull thud of contact with a nearby tree. His mind swam in his skull, making him slump and stumble. The pain, and the loss of his breath, was enough to make him forget his fear for a few heartbeats.
Castiel—no, Lilith—stalked towards the tree while Dean struggled for balance.
“This body…” She sighed dreamily. Pleasurably. “So much untapped power.” She ran Castiel’s hands down his sides. “So lean and strong. And such lovely wings.” They fanned to his sides, testing them. Her smile was monstrously out of place on his mouth. “I might keep him for a while.”
“What do you want?” Dean sneered.
“Your head on a pike, for starters. Your soul carved into pieces until there’s nothing left. Arturus’ line wiped from the face of the Earth.”
Dean almost laughed. “You really know how to hold a grudge, sister.”
One of those strong hands reached out to hold him by the neck. His thumb pressed against Dean’s pulse. She brought Castiel’s body close.
“I have lost everything,” they hissed. “I was queen here when your filthy kind were huddled in caves. Naked. Afraid. You knew then that you were little more than meat.” Their white eyes met Dean’s and held them. “Until one of them took pity on you. He thought it would warm you…guide you. But when he gave you fire, he condemned you.
Oh, Zeus made a show of censure- lashing him to the mountain. The eagle was a clever touch. But what is a few millennia to a Titan?”
Their knee pried Dean’s thighs open in a sick, mocking intimacy.
“They would give you little trinkets, like children; buying your favor. Agriculture, medicine, magick. They would give you only the tiniest speck of their infinite knowledge, and OH, how you would praise them for it! You thought yourselves so clever— picking up the crumbs left you— until you thought yourselves almost equal. A world of little gods, fucking and warring and deceiving.”
Their breath was hot against Dean’s face.
“I’ve come to bring you peace. And when I am through you will all be equal. You will all be meat for the beasts once again.”
They pulled away in a blink, their hand raised high.
Both heads turned to see Rowena, still resplendent in her white gown. Her own hand was raised in a claw. She was as imposing as Dean had ever seen her, and her magic was palpable in the air.
“Deamhan, a hith ar a irioslac ro nan diata. Tromh tha iah a duhit. Tromh tha iah teadh.”
“Witch!” they howled.
“Yes,” she smiled. “Witch.” A turn of her hand spun Castiel’s body like a wheel, until the two faced each other.
Rowena’s smile faded to a flint-eyed stare. “I will not be afraid again.”
With a flick of her thumb, their body recoiled as if struck. “Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel. Tora du chamh.”
They bent over, clutching at their belly and growling with bared teeth. Rowena stood firm. “Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel. Tora du chamh.”
They pulled the silver blade from Castiel’s belt and aimed it at his belly. “I will cut him open, I swear it.”
“Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel. Tora du chamh.”
Dean could do little more than watch in horror. He was a rook at best in this game. One move out of place and it could all be over.
The little witch advanced upon the demon with careful steps. “Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel. Tora du chamh.” The blade wobbled in Castiel’s hand.
With their little strength, they scraped the blade down Castiel’s thigh, renting the fabric of his pants and spreading a blooming red stain across them. Their other hand anointed itself in the stream of blood. They shivered. Smiled.
Castiel punched the air with a cry.“R’lah!”
Rowena fell, skidding, to the forest floor. Dean was blown back against the tree.
“Is that all you’ve got, witch?”
Dean shouted the name from the core of his very soul. He was still in there. Still fighting. “CASTIEL!”
Castiel’s body twitched as if struck from behind.
The man turned, dazed and weak, but blue-eyed. “Dean?”
“Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel! Tora du chamh!”
Rowena was on her feet again, her hair and dress muddied. Her green eyes had taken on a bright purple hue unseen in this world. Dean froze still.
Castiel’s body bent backwards, his wings unfolding out to his sides at full span.
“Gaillead da toa an doah Castiel! Tora du chamh!”
Laughter burst from their mouth. “You’re not sending me anywhere, Castiel. If I leave, you’re coming with me.”
Rowena’s eyes narrowed. “Fight her, Castiel! Distract her!”
Castiel’s body broke into spasms, his eyelids fluttering and his wings twitching.
“What’s going on??” Dean howled.
“Kill him!” she screamed, her little body shaking. He swore that he saw tears in her eyes. “He’s losing this battle and you need to end it! Kill him!”
It couldn’t be fought any longer.
Dean didn’t remember bending to take the ancient knife from his boot; but he must have, for it gleamed in his hand.
Not that long neck, which he had kissed too tenderly to see it ravaged by the blade. Nor the the plane of his chest—the dear heart.
He found himself behind Castiel, lifting the knife above his own head and preparing to strike
It all happened in mere moments, yet time seemed to slow. This was punishment for his hubris. He had angered the gods, denied the realms of magick. This was his punishment; that he should see every blink, every flick of his wrist, each of Castiel’s fresh tears as he struck the killing blow. Right between his shoulder blades; between those great snow-white wings.
His blue eyes went wide, and a soft, wordless gasp slipped from his open mouth. From it escaped smoke as dark as forest fire, billowing into the air above him.
“Bidh gad cheangal a chor agus an talamh!”
The smoke seemed to have a life of its own. It fought like a fish on a line, struggling forward with all its will as it was pulled backward to its doom.
“Bidh gad cheangal a chor agus an talamh! Bidh gad cheangal a chor agus an talamh!”
Back, back it went as Rowena chanted. Her voice wavered, and her delicate chest heaved as if the words themselves were molten and her little body consumed by their heat.
Inside Castiel, a tempest was raging. Lightning crashed inside his breast, illuminating his bones beneath his skin. Dean could see every rib. Could see the skull that held his cheeks so high, his chin so strong; cradled the eyes now gone dull.
He pitched backward onto Dean, all life extinguished. The blade rested between his shoulders, sheathed to the hilt, the bright red blood streaming over the snowy-white feathers.
Bird or beast or beloved, they all bled the same way.
Then the gods favored him with rain.
The knife left Castiel’s body with a final, weak spurt of blood. Dean tossed it aside.
He moved to hold Castiel against him, laying his sprawling body against the bow of his knee, supporting his shoulders, cradling his head. He closed those half-lidded, uninhabited eyes. Drew a thumb across his chapped lips. Traced the stubble along his jaw.
Far away, the last screams of the black-eyed men echoed through the trees. Great roars and shouts of victory came from human and magickal alike. Some might even be embracing in the aftermath of battle. Some might take weres or shifters as brothers-in-arms now; some may smile at a human rather than snarl. But there, in the glade, it seemed that the war was lost.
Dean reached for one of the long flight feathers—one unmarred by blood—and held to it, for the first time and the last. An impulse found him in his grief: pull it out. Keep it. Treasure it. Hold some little bit of the man who entered and left his life with all the swiftness and tumult of a summer storm.
No! Castiel might need it to fly! Surely there was some sort of magick—
“Rowena!” The king’s cry echoed through the forest, startling birds into flight. “ROWENA!”
She reappeared before Dean’s eyes, looking none the worse for wear. Not one curl was damp, not one speck of mud marred her dress. It may have been a glamour. He didn’t care.
“Rowena, please,” he begged. “You can save him. Please.”
A raised eyebrow was the only movement on the cold, still mask of her face.
“A King of Wintan-ceastre, begging for magick. Never thought I’d see the day.”
“You have to help him—please.”
“He’s past my help, I’m afraid,” she said, calm. Detached. “He’s gone beyond the veil. I cannae reach him there.”
“Try,” he rasped, fighting back angry tears. “You have to try!”
A smirk crept at the corner of her mouth; Dean wanted to tear it off. “Why don’t you ask your new friend Crowley?” she cooed. “A bright and desperate soul such as yours would—”
“I don’t need necromancy, I need magick.” His voice was a wreck. “I need a spell. Just one spell.”
“Is that all?” Her smile was wide now, and mocking. “Everyone’s capable of at least one spell.”
“ROWENA!” he roared, his dropping his head between his shoulders. He pressed his forehead to Castiel’s chest. He stuttered out a broken whisper “…please.”
She was silent for a long moment. Dean did not have to face her to know he was beyond hope.
“Mark this day, your majesty. Keep it in your books. Remember it as the day that your will and your hubris could not help you.” She spoke in poniards, and every word struck. “Remember what it was like to be cold and cowed and helpless. Powerless,” she spat. “Remember what it was like when the only person you could turn to for help didn’t lift one. little. finger.”
“I do not weep, King Andean. And I do not kneel.”
When he lifted his eyes to plead anew, she was gone.
His face burrowed into Castiel’s fading warmth once again.
He was the king. He should be rounding up his men. The hardy and living should be assisting the injured. Bringing mercy to the broken. Saying prayers over the dead. Each pair of strong arms would be needed to load the wagons. But his legs had no strength to move, and his arms might never again be buried in soft white feathers.
Samworth wanted duties befitting a prince. He could have them now.
A long, weary sigh sounded in Dean’s ears.
“She means True Love’s Kiss, you idiot.”
He lifted his head to see Gabriel—no longer a tiny sprite but a full-sized man. Some features kin to Castiel could be found in his straight nose and cleft chin, but Dean would not have recognized him if not for the familiar golden hue of his eyes.
“Gabriel…?” His throat, his lungs all burned as he spoke. “What do you mean?”
“True Love’s Kiss. The one spell everyone is capable of.”
“What do I do?” Dean asked frantically.
“Exactly what it says on the jar, Dean-o,” Gabriel nudged his head towards Castiel. “You kiss him, and you hope he felt the same. If it’s meant to be…well,” he shrugged a little, “there are some things stronger than Death.”
Dean glared at him. Kiss and hope? It sounded like some insult. Or a final blow before Gabriel left him with his pain. It would be poetic—skewering the hopes of a desperate man; the man whose father ordered his murder. It would be fitting. He deserved all that pain and more.
“You don’t have much time, Dean,” he said, suddenly grave. “His life force is fading.”
He met Gabriel’s amber eyes. In them—in their sincerity—and in the set of his quivering jaw, he saw a look that he knew: desperation. Dean had worn that look before. Save my little brother, it said.
Castiel’s face was cold to the touch; the rain had been pelting them both, soaking them to their skins. But there was still heat behind the seam of his lips. Dean could feel it under his own open mouth.
He kissed Castiel as if he could breathe life back into him with sheer will. Like he could tap from the well of his own vitality and pour even another day into his fallen lover. If only to say goodbye.
Dean lifted his head, gazing at Castiel and praying to every god in his accord. He had been a good king, if not the most pious. He had saved many lives that day. And if Castiel was the price of a kingdom, so be it. But if he could be spared…
A soft whimper sounded from Castiel.
Dean dared to hope. “Cas?”
It could have been a movement of the body; the dead could sigh and groan and twitch until they were putrid. But the dead’s eyelashes did not flutter, and their chests did not rise and fall with breath.
The well of his tears spilled down his cheeks. “Cas?”
“Hello Dean,” he said weakly.
He cupped Castiel’s cheek with a chilly, clammy hand. Cas was warm and flush and alive. “It worked…” he breathed. “The spell worked.”
Castiel frowned. “Wha… what spell?”
“True Love’s Kiss! Can you believe it?! Like in a fairy tale or—” His face fell suddenly, the rim of his eyes almost full again.
Dean’s lip trembled. “You love me.”
“Are you so surprised?”
Dean pressed a kiss to Castiel’s lips. It tasted of salt.
Castiel’s free hand flew up to hold Dean by the back of his head, and drew him close until their mouths met again. Dean felt the grit of stubble upon his chin and swooned.
He’d never been short of kisses in his life. And since he discovered that which was beneath girls’ skirts, or found the selfsame pleasures between other boys’ legs, he had not thought many of them as remarkable. Of those that he had, two were given him by Castiel. This one superseded them all.
He knew then that he could kiss this man for the rest of his life. Even then, it might never be enough.
Gabriel flickered, like a candle in a breeze.
“Gabriel?” Cas rushed to find his feet, but stumbled onto his backside as quick as anything; the mud or the weakness, he couldn’t be sure.
“Take it easy, little bro,” he said, smiling reverently. “You’ve just come back from the dead. I’ve been dead for a while- and believe me, it’s no picnic.”
Gabe dropped to one knee, so to be face-to-face with Castiel.
“Gabe?” Dean’s voice was worn thin. “You’re—”
“Fading,” Gabriel finished for him. “I know. That means my work here is done. I’m fresh out of vengeance.” He huffed a laugh. “And hey, it only took twenty-two years!”
“But…” Castiel breathed, “what…? Where will you go?”
“I don’t know!” Gabe whooped. “Isn’t that amazing?”
“You…I just…What am I supposed to do now? Without you? Without Anna?”
“Live, like you were meant to.” He gave Castiel a barely palpable shove at the shoulder. “I’d tell you to get married and make babies, buuut…”
Dean leered at him for a moment before the expression softened. He could not begrudge Gabriel anything now.
“I’m sorry, Castiel,” he said earnestly. “I’m sorry I held you back for so long. Please understand that I only wanted to keep an eye on you. To make sure you were safe.” His gaze fell to the mud for a moment. “ I hope you can forgive me someday.”
“ I know,” said Castiel. “And I do.”
Gabriel flickered again. He was now little more than a diaphanous mist. Dean began to see the blades of grass under his toes.
Gabe smiled warmly. “That’s all I ever wanted. So you—” he pointed at Dean “— you take care of him.”
“I will,” Dean promised.
“I mean it. If you do, or say, or even think one vaguely dickish thing at Castiel I will haunt you. Don’t think I won’t.”
Dean smiled. “I would expect nothing less.”
There was no form to Gabriel any longer. Only a dim gold haze, fading into the light from the emerging sun as it burnt its way through the clouds.
Dean helped Castiel to his feet- no easy achievement with the added weight of his wings.
Cas made a quick post-mortem assessment of himself. His arms and legs worked as well as they ever did, and his senses were none the worse for it.
“My feathers are sodden. And bloody.” He glanced backwards. “And I’m covered in mud.”
Dean laughed wetly. “You’ve come back from the dead, and all you can say is ‘My feathers are dirty’?”
The tiniest twitch of a smile pulled at his lip. “I wasn’t dead all that long.”
Dean chased the smile with a kiss. “It felt like a year.” And another. “Like a decade.” And another. “Like a whole lifetime.”
Castiel’s smile bloomed larger under Dean’s affections. “I’ll make a poet of you yet, my king.”
“Dean,” he urged, closing the little space between their lips again. “Call me Dean.”
Samworth’s booming voice carried over the clearing.
He jogged across the muddy field to meet his brother. Was Dean not propping up a weary Castiel he would have done the same.
Once they were toe-to-toe, Castiel placed a hand on Dean’s arm, patting it gently. He shuffled on towards the camp, wings tucked close, and left the brothers to themselves.
Sam’s eyes were aglow with cautious optimism. “She’s gone?”
Dean nodded. “She’s gone.”
A sigh poured out from Sam’s chest; it was as if a great weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders, allowing him to breathe.
“I’m alright. You?”
“I’m…” He shook his head. “I’ll be okay.”
Dean put his hands on Sam’s shoulders. “Talk to me.”
“I can’t even begin, Dean. There’s just so much…” He blinked his disbelief. “A week ago I didn’t know such things as demons truly existed, and today…” He shrugged. “There are men from leagues and leagues afar, waking up as if from a dream. Still more in piled in the dirt…”
Dean nodded knowingly. “We’ll have their faces sketched, so that their bodies might be returned to their families. Not every host is willing. I know that now.”
Sam nodded in return.
“And our soldiers…?” He could not bring himself to ask the real question: how many dead?
“A few on our side,” Sam reported flatly. “Bobby’s taken three back to the castle on wagons— he said he’d come back with another for the dead. Eileen and Mazuri have went ahead with him.” His gaze fell to the mud. “…we lost Pamelina.”
“I’m sorry, Sammy.”
He sniffled and nodded. “She went out fighting.”
Dean twined his arms around his not-so-little brother, who rested his chin on Dean’s shoulder.
Despite the difference in height, Dean could hear the shivering breath Sam had tried to muffle; could feel Sam’s fingers digging into his back.
“I was so scared, Dean,” he whispered.
“Yeah, me too.”
A voice in Dean’s head—one that sounded awfully like Jon’s—barked “You’d better get used to it.” It echoed clear as day across the years, back to the day that Dean couldn’t fire a silver-tipped bolt into a bound and gagged werewolf. Jon had taken up the crossbow himself and finished the job. “You’d better get used to it.”
Dean’s heart and his mouth were one, without his head to interfere. “And it’s not going to be the last time, alright? It’s gonna get scarier.”
“But you were so brave, Sammy. So gods-damned brave. And you’re going to be a damn fine hunter, too.”
“Sam,” he said, voice cracking under his jape. “Sam.”
The ache in his shoulders told him that he must let go. So he did. But he could not let Sam go completely. He held his brother’s face in both of his blood-stained hands. Tears welled in the prince’s eyes, but in them was relief; and something that, in time, might be come to be happiness.
Dean saw this and smiled. “I have so much to tell you.”
The festival for Wintan-ceastre’s 201st anniversary was an affair even greater than the year before. Royal weddings always were very grand— moreso when the king and the prince both married their beloved on the same day.
And though the kingdom could not boast quite the same storied peace as in times past, the king was happy to wave from his balcony at the gathered crowd —some in robes, others under sun-shades— with his consort by his side.
The cancellation of the previous years’ ball began a new tradition—the Feast of Andean, whereupon all in the kingdom were welcome to its bounty on the longest day of the year. Arthur’s name passed from tradition, though the lanterns did not. Children still waited along the banks of the river every year, hoping for toys and coins and oranges from King Andean or Prince Samworth.
Eileen —now Lady Eileen— had quite the mind for letters. She translated dusty books from the library into volumes of history and lore. She, along with Sam (and with a great deal of patience), developed an argot of hand signals so that she might be understood without a pen and parchment. What was first code for objects and letters grew to names, and feelings, and into a language that spread throughout the household and into the wider kingdom. She did all of it while mothering three children —Tam, Augustine, and Odelia— and with the family’s many, many dogs at her feet.
The Lady of the Forest still walked on the new moon, dressed in resplendent white. No longer was she heard to weep.
The cottage, save for the feathers and quilt, was left to nature. The deer ate the straw, and the ivy embowered the walls as well as the roof. More than one weary traveler was glad of it as shelter from the rain and cold. Castiel, meanwhile, rested his head on a pillow of familiar feathers.
And, finally, to Dean’s chagrin, he and his husband did employ the service of a brood-wife, though it was Charlotte who sought them out. She prided herself an amateur alchemist, and explained her and her wife’s desire to aid to the first truly egalitarian king of Wintan-ceastre.
With a measure each of their essence, she would make a pessary for her wife, who would place it near her womb. The seed would be swept inside with a tincture of a little water and a few herbs, and hopefully Gilda would catch. It took a few tries, but catch she did. It was thereafter declared that women were to be allowed into the line of succession—no small thanks to Charlotte there, either.
As if to cement the idea, the gods gifted them with a happy, giggly baby girl. Clara would grow to be tall and lean, with twinkling green eyes and a trail of black hair that never sat neat or straight. She preferred her aunties to her fathers, and would often come to the dinner table with her boots caked in mud, smelling of dogs and grasses and sunshine.
Five years after, they welcomed a blue-eyed little boy. Jack was every inch as shy as his sister was outgoing, and sat on Castiel’s shoulders until he was too big to carry. He loved to be read to, and would tuck his honey-blonde head under any comfortable chin until he fell asleep. Dean would joke that the gods gave them a son meant for Samworth, but spent more time in the library as a father than he ever did as a prince.
Neither child ever did grow wings.
Very few stories were told about King Andean and his consort, the Prince Castiel. In time, such things as magick and monsters fell into legend. But the king’s deeds lived on as law and decree, and as freedoms enjoyed by all fair-hearted people of Wintan-ceastre.
Though, by all accounts, they did live happily ever after.
So that happened. I’m sorry if there wasn’t enough sexytime stuff to warrant the ‘E’ rating for you. (I thought of a Wedding Night wing!kink fic idea, so I’ll see if I have any creative juices left after I’m cleared to post a timestamp.)
This thing was my wordbaby. It took months and months and kept getting bigger and bigger before I painfully and exhaustedly brought it into the world. (I was once unsure if I could reach 25k. Once.) So if you liked it, PLEASE comment. For the love of criminy, comment!
I also have a Tumblr. Same psuedonym. (You can reblog my DCBB submission here.) It’s kind of lame and most of my fics end up on AO3 anyway. (Unless you really want to hear me get thirsty over Misha or chime in on better-organized peoples’ SPN meta, but that’s up to you.)