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Hostages to Queen

Chapter Text

Rami was the eldest, now ten years old.  He and his twin, Sami, had been born during the war, and they had the faintest of memories of the time before.  They could remember people being afraid and brave, fighting and the loud noises of war.  Hiding with at home with their mother.  But mostly Rami remembered how sad his parents were for such a long time, how they held him and Sami and murmured how they wished they were just a simple family.  Sadly, they were high lords, and eventually, they would have the pay the price.

Gwil – now aged nine - was born in the second year before the end of the war, and his memories started with his parents being quiet and always somber.  He would have thought that was normal – it was all he knew, after all – but he observed other families being much more joyful and content even as their country struggled to recover.  There was something different in his family, and he didn’t know what it could be until he was older.

Ben was born exactly six months after the end of the war and was now just passed his seventh birthday.  Had he been born even a year earlier, it would have been cause for rejoicing for his parents to welcome a strong, healthy child.  But his fate had already been determined even before he was born, and his parents cried as they held their golden-haired baby, knowing that one day they would have to let him go.

Joe was born in the second year after the war.  Like Ben, his birth may once had been cause for joy, but there was only sadness.  It intensified as Joe grew older, and it became clear that he had the ‘bleeding disease’; even the smallest of cuts would bleed profusely, and required extensive treatment.  His family did not care, treasuring every moment with the happy and bright child, for they knew one day he would go away.

And that day came just weeks after Joe’s fifth birthday, when the four marked children of Rhye were called.

Each child had been drilled as much as possible, according to what they were old enough to know and understand.

Rami knew this was important for his country.

Gwil knew that he had to be strong for their families.

Ben knew that he had a job to do.

Joe only knew that he was saying goodbye to his parents and would likely never see them again.

Joe’s parents had hired doctors to document his ailments over the years, begging for a possible exception from the treaty due to his health, but all it resulted in was a team of physicians coming from Queen to examine the child several times a year.  They were kind, but formal, and at the end of every exam would pronounce that the child was healthy and intelligent, and per orders from their lord, there would be no exception.

“His physical condition is of no concern to our lord,” the lead doctor said simply, making Joe’s mother struggle to hold back her tears.   The doctor paused, and then placed her hand on the mother’s shoulder.  “He will not be harmed, nor treated poorly at any time,” she promised quietly.  “My lord is…..understanding.”  It gave the mother hope, and she clung to it.

Now, on the day of the handing-over, she had to struggle to keep her composure.

It wasn’t fair, she wanted to cry.  Rami’s family had had him for ten years.  She’d had Joe for only five years.  At times, she cursed that she had even fallen pregnant.  But then she held her son and cried at the cruel fate all four families faced.  She knew it wasn’t fair for any of them and especially not for the children.  The parents had done all they could to prepare their sons, but it was still a hard price for all of them to bear.

Rami had been told he was responsible for the other three children.  Gwil had been told to help Rami.  Ben was told to be strong, and be a pride for his country.  Joe was told to be brave, and listen to the older boys. 

Fortunately, in all the adult business, there was time for the four children at the center of the event to be together.  Once their brief public appearance was over, they were guided to a secured tent where they waited, watched over by guards from both Rhye and Queen, with Joe’s nurse in charge of them.  Rami and Gwil had met a few times before, but it was the first time either had met Ben or Joe.  Both older boys immediately felt connections to the younger pair, and it seemed that Ben and Joe felt the same.  Ben had been told a few things about the older pair, as had Joe, and they immediately decided they all liked each other, and would get along well.  It was important, after all.

They knew that they were now brothers.

“I want Mama,” Joe quietly ventured after an hour of them sitting and quietly talking.  He meant to be brave, but was nervous despite his efforts.  He had never been around so many strangers before, and was getting tired.  It had been an early morning for them all.

“I know, dear,” Rami said carefully.  “But she is busy right now.”  He and Gwil exchanged glances, having the best idea of what was coming.  When they next saw their parents, it would likely be the last time.  Rami also knew he would likely never see his own twin again.  Sami had wanted to be with the boys during this time, but their parents had made Sami stay with the family’s steward during the ceremonies, murmuring that Rami needed to meet alone with the other three.

“He is going to be with them forever!” Sami had protested.  “Why can’t I stay with him until…..until…”

“You can’t, Sami,” Rami finally said, his voice breaking.  “We both have to do this on our own.”  For the twins, it was a harsh turning point.  All their lives, they had done things together, been treated almost exactly the same.  But in this, there was a crucial difference.  Rami was the older by eleven minutes, and that made all the difference in the world.  Rami needed to meet the other three marked children of Rhye, and Sami needed to take care of their parents.

“Hey, look, I can make a rabbit shadow,” Ben offered as they waited in the tent, and it made Joe giggle as Ben used his fingers to make shadows against the light of the tent.  Even Rami and Gwil had to smile at the images.  Ben might be young, but he was obviously strong, and his game was a welcome distraction for young Joe. 

Their temporary lightheartedness was broken by their families returning.

On cue, their parents came to each of them. 

“Rami, you need to be strong for the other boys,” his father said simply, trying to hide his grief.  Rami swallowed hard and nodded, glancing at his twin brother. 

“I don’t want you to go,” Sami said, his lip quivering.  He had been allowed to attend all the talks and meetings with his twin and their parents, and understood what was occurring.  He would have offered himself, but the peace treaty clearly stated the *oldest* child of each family would be handed over.

“I have to,” Rami said calmly.  Eleven minutes had made the difference in both their fates. 

“It’s not fair,” Sami protested.

“Yes, it is,” Rami answered quietly.  He knew of all of them, he had the best possible situation; he at least had a twin bother to comfort his parents. 

The families were allowed an hour together, and then Sir James Beach, high counselor of Queen, arrived with the Rhye diplomats.  He stood respectfully, waiting until the parents guided their sons forward, all of them stiffly understanding that the time was near.

“My young lords,” he said calmly to the boys.  “I am Sir James Beach of Queen, and I am honored to serve as your official guardian.  Per the conditions of the peace treaty, you will live as brothers as my estate until each of you turn 18 years of age.  I wish to assure you now in front of your families that there is no intention to separate you except for brief visits or duties at your new homes until each of you turn of age.  My lords have instructed me to give their word that they wish for you be happy in your new lives.  You will have complete freedom of correspondence with your families at all times; letters will not be withheld or censored.  Also, the finest tutors in all courses are ready to serve you and you will be treated with all grace and courtesy according to your rank.”  It was a formal speech, but Rami and Gwil knew it was a comfort to their parents.  They had been promised that the boys would be safe and well-treated.

Both older boys had been made to memorize the complete peace treaty so that they understood everything.  Even Ben had quietly said earlier that he knew most of the terms concerning their arranged marriages.  Rami and Gwil had promised to teach him the rest, and they would all teach Joe.  They would have a Rhye counselor with them to serve as an ambassador and give advice when needed, but Rami and Gwil’s parents had preferred that their sons know everything the adults knew, for fear a promise might not be kept.

“You need to know everything,” Gwil’s mother had once explained to him.  “We must trust that the Queen Lords are honorable, but for your safety, it is best you know all and do not need to rely on being told something later.  You will know if you are being lied to at any time.”

“I understand,” Gwil had promised, and knew he had a serious duty.

“Are there any questions, my lords?” Sir James asked.

“I don’t know how to write very well yet,” Joe said innocently, biting his lip as he focused on the mention of letters.

“I will teach him,” Gwil promised immediately.  “And I will write for him until he learns.”  Joe’s mother managed a true smile of gratitude for the assurance.

Rami’s father looked at Sir James.  “We have instructed the older boys to care for the younger,” he said, making Rami and Gwil nod.  Ben also nodded confidently, obviously considering himself as one of the older ones.  “We trust that they will not be separated.”

Sir James nodded in agreement.  “Not while they are young,” he promised.  He cleared his throat, and looked over at Lady Mazzello who had Joe tightly in her arms.  “And I assure you, my lady, that your son will be safe.  It is understood that he is young, and his condition is not a small matter.  He will have the security and company of his new brothers, and the greatest of care.”

“I won’t leave him alone,” Ben vowed, and Joe’s mother managed a tight smile for both the boy and the Queen counselor.  She could only put her faith in the promises.

Rami and Gwil had been told about Joe’s condition, and understood it as best they could.  They both looked at Lord and Lady Mazzello and nodded in agreement with Ben.  They knew that young Joe needed extra care, and they would be there for him.

“Are there any other questions?” Sir James asked politely.  He did seem sincere, and waited patiently, giving the families time.  “Then, my Lords and Ladies, I respectfully say it is time for us to depart.”  He stepped tactfully outside, leaving the families to say their final goodbyes in private.

There were hugs from all the adults, tears, and promises of writing.  After several minutes, Gwil’s father and mother determinedly stepped forward, their hands on their son’s shoulders, and Rami’s family did the same.  Ben’s family followed, and Joe’s father picked him up and he and his wife joined the group. 

A crowd of loyal Rhye subjects and members of the boys extended families were quietly lined up along the path to the carriage and entourage for the boy’s journey. Everyone bowed and curtsied to the young lords as they went past, trying to smile and be strong for the children.  They were paying the price for losing the war.

After a few minutes, the families arrived at the large carriage waiting for the boys, and all eight parents knew it was time for their final words with their sons.

“We love you,” Rami’s parents said simply.  They had had at least ten years with their first-born child and had the comfort of his twin brother.  Rami knew he was loved and treasured, and took comfort in his parent’s security and knowing Sami was still with them.  

Gwil’s parents hugged him fiercely, pressing kisses into his hair and trying to restrain their tears.  “We will write, and always be your parents,” his mother managed to say.  It was all she could offer, and Gwil nodded in understanding.

Ben’s parents held him for a long time.  “Be brave for the other boys,” his father finally said.  “You have a younger brother now, and must take care of him.”

“I will,” Ben promised.  He was already on full protective mode for all the other royal hostages, even if Rami and Gwil were older than him.

Beside the carriage, Joe’s parents clung to him.  Joe had been the sole reason the lords of Queen had waited so long – over six years – before demanding their tribute.  They had agreed to wait until Joe was past his fifth birthday and declared healthy before the sons of Rhye were called to Queen.

“We love you so much,” murmured Joe’s mother, caressing his auburn hair. 

“We know you can do this,” his father added, trying to hold back his tears. 

Joe looked up at his parents innocently.  “I love you,” he said simply.

“And we love you,” his father managed, while his mother tried to smile through her tears. They had prayed an exception would be made, but now they had to encourage their son to accept everything with strength.

“Be brave, my love,” his mother said.  “All will be well.”

Joe nodded at her words.  “Alright,” he agreed.   He clutched one of the things he had been allowed to carry with him – a stuffed bear.  He didn’t really understand everything, but trusted his parents. 

Gwil helped Joe climb up into the huge carriage, declining the offer of assistance from one of their new Queen governesses, who joined them in the carriage.  Rami stood protectively between the carriage and their parents, staying strong, and Ben stood by his shoulder, ready to protect and guard. 

“We love you,” Rami said finally, his voice rough. “We will make Rhye proud.”  He turned and pushed Ben into the carriage.

Once inside the carriage, Rami gathered Joe into his arms, putting the youngest boy on his lap and making sure he could see out the windows of the carriage.  They all waved to their parents as the horses were alerted and began to move.

And on the sunny spring morning, the four sons of Rhye were sent to Queen.

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The kingdoms of Rhye and Queen had been at war nearly continuously for a century.  They were rivals in nearly every way, competing for the same resources and land.  Both were ruled by kings in name, but in fact, it was often the power behind the throne that determined the fates of their lands. 

A decade earlier, four powerful warlords emerged in Queen who took control of the kingdom and commanded the armies, leading them to a final victory.  When Rhye was defeated, it was these same lords of Queen who dictated the terms of the peace treaty.  The treaty was mostly generous to Rhye, asking merely for an end to war, and generally small concessions.  Most of the terms were open to negotiation, and the Rhye counselors had been relieved at the openness and fairness of the treaty.

Until they reached the final section.

And it was on this final point that the four warlords refused to move.  They would not answer questions on the matter, or even discuss it in vague terms.  The papers were laid before the Rhye counselors, and they were told it would be as dictated in the terms that the lords demanded.

If Rhye refused, the entire country would be destroyed.

*****

The first-born children of the current lord or lady of the following houses will be delivered to Queen as wards:  House Malek, House Lee, House Hardy, and House Mazzello.  The children will be turned over at a time of choosing of the four lords.  They will be raised as siblings, under the care of a guardian, until each turn 18 years of age.  Upon turning 18, each will become the spouses of their lords.  The matches are as follows:

The eldest of House Malek will become the spouse of Lord Mercury.

The eldest of House Lee will become the spouse of Lord May.

The eldest of House Hardy will become the spouse of Lord Taylor.

The eldest of House Mazzello will become the spouse of Lord Deacon.

*****

It was not unheard of for children to be sent as wards, and arranged marriages were common.  But still, the houses objected; some with good reason.  The young lady of House Hardy was with child at the time the treaty was presented, and it was hard for her to accept that her still-unborn child would never truly be hers.  For House Mazzello, it sounded rather cruel.  The lord and lady were childless, and it seemed the burden would fall upon the eldest niece of the lord, their heiress. 

There was nothing any house could do.  The empire would continue; surely these four loyal houses would not suffer by surrendering their first-born.  Besides, there were generous assurances in the treaty.

*****

The first-born will be wards of a knight of the choosing of the Queen lords while they are young, and live at the knight’s estate. They will be raised as siblings, and well-treated in all ways, and be educated in all subjects as benefiting their station and desires.  They will be allowed unimpeded correspondence with their families, and all correspondence from their families will be delivered promptly and without censure.  They will be honored, and accorded all privileges, and will not be married until each turns 18 years of age.  An ambassador of Rhye will be assigned to their household, and they will be allowed all counsel from their ambassador at all times.

*****

It had been an honest shock when the lady of house Mazzello confirmed that she was with child, a year after the end of the war.  She and her husband had been married for years with no children, and the joy of their unexpected future child was tempered with the terms of the treaty.  Their eldest niece was smart and determined, and she had fully accepted that she would one day go to Queen.  No one was happy that the miracle child would be surrendered to Queen instead.

*****

There will be no exceptions to this condition.  Each House will send its eldest child to Queen.

*****

The discovery of Joe’s illness was both a sadness and a hope for his parents.  Concern about his future, of course, although the illness was fairly well understood and managed.  But it did seem to offer a glimmer of hope that an exception would be made.  Hemophiliacs were susceptible to all illness, and the child would need to live a quiet and scholarly life.  Surely the fierce warlord of Queen would not want a spouse with a severe illness.  The niece of the lord and lady was determined that she would go in her cousin’s place.

But the plea had been refused.  No exception allowed.  The child would go to Queen. 

The only concession allowed was that the warlords would wait until Joe turned five years of age.  Then he and the other three would go to Queen.  The treaty that had been signed specified that it would be a time of the warlords choosing, and Rhye was bound by its word.  There was no choice.

So when Joe turned five, the final preparations were made.

*****

The family of each child will be allowed to send whatever they wish in their household goods.  They will have governesses and tutors assigned by Queen, but again, allowed all correspondence with their families and an ambassador for unimpeded counsel.

The children will be honored and treasured.  They will signify the joining of eight great houses, and ensure peace.

*****

Nothing could change the minds of the Queen lords.  All their families could do was treasure the time they had with their sons, and try to prepare them for what lay ahead.

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The journey to their new home took ten days. 

On one hand, it was a rather exciting adventure for the boys, none of whom had ever travelled more than a night or two away from their homes.  The huge coach they rode in was comfortable and the two governesses accompanying them were kind and friendly to the boys.  After a short stop for lunch the first day, the ponies of the three eldest boys were brought forward and they were offered a chance to ride.  Gwil declined, wanting to stay with Joe as it was clear the youngest was ready for a nap and he and Rami had already quietly agreed to not leave Ben or Joe alone.  Ben was happy to be able to stretch his legs and get better glimpses of the huge army accompanying them, exited at everything he saw, and Rami was impressed at the obviously great power of their entourage. 

But of course, it was hard to know they were leaving home, and would likely never see their parents again.  Even young boys knew the harsh truth.

Rami and Gwil were old enough to understand the reality of things.  Their country had lost a major war.  They were in debt.  Payment was demanded.

And they were part of the payment.

They stopped for the night and a comfortable tent was set up for the boys, a huge cot arranged that they could easily all share as a bed. They ate dinner with their governesses, and then went for a short walk around part of the camp, Gwil and Rami taking turns with holding Joe’s hand and helping him where the ground was uneven.  They knew that even a fall could cause him to bleed internally, and were anxious to prove that they could take care of him.  All the boys could not help but be a bit excited about some things, marveling at some of the horses and soldiers.  A friendly guard let Ben hold his heavy sword, and even Gwil had to smile a little as the sword was nearly as long as the child. 

“We will have your practice weapons brought out tomorrow, if you like, my lords,” Sir James offered.  He had checked on them several times during the day, always polite and thoughtful.  Rami thought he seemed a decent enough man, even if he was from Queen. 

“Yes, please!” Ben said excitedly, and Rami and Gwil nodded their agreement, quietly determined to show what they knew and try to impress the adults.  Technically, Rhye and Queen were no longer at war, but it was difficult for the boys to not instinctively want to show off and prove their worth to any nearby adult.

Joe was nearly asleep on his feet, tired from the events of the day even after his nap, and Sir James offered to carry him back to the tent, but Rami and Gwil declined.  Joe was so tiny, it was easy enough for the older boys to carry him, and they knew they were responsible for him.  In a short time, they were in the bed, Ben and Joe protectively in the center.  The younger two were soon asleep, but Gwil and Rami remained awake for a time.

“I’m glad we will be together,” Gwil whispered, hugging Joe to him.  Their governesses were asleep in their own bed, on the other side of the tent and separated from their charges by a curtain.  The boys figured they could whisper quietly under the covers and not be overheard.

“Me too,” Rami agreed.  He sighed, thinking about the day.  “I’ve seen maps of Queen, but don’t know exactly where their lands and homes are,” he said, referring to the men they were being sent to.  “I wonder how far it will be from Sir James’s residence.”

Hazel eyes met Rami’s.  “Does he send you presents?” Gwil asked, again referring to their Queen lords.

Rami nodded.  “Every year for my birthday,” he said.  He grimaced.  “I wanted to burn them all.”

“Me too,” Gwil agreed.  “But of course, I couldn’t; it wouldn’t be polite.”

“And the ambassadors wanted to see us with them,” Rami added.

Gwil rolled his eyes.  “To be fair, they are always good presents,” he admitted slowly.  “I mean, things that I like.”

The eldest boy grunted softly, reluctantly conceding agreement.  “He always sent presents for Sami as well,” he admitted.  It had made Rami slightly less hostile to his future lord at times.  “What about letters?”

“A few, since I turned eight.  They are nice enough, I suppose.”  Rami nodded again, and Gwil looked at the two youngest between them.  “I think they are too young still, but my parents got letters before I turned eight, so I suspect their parents did as well.  At least I know he can write.”

Rami snorted.  “Or has a good scribe,” he pointed out. 

Gwil shuddered a little.  “Please, let him be smart,” he muttered.

“Oh, I think they are all very smart,” Rami said, his eyes narrowing a little.  “If even half the accounts are true, they were the ones who defeated Rhye, not the emperor.  They were the warlords on the battle fields.”

“And handled the negotiations for the peace treaty,” Gwil agreed.  He ran his fingers lightly through Joe’s curly hair when the youngest moved restlessly, perhaps in a bad dream.  Joe quickly settled down again, nuzzling up to the older boy.  “I wonder why they insisted on this.”

It had always been a puzzle, why the mysterious lords had demanded such a condition.  It was not unheard of for noble children to be sent as wards, and arranged marriages were common to ally houses and land.  But it was odd for four children to be demanded not just as wards but as spouses, and that Ben and Joe were sent so young. 

“They named our houses in the peace treaty,” Rami said.  “Ben’s mother was carrying him, but Joe wasn’t born until almost two years later.  How did they know his parents would even have a child?  They are older and had been married for years with no heirs.  Everyone assumed the tribute from their house would be the eldest of Joe’s first cousins – the heir until he was suddenly born.  She was there this morning, and I could tell she was angry about Joe leaving.”  Rami had been taught everything possible about the families of the boys he would be in charge of.

“My father said that she constantly offered to go in Joe’s place, almost demanded it, but Queen refused,” Gwil said thoughtfully.  “Joe’s parents begged for an exception many times, and his cousin pleaded for her to be accepted, but the answer was no every time.  They say that she was furious, and had to be held back from running away to Queen years ago.”  He looked at the sleeping child.  “They wanted him.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Rami agreed with a sigh.  “I love him already – he’s so sweet and kind, but also so young.  And you would think they would have made an exception because of his condition.  Not that it really matters of course, but it’s a lot for him to have to accept.”

“He’s smart,” Gwil said.  “And yes, it doesn’t matter how he is, but it makes me both hopeful and wary.  I mean, they sent physicians to care for him and everyone agrees that they were good doctors and kind to the family.  My mother corresponds with Joe’s mother a lot, and she always said she was comforted knowing he would be cared for.  So that is some good, right?  They aren’t complete monsters.”

“Their physicians aren’t, but *they* might still be,” Rami grumbled.  “Demanding children so young?  No one likes it.  You and I are old enough, but not these two.”  He hugged Ben, who made a contented sound.

Gwil bit his lip in thought.  “Well, we can only make the best of it,” he said in quiet determination.  “We have a duty.”

“I know.”

It was a long time before the older boys fell asleep, each holding their new brothers tight.

*****

“Where’s Mummy?” Joe yawned the next morning.  The sounds of camp stirring had woken all the boys, and Joe looked confused as he rubbed his eyes.

Ben immediately hugged him fiercely.  “It’s alright,” he said brightly.  “We are with you now, remember?”

Green eyes teared up a little, but Joe sniffed and nodded, now recalling what had happened the day before.  It only made the three older boys more determined to protect him.

“If we ride our horses again today, maybe you can ride with me,” Rami suggested. Joe’s eyes lit up in delight, tears soon forgotten.  Gwil promised to find Sir James and make the request.

Indeed after a few hours on the road, their ponies were brought up.  Rami placed Joe in front of him on his pony, and the youngest clearly loved the adventure.  “I have a pony, but I can only ride him in the corral,” Joe confided to Rami as they rode.  “I’m still learning how to ride on my own.”

Gwil glanced at Sir James, who had joined the boys in riding behind their carriage.  “Is his pony with us?” he asked.

“Indeed it is, my lord.  She is riding in a trailer for most of the journey, but we can bring her forward at any time.”

“When we stop for the evening, could we take Joe around on his pony?  We will be careful, I promise.”

Sir James smiled. “I think that will be an excellent idea,” he approved.

As promised, Joe’s sweet, old, fat pony was brought up when the caravan stopped for the night.  Ben took the pony’s guide rope and led it around camp while Rami and Gwil walked on either side, making sure Joe didn’t slip off.  For someone so small, he was a steady rider, happy and confident in his new saddle.

“Very good, my young lord,” Sir James praised.  “We will have you on a warhorse in no time at all.”  Joe giggled at the ridiculous notion.

“I like my pony,” he assured them all.

“I like your horse,” Ben admitted to the Queen knight.  Sir James’ giant horse was grazing nearby, and their new guardian smiled. 

“He was a gift from Lord Roger,” he said.  “Perhaps you older boys would like to ride him for a bit tomorrow?”

Ben looked hopefully at Rami and Gwil, and the two oldest boys found they were excited at the idea as well, despite their initial caution.

“Yes, please,” Rami finally decided, unable to turn down such an offer.

It was indeed a treat for each of them to take a turn the next day – and every day after that - riding the powerful stead.  Even with Sir James alongside on his spare horse, it was exciting for them to be on a real warhorse and ride it on their own.  Rami had to admit that so far, he liked Sir James.  Even Ben, who was proving to be suspicious of most things, unbent a little toward their new guardian.  After a week, Rami and Gwil even allowed Joe to ride with Sir James for a short time on the warhorse, all three other boys nearby on their ponies, keeping an eye on the youngest brother.  Joe was thrilled at the special ride.

The journey continued, each day the boys allowed to ride or run around for a time so they were not confined to the coach.  In the evenings they went for walks or led Joe on his pony while camp was being made, and a physician travelling with them checked on Joe every night, examining him for any bruises or cuts.  It was a routine that Joe was clearly accustomed to, and he never objected.

“It is important that you exercise so you will be strong,” she said cheerfully to the child, and she smiled at the older boys.  “He needs to stretch his legs, to exercise as much as possible by walking or riding,” she explained.  “It will do him good.  The only caution is that he must be careful to not fall or cut himself.”

“We will take care of him,” Rami promised, and Gwil and Ben solemnly agreed. 

The physician nodded as she packed up her medical kit.  “Do you swim?” she asked the boys.

Joe winkled his nose.  “No,” he admitted, but Rami, Gwil, and Ben all nodded.

“Hot springs and rivers are common in many places in Queen,” she explained.  “The estates of all your lords have bath houses with pools deep and warm enough for swimming even in winter.  It will be excellent exercise for young Master Joseph.”

Joe looked hopefully at the older boys, and they all smiled.  “Then we will teach him to swim right away,” Rami agreed cheerfully.  Ben stayed with Joe, both boys giggling at some private joke and their governess joined the young pair as Rami and Gwil saw the lady out of the tent.

“The warm springs will also be comforting for Master Joseph when he has aches and pains,” the physician confided to them.  “Sir James had an excellent set of bath houses built last year as part of the preparations for your arrival.  We will put them to good use.”

Rami and Gwil looked at each other.  “Preparations?” Gwil asked curiously.  The lady smiled.

“You are our new young lords,” she said simply.  “I understand this is…difficult.  But please accept my assurances that we all only wish you the best.  We will all take care of Master Joseph, and ensure that he is healthy.”  Both boys nodded, cautiously seeing the doctor as a new ally.

They knew they could use all the friends possible.

Sir James explained early in the trip that they would arrive first at Lord John’s estate as it was the closest.  They would rest there for a few weeks before going onto his own estate and the new permanent home for the boys.  He showed them a map, and the older three boys noted that Sir James’s lands were close to all of their new lords.

“As promised, you will live at my home, but there will be short trips in due course so that you may each begin to learn about your new homes,” he explained.  “Each of your lord’s mansions are within a day’s ride of each other, so it will be easy journeys.  Even when you visit the estates on your own, you will never be more than a day’s ride apart.”

“We have been promised that we will not be separated much,” Rami said a tad suspiciously, checking for any possible violation.

Sir James nodded.  “And you will not be,” he agreed.  “But you older boys may be called for certain duties or training that might require short separations after you have had time to settle in.  I assure you, it will be brief and will not happen for some time.”

“I don’t like that,” Gwil worried that night when they were alone.

Each night, the four cuddled in their bed, Rami and Gwil whispering after the younger boys had fallen asleep, sharing what knowledge they had, and comforting each other.  They knew they were bearing the weight of their country, and much depended upon them.

“Neither do I,” Rami agreed.  “It’s true, it might be expected for us to be apart at some points, but we also need to be sure we can communicate.  We--"

“We need a code,” said a sleepy voice.

Rami and Gwil both blinked in surprised as blue eyes opened and Ben studied them, sleepy, but obviously thinking.  He rolled onto his back so he could see the other two boys more easily, making sure to not disturb Joe, who was cuddled against his chest.  “Joe can’t write and read much yet, so if we *are* ever separated, someone will write his letters for him and read our letters to him.  We can’t be sure if what is written for him is true or not and if what he is read is what we really write,” he reasoned calmly.  “So, we need to come up with a code.  Something like symbols that Joe can draw and understand.  We all like to draw, so it won’t be suspected if we add pictures in our letters to each other and even to our parents.  And of course, Joe drawing pictures won’t be suspected.  We just have to agree on the symbols.”  Blond eyebrows drew together in further thought as Rami and Gwil exchanged glances.

“That is….really very good,” Rami conceded.

“Very smart,” Gwil agreed, admiration in his voice.  He had quickly come to love Ben, but had thought he was too young to be included in his and Rami’s plans.

Ben snorted.  “I know,” he said a tad smugly, but he grinned.  “How about a dog if everything is well?  If there is something happening that we don’t feel we can put in a letter, then draw a cat as a warning sign.  And draw a bird if we need to see each other as quickly as possible or if something is really wrong.”

“Why those animals?” Gwil asked curiously.  Ben just sighed as if he were explaining something obvious.

“Because it has to be easy for Joe to remember,” he said.  “Dogs are usually happy, so they mean all is well.  I like cats, but they are sneaky and you never know what they are doing, so that would be a good warning or suspicious symbol.  And birds travel fast, and always alert first to danger.  We have to start including drawings in our letters to our parents right away, but also include lots of other drawings, especially if we are apart and write each other.  We are all curious about where we will be living, so draw pictures of the homes and things.  The adults will just think it’s all art and cute.”

Rami grinned, impressed at the boy’s planning.  “Perfect,” he agreed.  “And we have to draw dogs, cats and birds even not as messages.  If someone is checking our letters, they can’t be suspicious if they suddenly see a drawing of a cat when there hasn’t been one before.”

“What if we put the message by our signature?” Gwil suggested.  “If there is a drawing by our name on the letter, then we are sending a message.  Otherwise, it’s just a drawing.  Joe knows how to sign his name, so it should work.”

“Joe can remember that easy,” Ben agreed.  “Now, let’s talk about our code.” He looked at the older boys with a superior air.  “Joe can’t be expected to remember much more right now, but we three can have much more detailed messages.” He practically rubbed his hands together in glee as he pondered possibilities.

By the time they arrived at the first estate, Joe fully understood the meaning of drawing a dog, cat, or bird by his name, and what it meant if it was by another boy’s signature.  The older three had devised a list of over 20 additional symbols for more detailed hidden messages.  Ben was really rather proud of himself, and Rami and Gwil gave him full credit for a brilliant plan. 

The morning of their arrival, the governesses pulled out the formal dress for the boys that had been made and then safely packed away until this day.  Each boy wore a small cornet of their house, signaling their status.  Gwil was on Joe duty, making sure the youngest boy didn’t spill food on his fancy clothes and Joe giggled at the attention and fussing.  Finally, Gwil had the inspiration to drape an entire blanket over Joe as the boy ate breakfast and it just made Joe giggle more.  Ben obligingly pulled a sheet over himself, and all four had a laugh.  It was much needed for them all.

They entered the coach for the final leg of their journey for the time-being, and all were quiet, solemnly looking out the windows.  Rami exchanged looks with Gwil and Ben, and then all nodded carefully.  They had had a short respite on the trip, but now they were officially entering their new lives and they didn’t know what to expect.

They would help each other, no matter what.

Thankfully, most of the ceremony had occurred at Rhye, where the boys were able to at least still be with their families.  Rami and Gwil had been assured that there would be little if any ceremony now.  They would be greeted by their new lords formally, as benefited their status, but then there was no need for extended pomp.   

“Joe needs his nap,” Gwil pointed out to Joe’s governess.  The lady smiled and nodded in respectful understanding.

“My lords are very mindful of his age,” she agreed.  “We will arrive in just a few hours, and we should be settled in by lunch.”

“Good,” Ben muttered. 

True to the lady’s word, the couch and their accompanying guard soon entered the grounds of a huge estate.  All boys looked out the windows curiously, seeing the immaculate grounds and huge trees.  People were lined up on sides of the road, bowing their heads in respect as the coach drove by.  Many people shouted out greetings, and Rami and Gwil smiled stiffly, trying to accept the words with good grace. Ben and Joe waved cheerfully, temporarily distracted from the worries of the older boys.

The coach pulled up outside a large mansion, and Rami firmly focused on getting Ben and Joe safely out and lined up.  He and Gwil were worried about Joe, who had slipped two days earlier while exiting the coach after a long day and bumped his left knee.  The physician had been diligent in watching the child, and there was no sign of any pain or injury, but as a precaution, they were planning to carry their new brother today at the ceremony.  No one wanted him to strain himself.  Joe was old enough to understand the seriousness of the day, and he had nervously tried to bite his lip earlier, which made the boys fuss over him.

“Squeeze my hand as hard as you want,” Ben had offered, taking his new big brother role seriously.  “Don’t bit your lip, Joe.  It could bleed.”

“I know,” Joe said meekly.  He took Ben up on the offer and squeezed his hand tightly while in the carriage.  Ben had just smiled, and nodded in approval.

Once they were out of the coach, and on the pathway to go up to the house, Gwil picked up Joe, taking the first shift, politely but firmly declining the offer from Sir James again as he stood by Rami’s right hand side.  Joe clung to Gwil, suddenly shy with all the people looking at him, and tucked his head against the older boy’s shoulder.  Ben looked a bit nervous at first, but then held his head high as he took his place on Rami’s left side, and Rami took his hand.  As one, they walked up the path and to their new lives.

Chapter Text

Once a year since the war ended, Rami had been made to sit for a formal portrait to be sent to Queen.  He hated every minute of it, feeling like a fool, and disliked even more having to receive in exchange a portrait of Lord Freddie.

“So you will know your lord when you meet him,” a diplomat had once tried to explain to the young boy.

‘As if I would forget what he looks like,’ Rami had seethed quietly.  He would never forget the appearance of the man who was taking him from his twin and parents.  Now, finally looking at the man in person, Rami had to adjust some of his previous impressions.

‘He’s shorter than I thought,’ Rami conceded.  The black hair and dark eyes were as captivating as in the portraits, but Lord Freddie was definitely a bit smaller than what Rami had always imagined; he had assumed he would be towering in person.  Still, seeing him face to face, there was something even more powerful about the man; the sheer force of the personality that was somehow contained in the average-sized body.  He smiled at the boys, his dark eyes sparkling, and Rami took a deep breath, straightening his back, and holding Ben’s hand tightly in his. 

Gwil was having the opposite reaction from Rami.  In the portraits he had received, Lord Brian was always seated, and his height had never been noted.  Now Gwil had to nervously swallow as he looked up – and up – at the tall man.  But just as in the paintings, there was a soft smile on his face, and Gwil loosened a bit of his death grip on Joe, who was squirming to see the men waiting for them.

In some less charitable moments, Gwil had convinced himself that Lord Brian was likely bald; surly that ridiculous hair had to be a wig.  But now, in the gentle afternoon breeze, Gwil had to admit that those riotous curls were real.  And the hazel eyes that met Gwil’s were as soft and honest as his smile.

Ben could remember that when he had first seen Lord Roger’s portrait – when he had been about three years old - he had thought ‘pretty’.  And for a moment, he had been unsure if he was looking at a male or female.  Men seemed to never dress in women’s clothes, but it was not uncommon for women to dress in men’s clothes at times, especially of course when at work.  Only women tended to dress in female clothes for formal portraits, but the person Ben saw was so pretty, that he was uncertain until he was reminded that he was looking at Lord Roger’s portrait. Seeing the lord in real-life, Ben still thought ‘pretty’.

But he was powerful as well.  An easy smile was on that graceful face, but he stood tall and determined, no sign of any weakness in him.  He smiled gently at the boys, but his gaze hardened when the officials rambled on, and a foot began to tap in impatience.

Joe had been shown the five portraits of Lord John that his family had been sent over the years, but none had really had much of an impact on him.  He only remembered the unveiling of the last portrait – sent a mere month before they left Rhye.  His mother and her ladies and gentlemen had gathered around it, studying it intensely as if for some clue.

“He has kind eyes,” his mother finally ventured.  All her ladies and gentleman quickly agreed, pointing to the other portraits, and loudly noting how Lord John always had kind eyes and a soft expression.  Surely, he was a good man, they all insisted.  Rhye’s own royal painter, who had been commissioned for all the portraits, would not lie in his portrayal of him.

Now, Joe thought that his mother would be glad.  John did have kind eyes.  He smiled at the boys gently, his focus on them alone, calmly ignoring the diplomats.  And all four boys were staring intently at the lords that they knew they were now being turned over to.

The night before, the three older boys had carefully gone over all they knew of their new lords, sharing information.  None would admit it, but all were nervous.  It helped that they were together and would stay together for support.

“Lord Frederick Mercury, called Freddie,” Rami sighed thoughtfully.  “Now aged 30.  He is the oldest of the lords, and referred to as the oldest brother by the others.  The Queen ambassador insists that he is a musician in addition to being a warlord.  His letters were always short, but I guess they were alright.  He always sends birthday presents to Sami as well I, so that is good of him, I suppose.”

“I heard he really is a musician,” Gwil seconded.  “A composer and singer. One of my mother’s cousins was at a banquet where he sang and he said he was honestly good.”

Rami nodded.  “Well, I can barely play anything.  So if he wants music, he is going to have to supply it.”  Ben giggled quietly, not wanting to wake up Joe.

Gwil gave Ben a firm look that quieted the giggles.  “People call Lord Freddie the leader, but my cousin said he is really modest.  Or, at least he appeared to be.”

“And appearances can be deceiving,” Rami grumbled.  Ben snorted in agreement.  The older boys knew well by now that Ben was suspicious of everything having to do with Queen.  “Some say that he dislikes war, but I find that hard to believe, considering that he led the final attacks.”

“I agree,” Gwil nodded.  He took a deep breath.  “Lord Brian May,” he began, eyes narrowed in thought.  “Some say he would rather be a scholar.  He wasn’t often seen on the battlefield, usually staying back and supporting the troops by overseeing supplies and plans.  My father met him during the original discussions for the peace treaty, and he always said he was shocked when the last condition of the treaty was presented.”  The term that bound the four children to Queen.  “He said Lord Brian was quiet during the discussions, but refused to yield on anything.  He is stubborn, by all accounts.”

“My father met him briefly as well,” Rami offered.  “Apparently he was reading during most of the negotiations during the peace treaty when he wasn’t sitting there glaring.  I think he’s smart,” he said, remembering Gwil’s wish that at least his future lord and spouse would be intelligent.

“I hope so,” Gwil muttered.  “He seemed so in his letters.”  They both looked at Ben, who brightened that it was his turn to share.

“Lord Roger Meadows Taylor,” Ben said, rolling his eyes.  Despite their earlier frowns, the other boys couldn’t resist quiet giggles of their own at Ben’s pompous tone.  “He was the leader on the battlefield.  Our generals said he was brave and smart; a good fighter.  Since the war, he seems to be busy training troops.  Everyone says he is loud, and happy.” Ben shrugged a little. 

“He didn’t attend a lot of the peace treaty talks, but he did apparently send a lot of messages,” Gwil mussed.  “I think he knows more than you might suspect.”

“I think he likes music too,” Ben said thoughtfully.  “I remember my parents said that he always asked about my music lesson in his letters to them.”

“Lord Brian seems to like music as well,” Gwil reflected.  “I think they all do.”

Rami groaned.  “Wonderful,” he muttered.  “I’m lucky if I can hum.”  There were more muffled giggles.  Despite the seriousness of what they faced, all the boys naturally hoped for the best.  Gwil was inclined to take things a bit too seriously, always wary, but even he could smile now, having heard Rami try to hum and he had to agree that his new older brother – smart and skilled as he was – was not very musically inclined.

There as a short pause, and Rami looked down at Joe, who was sound asleep in his arms.  “Lord John Deacon, youngest of the lords, so I guess it makes sense that Joe goes to him.”

“He is young,” Gwil reflected, and he could have been talking about either Joe or Lord John. 

“Really young,” Ben added.  “He was barely 18 during the last year of the war, and then he led the peace talks.”

“He is quiet,” Gwil added.  “I have an uncle who met with him, and he said Lord John didn’t say hardly 30 words in public, but everyone agrees that he was the one who dictated the peace terms.  They call him the power behind his brothers.”

“And he refused to allow any exception for Joe’s health,” Ben said angrily, his eyes narrowed in thought.  “I don’t like that.”

“None of us do,” Rami agreed, subconsciously running a hand through Joe’s tangled short curls.  “I know all our parents corresponded a lot with Lord and Lady Mazzello, offering what help they could.”

“He’s mean; he refused to let Joe stay with his parents,” Ben huffed, his mind clearly made up.   “We’re old enough, but Joe is just a baby.  And he’s sick.”

Gwil and Rami exchanged tight smiles.  “Joe is young,” Gwil agreed firmly.  “We have to take care of him.  And watch him to make sure he is healthy.”

“Lord John is said to be quiet, but in fact he is the one who really planned the final battles and then the peace treaty,” Rami reflected.  “We have to watch him.”

“Why wouldn’t he and the others allow an exception?” Gwil wondered. “It has never made any sense at all.”

“That’s why I don’t like it,” Ben grumbled sternly.

“It could have been worse,” Gwil felt obliged to add.  He shrugged at the looks from Rami and Ben.  “We know it.  Infants have been handed over to strangers.  They did agree to wait five years after he was born.  And we will be together.  We could have been separated immediately and sent to the houses of each of the lords and not see each other at all.”

Rami grimaced, but had to nod.  “That is true,” he admitted reluctantly.  “There was a lot allowed in the terms the lords presented immediately. Joe isn’t the youngest in history to be turned over, and we are with him as brothers, so he is not alone.”

“I still don’t like it,” Ben muttered.

“None of us do,” Gwil sighed.  “But we also have to acknowledge some concessions were given.  I don’t know what to think, other than it could have been a lot worse.”

“We have to watch them all,” Rami decided.  “Yes, it could have been worse, but it could have also been better.  We have to just see how it goes.”

Now, standing in front of their new lords, Rami knew they would all have to be on their best watch.  All the lords looked surprisingly young, and not like the fierce war mongers he had imagined.  But Rami knew it was still early in their association.  They would all have to be very careful.

Rami was aware of Sir James and the diplomates from Rhye exchanging formal necessitates with the four lords, but kept his eyes on the men, looking for any warning signs.  All four stood closely together, Freddie and Roger especially smiling.  Brian and John seemed quieter, but still, they were smiling kindly at the boys, nodding when appropriate, and trading formal pleasantries and acknowledgements when necessary with the two delegations.  After what seemed like ages, but was likely only perhaps 20 minutes, the formalities seemed to be concluded.  Rami got the cue he had been waiting for and stepped forward after squeezing Ben’s hand and making himself let go of it for a moment.  He bowed formally, and then straightened, his gaze firm.

He had known the words for years, made to memorize them for this moment.  They had never changed over the years, and Rami had occasionally wondered at this, as he was always re-thinking the words he used in letters or speech, wondering if he had expressed himself well. But these words were clear and steadfast, and he had been practicing for years, sometimes using Sami as his audience.  He had stopped that when Sami had once burst into tears at the reminder that the twins would be separated one day.  After that, Rami had practiced silently.

“My Lords of Queen,” Rami said, holding his head high and trying to project his voice.  “My brothers and I accept your welcome.  We are grateful to be here, and hereby pledge truly our loyalty to you first as our new lords, and in appropriate time, as your consorts.  May our two countries be bound now in peace and prosperity for all time.”  His words were firm and clear, just as he had practiced.

Gwil carefully put Joe down beside Ben, making sure the older boy had a supportive arm around the youngest, and stepped forward to stand beside Rami. He too bowed formally, and then lifted his head.   “On behalf of my younger brothers, I attest that we are all here with only good intentions, which you share, understanding and accepting of the full terms of peace,” he recited his own speech.  “We look forward to the prosperous years ahead.”

Both statements were a bit of a lie, on several accounts.  First, Rami and Gwil had never understood why they referred to the others as their ‘brothers’.  Rami was especially upset as Sami was his brother, and not three strange boys that he had never even met.  But within an hour of their first meeting, Rami had accepted Gwil, Ben, and Joe as his new brothers, and now the words made some sense. 

Second, none of the boys really accepted the terms of peace or anything else about this situation. But Gwil did his family proud as he recited his words calmly, speaking on behalf of Ben and Joe, who were quiet and wide-eyed behind the older boys, trusting them.  It made both Rami and Gwil swell up a bit with fierce protection. 

“We greet you all with glad hearts,” Lord Freddie said, his voice calm and surprisingly low.  “As we are brothers, so are you, and we welcome you into our family.”

“We wish for only peace and happiness in our family, and know our responsibilities to you,” Lord Brian said, his deep voice a soft rumble.  “You are under our protection with joy and comfort.”

“May our countries be blessed and joyful in all times,” Lord Roger continued.

“And may our lives be well for all time,” Lord John finished.

At last, it was over.  Rami felt a wave of relief as some in the crowd cheered or clapped, and he tuned to pick up Joe, ready to get this done.   Essentially, their old lives were gone.

Judging by the look on Gwil and Ben’s faces as they came to stand beside Rami again, they knew what the eldest was thinking.  They were still perhaps sons of Rhye, but more importantly, now they were young lords of Queen.

And they belonged now to their new lords, and no longer to their parents.

Freddie and Roger took charge of thanking the assembled diplomats and public, and for a moment, the four boys stood alone, uncertain what to do.  But then Brian and John were beside them, smiling gently, hands guiding the boys to come inside the residence, and the boys’ governess also stepped up, making sure they followed the lords inside.  Rami held Joe protectively as they stepped inside the huge mansion, thankful to be away from the public.  There was a moment of bustle, as assorted diplomats from both Queen and Rhye tried to make themselves known, but within a few minutes most people were politely but firmly sent away, and the two lords of Queen and the four boys were in the main hallway with only the two governesses a polite distance away.  Rami had to blink at the sudden quiet.

“May I take him?” a soft voice asked.  It took Rami a second to realize that it was Lord John, his arms held out, offering to take Joe.  In response, Joe just wiggled further back into Rami’s arms, looking nervously at the strange man, and Rami felt his grip tighten on the youngest child even as he wondered if the lord would take offense.

He needn’t have worried.  John just nodded in understanding, giving Rami and Joe a kind smile.  “I see it is too soon.  I am sorry.  Please, let us go upstairs, and we can hopefully relax there.”

“We promise no more crowds today,” Brian said as they guided the four boys up the stairs and down long hallways.  The Queen lord walked slowly so the boys could keep up with his long legs.  “It was necessary for the public spectacle, but no more is required now.  Freddie and Roger will join us soon and we can all have tea and a quiet chat.”

“It is almost time for Joe’s nap,” Ben said suddenly, very protective and watchful of the youngest.  He was also making a point that *he* did not require a nap.

Brian and John exchanged smiles and nods.  “Of course,” John said.  “We have a suite prepared for you and your governesses; I thought you would prefer to be together, and you are staying in the same bedroom.  I hope that is alright.”

Gwil cleared his throat.  “Yes, thank you, my lord,” he said quietly.  It was exactly what he and Rami had hoped for.

“You are very welcome,” Lord John answered.  “Come; it is just down this hallway.”

They were shown into a large room, filled with sunshine and both adult and child-sized furniture.  There were two large bedrooms and ensuites off the main room, and Joe was almost asleep by the time Rami laid him down on a huge bed with plenty of room for all the boys.  Gwil ensured that Joe’s beloved stuffed bear was with him, and that he was covered with a soft blanket.

John hovered over the child for a moment, carefully tucking the blanket around Joe, and Ben did not hesitate to address him.  “He fell a few days ago,” Ben said flatly, clearly wanting to show that he would stand up to the youngest of their new lords.

John just nodded.  “Yes, I received a message,” he acknowledged calmly.

“He needs rest,” Ben continued, his arms crossed as he regarded the man.  Rami and Gwil both winced a little, not sure how to react at Ben’s bluntness, but Lord John just smiled, taking the obvious scolding with good cheer and seriousness.

“Of course,” he agreed again with the blond boy.  “We will let him nap, and now that the journey is over, he should recover well.  Did he have his medicine this morning?”

Ben nodded, only a tiny bit pacified.  “Yes, naturally,” he said stiffly.  “And we had lunch before we arrived.” For a seven-year-old, Ben clearly knew his stuff.  Rami and Gwil were both making notes to not underestimate their new brother.

“Then should we let him sleep for a time?” John suggested.  “We can visit quietly outside while your governess sits with him so he is not alone.  When Joseph awakes, we can bring him out for tea.”

Blue eyes regarded the lord warily.  “Yes, I suppose that will be alright,” Ben finally conceded.  “Leave the door open so we can hear him if he awakes.”  Lady Catherine, Ben and Joe’s governess, arrived to sit with her youngest charge, but Ben was clearly not happy about leaving Joe alone without one of his brothers, even if the brothers were in an adjoining room.  Rami and Gwil fully approved of his protective instincts. 

“We shall indeed leave the door open,” John agreed readily, his tone relaxed and calm.  “He will be able to hear us as well.”

Rami and Gwil were both rather relieved as they went back out to the main room and chairs were quickly pulled up to a table.  They made sure to seat Ben between them, protective and sitting as close as possible to the bedroom where Joe napped.  Servants entered with tea, sandwiches, and cakes, and soon there was a rather awkward but bearable silence as the two lords and the three oldest boys settled.  The men fixed plates for the boys, and they all regarded each other quietly.

The quick arrival of Freddie and Roger shattered the silence.  “Good Lord, they would not shut up,” Roger grumbled as he grabbed a cup of tea and plate of sandwiches.  He grinned at the boys who were regarding him warily.  “How are the cakes?”

Ben swallowed.  “Good?” he finally ventured.  He had been downright bossy with John, but now seemed rather intimated by the man he would one day be married to.

“Perfect!” Freddie exclaimed as he joined them at the table.  He smiled cheerfully at the boys.  “Come now, Brian, John! Surely they can have more cakes than this.”  He fussed for a minute, making sure each boy had plenty of cake on their plates.

Brian cleared his throat as the other men finally took their seats at the table.  “I trust your journey went well?” he asked politely, his voice kind and honest.

“Yes, thank you,” Gwil answered, trying to keep his voice calm.  Ben was again glaring rather openly at the men, his blue eyes suspicious. 

“As well as could be expected,” Ben muttered.  Roger looked amused at the words, smiling with something like pride at his new ward.

Rami took a deep breath, glancing to Gwil and Ben.  “We are….concerned…about Joe,” he said, trying to be tactful.  He knew Rhye’s ambassadors were accomplished, but this had become a very personal matter for the three older boys.  “As Ben said, he fell a few days ago, and is very tired after the journey.”

“He is just a baby,” Ben muttered, making his displeasure known.  “And he can get ill so easily.  He needs to rest.”

“Of course,” Freddie said, his tone now completely serious as the other three men nodded in agreement.  “We would expect nothing less.”

Brian took a sip of his tea.  “I think it best if you all stay here for several weeks,” he suggested.  “The journey was long – and stressful - and you should all rest.  Then we will move onto Sir James’s estate and you can settle in there.  No doubt some stability will be good for yo—for Joe.”

“That would be good,” Gwil agreed, oblivious to the aborted suggestion that the older three boys might need some time to settle as well.

“We have fast couriers on staff who will have letters to your parents in less than a week, and return the same,” Roger said, jumping in cheerfully, and focusing on the positive.  “We have already sent messages that you safely arrived, but if you wish you can write letters this afternoon, and they will leave with new carriers at first light.  You can send letters as often as you like; they will always leave the next morning, and any letters and packages from your families will be promptly delivered to you.”

Rami and Gwil both nodded.  “Thank you,” Rami said. “We will help Joe and Ben write letters today.”  Ben looked a little irritated at the suggestion that he needed help, but said nothing, apparently reluctantly conceding the fact.

“We want you to be happy,” Freddie said, his voice suddenly a bit tight, a concerned look on his face.  “Please let us know if there is anything we can do to make this more….comfortable,” he finished, glancing at the other lords.  Rami straightened a little, wanting to prove that he was mature, and not in need of a child’s comfort.  Gwil and Ben did the same.

“We just want Joe to be happy,” Rami said firmly.  He and Gwil – and Ben – were obviously not children needing to be coddled.  It had become a point of pride for all three older boys.

The Queen lords all smiled.  “Then we shall do our best to see to it that Joe is happy,” Freddie promised, some cheer back in his voice. 

“We can have some fine day trips and adventures after a few days of rest,” Roger enthused.  “I am told you all enjoy riding.”  The boys nodded in agreement.

“That is a very fine horse that you gave to Sir James, my lord,” Gwil said to Roger, trying his best to make polite, adult, conversation.  Roger grinned.

“Thank you.  I do enjoy raising horses.  Perhaps tomorrow we can go see the latest foals.”  Ben visibly perked up at the offer, and Rami had to also smile a little in interest. 

“Do you like music?” Freddie asked.  Rami mentally grimaced, but nodded.  It was completely true, after all; he was dreadful at playing music, but he did enjoy listening to it.  “Marvelous!  John has the most wonderful music tutor here in his court, and I would dearly love to know more of the songs of Rhye.  Do any of you play instruments?”  All the boys nodded; they had been tutored in all possible subjects. “Even more marvelous!  Perhaps we can all form a group to play.  We should compose songs!”  The other lords chuckled at Freddie’s outrageous words, and for the first time, Rami had a glimpse of hope that perhaps their new lords were not so bad.

They made quite idle and pointless conversation for about 30 more minutes, leaning basically only that yes, all the lords liked music, and Lord Freddie liked cats.  Lord Brian liked studying (Gwil reflected that they did have something in common after all).  Lord Roger and Ben both liked horses. Lord John was quiet.  

John looked up when Lady Catherine appeared in the doorway, politely catching her lord’s attention.  “Joseph is awake,” he said.  He quickly went to the bedroom, Gwil anxiously right behind him.  They emerged a few minutes later with Gwil carrying their youngest brother, who yawned, still sleepy.  Rami held out his arms, and Joe settled on his lap.

“Did you have a good nap, dear?” Freddie asked, pouring the child a cup of milk and fixing a plate of treats.

“Um….” Joe answered, accepting his milk happily.  All the men smiled, and Rami felt another bit of hope at the fact that they did seem truly kind.

After tea, they boys were left under the watchful eye of their governesses for a time.  Most of their belongings were being sent straight to Sir James’s estate, but their travel packs were brought up along with a few other items for the extended stay.  John showed them a desk that was filled with writing paper and envelopes, and tactfully left them alone to begin their letters.  Gwil took Joe, and Rami sat with Ben to assist as needed.

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Dear Mummy and Papa,

Gwil is writing my letter. He says he will write more at the end.  I am good.  We arrived today.  It is pretty.  I like having big brothers; they are fun. I rode on a real warhorse!

I am drawing some pictures for you.

Love,

Joseph

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My Lord and Lady Mazzello,

Joe is doing well.  He had a small fall on the journey, but has suffered no injuries from it.  The physicians and staff have been most attentive, and Rami and I are very content with their service.  Joe did indeed accompany Sir James on his horse for a short time during the journey, and I assure you all was well.  He was very excited at the treat, but says he far prefers his pony.

We arrived at Lord John’s estate earlier today, where we will stay to rest for several weeks.  We are told that tutors have already been hired and awaiting us at Sir James’s estate and that all details of Joe’s studies will be sent to you.  His governess, Lady Catherine, says that she will also write to you weekly.  I will start a longer letter tomorrow to update you on plans and more news. 

Sincerely, at your service,

Gwilym Lee

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Dear Mum and Poppa,

We have arrived safely at Lord John’s estate after a good journey.  We will stay here for a time, and then go on to the house of Sir James. Everything has gone well, and we are safe.  I promise that I am listening to Rami and Gwil, and helping Joe.  I will write more tomorrow.  Please give my love to my dog and the family.  I am drawing some pictures of the animals here.

Ben

*

My Lord and Lady Hardy,

I will help Ben start a longer letter to you tomorrow.  He has been very strong and brave, and fiercely protective of Joe.  I am pleased to call him my brother.

At your service,

Rami Malek

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Dear Mama and Papa,

I send you my love and best wishes.  We had a safe journey and are now at Lord John’s estate, resting before we continue on.  All of us are doing well, and we were assured today that our letters can be delivered within a week or less.  We are very pleased so far; well-treated and content.  If you write to Lord and Lady Mazzello, please tell them that I will send sketches of Lord John’s home and then sketches of Sir James’s estate in the future.

Joe had a small fall a few days, but thankfully no injury.  We are all being very careful with him.  Ben in particular is quite protective and clearly enjoys being a big brother.

I miss you, but please know all is well.  I will write again tomorrow and send you much more news in my next letter.  I will also include some drawings of things we have seen here.

My love always,

Rami

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Dear Mum and Dad,

We have arrived safely to Queen, and are staying for a time at Lord John’s estate to rest.  Young Joe is doing well, and we are all content.  We had a good journey and saw many new and interesting things.  There are animals here that I have not seen in person before, and I hope to study them.  Lord Brian has said that he too enjoys viewing wildlife, and perhaps we shall study some together.  I am sketching some of the animals that we have seen on the trip.  I will write more tomorrow and it should go in the next day’s post.

I am writing Joe’s letters as I promised, and I will add my own news to his parents in each letter.

My sincere love,

Gwilym

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After their letters were complete, a courier arrived who took the sealed packet and promised that he would leave at first light.  Satisfied that they had done all possible for the moment, the boys settled by the wide windows in the main room, looking over the courtyards of Lord John’s estate.   They talked idly for a time, remarking on the things they could see from the windows, and reminding each other of things to include in their letters the next day.  Gwil started making notes for them, and Ben proudly took the pen to add a few ideas to the list.  Nothing had been explicitly agreed, but all three older boys were determined to be nothing but positive in letters to their families, and Joe’s sunny disposition seemed proof that he would never be negative.

“Can you please help me draw a picture of Sir James’ horse tomorrow, Rami?” Joe asked.  The youngest was still thrilled at his treat of being allowed to ride the warhorse.  “Papa took me for a ride once on his horse, but that horse was smaller.”

“Of course,” Rami promised, exchanging smiles with Ben and Gwil.  “I’m sure your parents will want to hear more about it.  We should be sure to add that in your letter.”  Gwil nodded and made a note to his list.

After a few hours, the four Queen lords returned to join the boys for an early, light, dinner.  All the boys were drained after their emotional trip, and their new lords tactfully left after Ben nearly nodded off in his chair and Joe did fall asleep on Gwil’s lap.  None of the boys would admit it, but a real bed sounded lovely, and they were all tired.  The warlords said their goodnights quickly with smiles, leaving the boys to the care of their governesses.

One of their ladies had mentioned that water for bathing would be brought up after dinner, and after ten days of travel, none of the boys scowled at the prospect of bath time.  It actually sounded good, until the eldest of their ladies tried to stay in the dressing room after two large copper tubs were delivered and filled with warm water.  Rami and Gwil were well past the age where they had been supervised by a lady when bathing, and even Ben looked offended.  Only Joe seemed accepting of the notion, although he still clung to Gwil, obviously deferring to his new older brothers’ decisions.

“We will help him,” Rami promised.  “We can do this.”  The governess raised an eyebrow, but smiled in gracious understanding. 

“I will be outside if you need anything,” she agreed, tactfully leaving the four alone, and the older boys sighed in relief.  Gwil took Joe into one tub, holding him carefully, and Ben jumped in the other tub happily with Rami.

There was the usual giggling and splashed water expected from any four boys together, but in due course all presented themselves for inspection, and easily passed the check for clean faces, hair, hands, and feet.  Joe’s doctor arrived for his nightly exam, and added her approval of their readiness, smiling at how well Gwil had washed and dried Joe’s hair.  Clad in fresh nightgowns, they climbed into the huge bed and cuddled together happily.  Joe sighed and was asleep practically before his head even touched the pillow, but the other three quietly talked for a time, sharing their first impressions as the lamp burned down.

“They seem nice,” Gwil said of their new lords, thinking determinably.

“Of course, now,” Ben muttered.  He was sleepy as well, and was fighting it, wanting to stay up with the older boys.  He knew they were going to talk about important stuff, and wanted to be involved.

Rami lifted his head to glance at the closed door.  Their governesses were sharing the other bedroom and while normally the doors would be open so they could hear their charges, the three older boys had convinced them as they had the nights on the road that they could see to Joe if needed. It was the only time they felt they had privacy.

“Well, it’s still good,” Gwil argued quietly.  “Don’t we want them to be nice?  Especially to Joe?”

“Yes, of course,” Ben rolled his eyes.  “But are they really nice or is it a show to lure us in?”

“Lure us to what?” Gwil questioned skeptically.  “We are already bound to them; they can do whatever they want.”

Ben seemed to think on that for a serious minute.  “Lure us to anything!” he finally said.

Rami sighed, holding Joe close against him.  “I agree we have to be careful,” he said.  “Be nice, try to get along with them as much as we can. Watch for any signs and information.”

“And don’t forget the code if we are separated,” Ben grumbled.  He was losing his battle to stay awake, and getting a bit grumpy about it.

“Of course,” Gwil agreed.  He hugged Ben tightly.  “We are ready if it does happen, but something tells me they will honor that condition.”

Rami nodded.  “I think so as well,” he added.  “For right now, it’s important that we stick together, and write our parents every day, even if it’s just a short note.  Keep adding pictures so if anyone is checking our letters, they will think it’s normal.”

Ben yawned, settling down in the soft bed.  “’kay,” he said, more asleep by the moment.  Truthfully, the older boys were not far behind him.

“It will be alright,” Rami said determinedly.  Gwil met his gaze and nodded.  “We will take care of each other.”

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Soft whispering woke Rami the next morning, and he groaned, wanting to roll over back to sleep.  “Sami, shut up,” he mumbled, still more than half asleep.  He waved his left arm in the direction of the whispers, making a very vague shushing gesture. 

There was a giggle.  “Silly.  I’m not Sami,” said a young voice.  Rami opened his eyes quickly at the voice, remembering now where he was, and who he was with.

Joe was sitting beside him in the bed, smiling cheerfully.  He gave another giggle and flopped down on Rami for a morning hug, which the older boy happily gave.  After the hug, Rami sat up and saw Gwil and Ben sitting up on a window seat, looking outside and pointing at something they could see.  “What’s going on?” Rami yawned as he crawled out of the huge bed.

Ben turned around, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement.  “Warhorses,” he said.  “I’ve never seen so many.”  Rami scooped up Joe, and joined the other boys.  Sure enough, there were several dozen powerful horses entering in the courtyard below them, most on guide ropes from soldiers.  “Look, there’s Lord Roger,” Ben said, pointing to the blond lord, easily visible on his own horse as he called out orders and directions to the guards. They boys watched as the horses were led away by grooms and soldiers dispersed.  There were also strong packhorses and even mules being led about and people working in the morning sun.

A knock on the door signaled the arrival of their governesses and maids with basins of water for washing.  Rami and Gwil gathered the younger boys so they could quickly wash up their dressing room, and found clothes laid out for them.  On the road they had been able to wear comfortable play clothes, having to dress up only the day before for their arrival, and they were glad to see normal clothes were still on the order for the day.

“I hope we don’t have to dress up much,” Ben remarked as he scowled, trying to get a comb through his tangles.  “I hated those clothes.”  He had fidgeted the entire day before with the stiff collars of his formal shirt and tunic.

“I wouldn’t think we would have to,” Rami said, equally hopeful.  He tickled Joe’s foot, making the boy giggle before helping him pull on a soft boot.

Gwil sighed, struggling with his own hair.  At least his curls were short.  “That would be nice,” he agreed.  “I’ve had to go to so many formal banquets and visits this last year and hated those clothes too.  I guess everyone wanted to see us before we left.”

“They did,” Rami agreed.  “And we had to dress up for them.  It was pretty awful.”  They had all been put on show for Rhye; the four boys who were going as hostages to Queen.  Rami had hated every second of it.

“It was weird,” Ben said.  “People starred at me.”

“People cried,” Joe offered.  “They were always sad.”

Rami gave the youngest a quick hug.  “Well, we can be happy here, right?” he said, making his voice cheerful.  Joe nodded happily.

“Yes!” he said.  Ben tickled the back of Joe’s neck, making the youngest boy squeal with laughter, and he jumped off the bed to chase his brother.  Ben lightly darted around the bed, letting Joe peruse and then catch him quickly, sitting down so Joe could pretend to tackle his older brother.

They had noticed that Joe’s clothing was slightly padded in some areas such as his knees and elbows to add extra protection from falls or bumps, and they all thought it really quite clever.  “Like armor,” Ben had approved.  The doctor and their new governesses had explained a lot about Joe’s illness during their trip, and the three older boys were determined to show they could take care of him.  Ben had roughhoused with Rami in mock wrestling matches on the trip, but he was completely gentle with Joe.

“Come on, tough guy” Gwil chuckled, easily pulling Joe off of Ben.  “Time for breakfast.”

“Yes!  Save me, Gwil, save me!” Ben mock pleaded as Joe continued to tickle him. Once Gwil had Joe, Ben jumped up and hid behind Rami. “Can’t get me now!” he teased the youngest.  Joe just reached out his hands, wiggling them, and everyone giggled.

Fully dressed, they went out to eat breakfast with their governesses, chatting with them easily.  All four boys liked the two ladies, although Rami and Gwil personally felt they were getting a little old for a governess.  They carefully did not mention that to Ben, knowing he would likely argue that he was too old as well. Joe clearly liked them both, and the older boys were learning that Joe had a good sense about people.  If he liked them, they were good folk.  They still didn’t want or need them supervising their bathing, but otherwise, they were inclined to agree that they were nice ladies.

“Lord John and Lord Freddie said they will be up later if you would like to tour the estate,” Lady Elizabeth said.  She was in charge of the older pair of boys, and reminded them both of a friendly aunt.  Lady Catherine was assigned to Ben and Joe, and both younger boys seemed to have a bit of a crush on her.  Rami reminded himself firmly that he would not tease Ben about it.

“That would be nice,” Gwil said, and Rami nodded in agreement.  This was, after all, Joe’s future home after he married, and they wanted to become familiar with all the estates as quickly as possible.

“I promised Joe’s parents that I would send sketches of Lord John’s home,” Rami said.  “Could we maybe draw some today?”

Lady Catherine smiled.  “I’m sure they would appreciate that greatly,” she agreed.  “I will make sure to have some sketching paper with us.”

“I want to draw a picture of a horse,” Joe offered.

“A warhorse,” Ben added.  Both the ladies nodded.

“Well, that should not be difficult,” Lady Elizabeth nodded.  “Lord Roger is best known for his stables, but all the lords have a number of horses. I’m sure we can find Sir James’s horse or any other one that you like.”

“Do you think we can go swimming soon?” Ben asked.  It was promising to be a warm day, and he was eager to show off his water skills.

Both their ladies smiled. “I don’t see why not,” Lady Elizabeth agreed. “I shall check with your lords today.”

“Can you swim?” Joe asked as Lady Catherine cut up another piece of toast for him.

“Indeed,” the lady assured him with a smile.

Joe nodded.  “My brothers are going to teach me,” he confided, and both ladies smiled approval. 

John and Freddie did arrive to take them on a tour of the immediate estate after breakfast, and the boys welcomed the chance to walk around. Their governesses followed at a polite distance, and it was really a rather enjoyable afternoon as they explored the grounds.  True to the doctor’s word, there were several huge bathhouses with pools of various depths and all the boys were impressed.

“It’s warm!” Joe exclaimed happily, dipping one hand into a shallow pool while Rami firmly held his other hand so there was no chance of the child slipping.

“It is,” Lord John agreed with his usual kind expression.  “Engineers since ancient times have known how to mix waters from hot springs and cold streams to make these baths.”

“I’ve heard of hot springs, but never seen one before,” Gwil admitted.

Lord Freddie grinned.  “They are very common here,” he said.  “Do you know how to swim?”

“Joe doesn’t,” Ben pipped up protectively.  “We will teach him.”

John nodded his approval.  “You are free to swim anytime so long as an adult is with you,” he said.  “One of my guards – Annett – is an amazing swimmer.  She has taught almost everyone here and would be glad to assist.”  Ben didn’t look very happy at the suggestion that he couldn’t teach Joe himself, but Rami and Gwil both agreed, and promised Joe that he could have his first lesson the next day.

They went down to the stables where Ben was clearly impressed at the horses.  All the boys were glad to see their ponies comfortably settled in generous stalls, and happily fed them apples that a groom brought over.  They recognized Sir James’ horse nearby, and Joe greeted the horse as an old friend, fearlessly offering it an apple. 

They returned to their rooms in mid-afternoon so Joe could have his nap, and even Ben reluctantly laid down for a bit after he nearly feel asleep on his feet.  Lady Catherine just smiled and assured the older boys that she would stay with the younger pair and keep the door to the main room open.  Satisfied that their brothers were settled, Rami and Gwil reluctantly but determinedly joined all four lords for tea.

“Did you rest well?” Lord Brian asked.  “I for one am always happy to see a real bed after weeks or months on the road.”

“Yes, thank you,” Gwil said.  Indeed, all four had slept soundly and Gwil doubted they had even moved an inch.  He would have never thought that travelling in a carriage would be tiring. 

Lord Freddie seemed to read his mind, and chuckled softly.  “By horse or even carriage, it is exhausting being on the road,” he declared.  “And then there is nothing better than being at the end of your journey and home.”  He smiled kindly at the boys.  “I know this not your home yet, but we all do hope you will one day come to see Queen as your home.  You will have many homes here.”

“Many homes?” Rami looked at them curiously.

“All our homes are….our homes,” Lord Roger explained with a smile.  “I know it is confusing, but in time we hope you will be comfortable.”

“You are brothers,” Rami noted carefully.  It was a common saying in both Rhye and Queen concerning the four lords.

Roger shrugged.  “Perhaps not by blood, but by will,” he agreed.  “A family.  One that we are truly pleased to welcome you into.”

Rami and Gwil exchanged glances.  “We are pleased to be here,” Rami said, and he delivered it in the same tone that he had his speech the day before.

“Bullocks.”

Both boys blinked, not sure who had spoken.

“Freddie,” Lord Brian hissed.

“No,” Freddie said firmly, ignoring the other lords.  He looked at Rami and Gwil sadly.  “We are sorry you had to leave your families,” he said, and he did seem truly sincere.  “It was not….in our hands to decide.  But we want to promise you – and your families – that we will honor all our promises and word.”

“We know you have no true reason to trust us, other than words on paper,” Roger said gently, obviously agreeing with Freddie that it was time to offer some promises beyond the treaty.  “But we swear to you and your bothers, we mean you no harm, and we will always treat you with respect and love, and honor all of you.  We are family – that is just not idle words.”

“We greatly admire you,” Lord Brian added softly, making Rami and Gwil both blink at his words.  “You are enduring much more than we ever did at your age; you are a credit to your families, and you do them much honor.  We are…humbled…by your strength.”

Well, this was certainly not something that Rami had ever been trained for, and judging by the look on Gwil’s face, his new brother felt the same. Rami cleared his throat, trying to think of something – anything – to say, but was saved by Lord John suddenly standing up.

“Benjamin and Joseph are awake,” he said simply.  He went to the bedroom and emerged a minute later holding Joe’s left hand in his.  Rami and Gwil raised eyebrows in surprise, but relaxed upon seeing that Ben firmly had Joe’s other hand.  True, the blond bother looked still rather sleepy, and perhaps not quite yet fully aware of things, but they had no doubt that even a sleepy Ben could protect Joe from anything.  And Joe seemed completely relaxed and at ease with holding the lord’s hand.  He happily climbed into Gwil’s lap, and Ben took the chair between Rami and Gwil.

“Did you sleep well?” Lord John asked as he poured both the younger boys’ glasses of milk.

“I didn’t nap,” Ben grumbled, seemingly a bit embarrassed.

“Of course not,” Lord Roger said firmly, pushing a plate of cakes toward the boys.  “What horses did you like best?” he asked brightly, deftly changing the subject.

After tea, all four boys sat down to write letters.  Rami and Gwil wrote about their day, and sent assurance to all four sets of parents that their first full day with the lords had gone well.  Joe proudly drew a warhorse, and spoke hopefully about learning how to swim.  Ben focused on the horses and swimming.

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Dear Mum and Poppa, 

We’ve had a very good day.  I have seen many warhorses, and they are all really nice.  We also saw the bathhouses today, and tomorrow we will start to teach Joe how to swim. I promise that I will take care of him.  It is nice to have a younger brother, and I will watch over him.

We had a good walk today, and saw lots of pretty things.   Rami and Gwil both promise they will help me send some more drawings in my next letter.  Also, Lady Catherine has offered to make sketches of Lord John’s estate and send them to you.

I promise that I am studying.  Rami and Gwil (and Lady Catherine) make certain that I practice reading and writing every day.  We are told that tutors are waiting for us at Sir James’s home.  I will study very hard.

  I miss you very much, but want to tell you that I am alright.  Rami, Gwil, Joe and I are doing well.

  Please give my love to all the family.

  Ben

 

Chapter Text

During the night, soft crying and movement woke Rami.  As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw Joe curled up on top of Gwil, the youngest boy clearly miserable.  “He had a bad dream,” Gwil whispered.  Joe had had a few nightmares during their trip, but this one was obviously bad.

“I want mummy,” Joe sobbed.

Rami felt his heart ache and he got out of bed to turn up the lamp a bit to give more light.  Joe just turned his head back into Gwil’s shoulder and sobbed louder, waking Ben.  Even their blond brother was unable to comfort Joe, who kept crying.  He was not in the mood to accept hugs from any of his brothers, and kept calling for his mother.  Ben was soon looking almost as upset as Joe, clearly at a loss what to do.

Rami swallowed his pride, and went to their governess’s bedroom.  Nervously, he twisted his hands and knocked on the doorframe.  “Lady Elizabeth?  Lady Catherine?”

“My lord?” The ladies woke immediately and Joe’s sobs were now loud and clear.  Both women quickly pulled on dressing gowns and followed Rami back to the boy’s bedroom.

Lady Catherine took charge of Joe, gathering him in her arms and sending for a mug of warmed milk.  It took a while, but Joe eventually calmed down and let himself be held by his governess who softly sang to him.  The older boys felt guilty that they hadn’t been able to help, and Lady Elizabeth fixed all of them milk.

“You have done well with him,” she told the boys firmly.  “It is natural that he misses his mother.  He is very lucky to have you three as his brothers.”  Ben still looked miserable, sniffling a little himself, perhaps thinking of his own mother, and Lady Elizabeth gave him a warm hug and sat with him for a time.  After Joe finally fell back asleep, the ladies tucked the boys into bed, leaving a lamp on for them, and Rami reflected that maybe he did still need a governess after all.

The next morning, Joe seemed to have no memory of his nightmares, and the other boys were glad.  Lady Elizabeth explained that some children had night terrors, and the best thing was to not bring them up unless Joe asked.  To their surprise, all four lords came to the boys’ room after breakfast. 

“I hear that swimming is on the agenda for this afternoon,” Brian said with a smile.  “But first, we have a surprise for each of you.”

“Presents,” Roger whispered loudly to Joe and Ben, both of whom perked up at the word.  Rami and Gwil were glad for the distraction and seeing smiles on their brothers’ faces.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Freddie said cheerfully.  “Come now, we need to go outside.”

They followed the lords down to a small courtyard near the stables, and Lord John excused himself to go into a barn.  “Joseph first, alright?” Brian asked, and other boys nodded agreeably.

John emerged from the barn after a moment and at his side was a gigantic wolfhound.  The dog made all the boys speak up in excitement and Joe practically squealed as the dog trotted over to them.  “Joseph, this is your dog, Hadar,” John introduced them. 

Joe was clearly thrilled.  “Really?” he gasped.  “For me?” He giggled in delight as the dog sat in front of him and began licking his hands as Joe reached out to pet his thick fur.

“Indeed, he has been trained just for you,” John promised.  He looked at Rami and Gwil, both of whom had raised eyebrows.  Even sitting, the dog was nearly as tall as Joe.  “He is very gentle, I promise,” John assured the older boys.  “I have trained him to help you protect Joseph, and keep him company if you are ever away.”

“I have to stay in bed when I get sick,” Joe said, his eyes shining at his new dog.  “Can he stay with me?”

“Of course,” John promised.   “He is to be with you as much as your brothers.”

“Can he do any tricks?” Ben asked hopefully. 

John chuckled.  “Hadar, are you ready to show off?” he asked the dog, and the wolfhound seemed to understand.  For the next few minutes, Hadar showed the boys the impressive number of commands he knew, and Rami and Gwil were surprised at how calm and protective the dog was around Joe.  Hadar playfully jumped up on Ben a few times, but always stayed relaxed and careful with Joe.

“He has a special harness,” John showed the boys.  “There are small packs that attach to his harness, like saddle bags, so he can carry things for you.”

“That is very clever,” Gwil approved. 

“Yeah, you could hide stuff in the bags,” Ben said eagerly.  “A secret hiding place.”

Joe laughed.  “I can almost ride him,” he said, leaning confidently against the wolfhound, already thoroughly in love.  Hadar licked his face carefully, and Rami thought that the dog really was going to be good for his youngest brother.

“Ah, and speaking of riding,” Roger said with a grin, rubbing his hands together.  Freddie and Brian were smiling as well and Rami looked at them, curious.  “Time for your presents now, I think.’

“Yes, please!” Ben said politely, but eagerly.  The men chuckled, and they continued onto a corral, Hadar staying protectively beside Joe. 

All the boys were excited to see three warhorses in the corral, and thought perhaps they were going to get another ride.  A groom brought over the horses and Roger put a set of reins into each of Rami, Gwil, and Ben’s hands.  “For you,” he said proudly.  “Your own horses.”

All three boys starred in near shock.  “Really?” Ben demanded, his voice high-pitched in excitement.  “Warhorses?”

Freddie nodded.  “James spoke well of your riding ability.  I think it is time you can begin learning on a grown horse.”

“But….a warhorse?” Gwil said.  His eyes were wide in surprise. He and Rami were old enough that being given grown horses was not a huge surprise, but they never would have expected mature warhorses.  They were a special breed apart from a typical horse, far larger and sturdy for battle.  They still could not quite believe that they would be gifted such animals.

Ben, though, was beyond excited.  “Thank you!” he cheered.  Immediately, he was pestering Roger and the groom with questions about his new horse, asking his name, how old he was, and had he seen real battle.

“Tor is perfect for Ben to learn with,” Brian assured Rami and Gwil, seeing their rather alarmed expressions.  “He is mature and very calm.” Indeed, the retired warhorse simply regarded Ben with a relaxed air as the young boy babbled in excitement.  “He has seen just about everything, and even Ben won’t disturb him.  He doesn’t go very fast anymore due to his age, but don’t tell Ben that,” he added with a wink.  

Rami and Gwil could not help but smile a little.  Now that they had a good look at their own horses, they could see that they were indeed older and past the age when they would be actively used for battle.  They were, however, just the right age for riding instruction; experienced, mature, horses were valuable for training.  And Tor, Ben’s new horse, was smaller than the other two, more of a size to match Ben.  He was still powerful and far larger than Ben’s pony, but they had no doubt that the horses had been selected with care.

“Your parents know about the horses, and about Hadar,” Freddie said quietly to the older boys, smiling at the surprised looks.  “We asked if we could give them as our betrothal presents to you.  All your parents were very gracious about it.” 

Rami had been a bit torn about the elaborate gifts.  Refusing or being ungrateful would of course be rude, but at the same time he didn’t want the lords to think that any of them could be bribed.  It felt odd.  But hearing that their parents had given permission made him feel a little better.

“Thank you,” he said honestly.  “This is really very special.”

“Yes, thank you, Sirs,” Gwil agreed.  “It is very kind of you.”

“You are welcome,” Brian smiled.  “They are well deserved gifts.”

Freddie looked at Rami, his expression kind and understanding.  “Your horse is named Garlan, and he has a brother, Gerlen,” he said.  “Gerlen is on his way to Sami.”

Rami had to bite his lip, looking up at the lord.  “Truly?” he asked.  Freddie nodded.

“I know you share all possible with your twin.  I will continue this in all ways I can.”

Gwil grinned at Rami in support, and the eldest boy took a deep breath.  “Thank you,” he said again sincerely.  It was good to know that he and his twin still shared what they could.

Freddie laid a hand lightly on Rami’s shoulder.  “You are very welcome,” he said.  Rami nodded his thanks, not sure what else to say.  He was separated from his twin, but the man responsible for that was clearly trying to make some amends, offering some gift.  It certainly wasn’t a replacement for anything, but Rami knew there much to be thankful for.

Brian cleared his throat.  “Well now, who is ready for their first lesson?” he asked cheerfully. 

“I am!” Ben cheered, and Rami and Gwil grinned, just as excited now as their younger brother.

“Excellent!” Lord Roger came forward and clucked at the horses to line up. “We start with some of the basic commands.  You must always communicate with your horse; you are a team,” he began.  Meanwhile, servants brought out several benches and placed them a short distance away so Joe, Lord John, and the ladies could sit and watch.  Hadar curled up at Joe’s feet and the youngest boy waved excitedly at his brothers.

“You need to wait a few more years before you get a warhorse,” Lord John chucked when Joe gave him a slightly questioning look.  

“Alright,” Joe agreed happily. In truth, he was content to just watch his brothers at their riding lessons, and more than satisfied with his beloved old pony and a new dog.  He felt it was only fair for the other boys to get horses when he had been given a dog, which he personally thought much more of.

After a quick review of some of the commands that the horses knew, each of the boys was lifted up onto their new horse and allowed to walk them around the corral.  Roger and Freddie checked the saddles, making some minor adjustments to fit their legs and nodded approval at how well the boys did.  “Good, Gwilym,” Roger praised as Gwil guided his horse, Palo, confidentially.  Rami also earned praise for his skill, and Ben was clearly taking everything very seriously and paying attention.  “You are doing very well,” Roger assured Ben.  “Let Tor have his head, and just get used to his gait.  Keep your feet straight.”  Ben nodded, and bit his lip in concentration, letting the old horse do what he wanted.  Rami and Gwil noted that Tor was indeed calm and steady, and it was clear that he would carry Ben safely.

After an hour, the boys assisted in cleaning the tack for their new horses, learning about the gear that a warhorse could carry.  Each of them carefully helped to groom the stallions and fed them treats, cementing their friendships with the horses.  Rami had to giggle as Garlan sniffed his hands and hair, seeming to search for another sugar cube.  “Stop it,” he laughed, not at all cross.  Gwil and Ben were also being searched for hidden candy, and it was Joe who came up with sugar cubes for each of the horses.  Rami had noticed how Joe had no fear of the horses, and in turn, the large creatures were very gentle around the boy.

“I like animals,” Joe explained confidently to Lord John.  “And they like me.”  The lord nodded gravely.

“That is good,” he agreed.

Lunch was fairly pleasant and relaxed, Hadar entertaining them with more tricks.  Ben was clearly happy for Joe and his new pet, but also seemed a little sad, and Rami remembered that Ben had spoken of his own dog, who had been left at home.  He saw John look at Roger, and the blond lord spoke up cheerfully.

“Benjamin, I am sorry that there was a mix-up.  Your dog was supposed to travel with you, but my request did not arrive in time before you left.  I received word from a courier last night that he is on his way with the rest of your belongings.”  Ben looked up sharply from where he had been petting the wolfhound.

“Truly?” he demanded. 

Roger nodded.  “I am sorry I was not clearer earlier.  I meant for him to travel with you here.  I did not mean for you to be separated.”

Joe grinned at the news of another dog.  “He and Hadar can be friends,” he offered.

“Indeed,” Roger agreed.  He smiled at Ben.  “He should arrive within a week.  I look forward to meeting him.”

Ben bit his lip a little, clearly happy. “Thank you,” he said quietly.  Rami and Gwil knew it took a lot for Ben to acknowledge any thanks or appreciation to the lords, and they were proud of their brother.

After lunch, the lords excused themselves, and the boys changed into simple, light, clothes for swimming.  They were met at the pool by Annett, one of the guards who was in charge of their swimming lessons.  She took Joe into the shallow pool and began to teach him the first lesson of simply learning to float while the other boys jumped in and out of a deeper pool.  It was a warm day, and all were glad to splash in the water and cool off.  After an hour, Joe was able to float steadily, trusting Annett to pull him around the pool.  Gwil took him into a deeper pool for a bit, careful to keep his head above the water.

 “It doesn’t matter if the water is a meter deep, or ten meters,” Gwil explained.  “You just have to keep your head up and float.”  Joe nodded seriously, trying to do his best.

Hadar had not seemed terribly impressed at his new young master entering the water, and had taken up position at the edge of any pool Joe entered, his eyes and ears on alert.  Rami approved of the extra protection for his new youngest brother, and made a note to include sketches of the dog in Joe’s letters.

*************************************************************

*************************************************************

Dear Mummy and Papa,

I have a dog!  His name is Hadar and he is a wolfhound.  Lord John said that you said it was alright to give him to me as a present.  I love him very much.  He is so big!  Rami is helping me write my letter, and he will also draw a picture of Hadar for you in this letter.

I also went swimming today.  I like it.  I promise that I was careful - Rami, Gwil, and Ben made sure I was safe.

Love,

Joseph

*********************************************************************

*********************************************************************

Joe looked at Rami with wise eyes as the older boy sealed the envelope.  “I drew a dog by my name,” he whispered after making sure they were still alone at the small desk in the bedroom.  “I know my parents won’t understand, but I still like it.  And everything is really alright.”

Rami smiled, giving Joe a hug.  “It is alright, isn’t it?” he said cheerfully.

Joe nodded.  “I miss mummy and papa,” he said sadly.  “But I know we had to come here.  And I like having brothers.”

Rami nodded as he helped Joe straighten the drawing paper and put away the pencils.  Ben was having a reading lesson with Gwil in the main room while their governesses sewed and supervised.  “I love having all you as well,” he said truthfully.  No one could replace Sami, but the older twin was glad for his new brothers.  He didn’t want to think how bad it could have been if they were all separated.  “Come now,” he said, seeing a wide yawn.  “I think someone is ready for a nap.”

“I’m not tired,” Joe grumbled, but he didn’t object as Rami picked him up and gently play-tossed him on the large bed.

“Of course not,” Rami agreed.

“I’m not,” Joe repeated, a tad crossly.

“I heard you.”

“Am not.”

“Um-hum.”  Rami tucked the stuffed bear into Joe’s arms and pulled up a blanket around him.  Joe’s eyes were already closed.  “Have a good nap,”
Rami said softly, dropping a light kiss on the curly hair.

A tapping noise made him look over toward the windows.  Hadar had, as promised, stayed with Joe all day and had curled up on a soft blanket in the afternoon sunshine while Rami and Joe wrote their letters.  Now, the wolfhound came over, his nails clicking on the stone floor, and looked at the bed with what Rami thought was a hopeful expression.  The oldest boy had to grin.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” he whispered, patting the space beside Joe.  Hadar quickly climbed on the bed, the tall dog not even needing to jump, and settled himself beside his master.  Rami had to stifle his laughter at how the hound nearly filled up the large bed just by himself.  He gave the dog a pat and went back out to the main room, keeping the door open so they could all hear Joe when he awoke. 

Gwil was proud of how well his lesson for Ben had worked, and Ben was proud of how well he had read a new book.  Both were quite satisfied with themselves and Rami was quickly drawn into a card game while they waited for tea to be brought up. 

*****************************************************************

*****************************************************************

The next week passed easily.  Letters from home began to arrive, which made the boys happy and relieved that their correspondence was truly not restricted.  They were kept busy with lessons and studying in the morning and then swimming and riding in the afternoon.  Ben’s dog Frankie arrived, and did become immediate friends with Hadar.  While the older three boys had lessons with their warhorses, Joe would either ride his pony or sit with their governesses and the dogs, practicing his reading and writing. 

All were grateful for the time, as it gave them a chance to rest after their journey and begin to adjust.  Sir James left after a week, saying he would make sure their rooms were prepared and to supervise unpacking their baggage.  Each child had been allowed to bring whatever they wanted, being assured that there was plenty of space in their new home for whatever would make them comfortable.

“Books,” Gwil admitted one morning at breakfast.  “I packed a lot of books.”  He and Rami would be sharing a bedroom, while Ben and Joe shared another.  According to the sketches they had been shown of Sir James’s home, the bedrooms for the boys were separated by a large room for play and studies.  Each bedroom also had its own dressing and bathing room, and small adjacent bedroom for their governess.

“I brought a lot of books too,” Rami agreed happily.  “And art supplies.”

“My practice weapons,” Ben said proudly.  Rami raised an eyebrow at the words.

“Keep them away from Joe,” he advised, pouring Joe more milk as he spoke.

Ben nodded.  “I know,” he said firmly.  “Poppa gave me a locked chest for them, until I know where I can keep them.”

“Preferably outside, or at a training field,” Gwil said firmly. 

There was an agreeable smile.  “I understand,” Ben promised. 

Letters from home were delivered for the boys to read over breakfast, Rami and Gwil reading Joe’s and helping Ben as needed.  Many of their family members were writing, and there was always all sorts of news to share. 

They had been at Lord John’s for six days when a specially marked letter arrived for Gwil and he frowned a little as he opened it.  A few moments later he gasped, and Rami looked at him sharply.

“What is it?”

“N-nothing,” Gwil said.  Ben and Joe had retreated from the breakfast table to play a game and both looked up at him. Gwil gave them a small wave.  “We’ll be right back,” he promised, gestured for Rami to following him out onto the large balcony off the room, clutching the letter.  Once he and Rami were outside, Gwil took a deep breath.   “My mother wrote that the coughing sickness swept through Joe’s house just days after we left.  Everyone fell ill.” 

Rami felt his heart lurch.  The coughing sickness was a dreaded illness, highly infectious.  It had the power to close off entire villages until the sickness had gone away.  The only blessing was that it passed quickly.

Gwil hurriedly read the next paragraphs.  “By some miracle, only two died – an elderly uncle and a distant cousin of Joe’s - but it was very close for many.”  Gwil looked up at Rami.  “If Joe had been there and caught it, he likely would have…” he trailed off, not able to say the words, but Rami nodded in understanding.  Both of them had tried to learn more of Joe’s ailment in the past weeks, and knew how delicate his health was. Even the healthiest who survived the coughing sickness often bled from their lungs during the illness.  Both of them knew that would likely be fatal for Joe.

“Then it is good that he is with us,” Rami finally said, after a moment of quiet respect for those lost.  “We will write to our parents this evening, and ask for more details.  

Both were still too worried to break the news to Joe or Ben, so they stayed silent until afternoon tea, the established time when they would gather with their new lords in the main room of their temporary lodgings.  John got Joe and Ben started on a new game, and once the younger boys were distracted, he rejoined the men and two oldest boys.

“We received word last night about a sickness at Joseph’s home,” Brian said carefully, his voice quiet so as to not attract Ben and Joe’s attention.  “Gwilym, I am told that you received a letter this morning from your family.  Did it have any news?”

Gwil reluctantly nodded.  “Yes, my lord.  My mother wrote me of the two deaths.  We have not said anything yet to Ben or Joe.”

The men winced, but nodded, exchanging concerned looks.  “I am very sorry,” Roger said.  “Last night was the first we heard of it.  We would have spoken to you older boys this morning, but decided to wait to see if the letter for Gwilym held any news.  We thought it might be better to hear the news from your family, but we also did not want to wait long to tell you.”

“Would you like us to be with you when you tell Joe?” John asked, his grey eyes thoughtful as always.

Rami paused, torn on what to answer.  He had certainly never had to tell anyone before that a family member was dead, and he had no idea how Joe would react.  He himself had cried just a few months earlier when one of his older distant cousins died, and he had barely known her. He had no idea just how close Joe had been with his deceased uncle and cousin, but he knew Joe’s family was not large, and he had at least known them.  He looked at Gwil for advice.

“Yes, please,” Gwil decided for them.  “I don’t know what to say.” 

Freddie nodded kindly.  “It is your duty to tell him, but we will be there with you,” he promised.

Joe took the news well, having only the vaguest memories of his uncle and cousin.  He seemed more confused than sad.  “They went away?” he asked timidly.  “I went away from mummy and papa.  Are they dead?”

“No!” everyone all said at the same time.  Joe looked rather bewildered at the seven different voices. 

 “No, Joe,” Gwil said, taking a breath.  “Your uncle and cousin went to a….completely different place.  Your mummy and papa are still here on Earth.  They are as alive as we are.”

 “But I can’t see them again, like my uncle and cousin,” Joe pointed out, being only reasonable in his five-year-old mind. 

There was a somewhat strangled sound, and to Rami and Gwil’s surprise, it was John who came forward to kneel in front of the child.  “Joseph,” he said gently. “Your parents are still alive and well in Rhye at your old home.  And perhaps one day you can see them again.”

Three pairs of eyes shot to the men as Rami, Gwil, and Ben took in the words.  They might be allowed to see their parents again?  Their gazes were met with firm nods. 

 “If it is within out power,” Freddie promised all of them.  The older boys were silent, absorbing this news.

“Now, I see that you made some very beautiful drawings,” John continued, keeping Joe distracted.  “Would you like to send some to your family?  I am certain your aunt would love to have your pictures.  And perhaps Gwil can help you write a note to her and to your cousin’s parents.  It would make them all feel so much better and not so sad.”

“I remember my aunt likes flowers,” Joe said enthusiastically.  “I can draw her some pictures!”

John nodded.  “That would be wonderful.  We can send them a package whenever you are ready.”  Joe began talking excitedly about what pictures he could draw, and Gwil joined him to help select paper and colors along with writing paper for their notes.

Rami and Ben faced the other Lords.  “We might be able to see our families again?” Ben demanded.  Rami had to reflect that perhaps more of his letters home should say that Ben was helping him.  Ben certainly had no fear, and would stand up for his family in any circumstance.

“Yes,” Freddie promised.  “We cannot say when, but yes, we want it to happen.  We have no desire to keep you away from them forever.  This was…beyond our control.”

“There are many things that are beyond our control,” Brian said quietly, and the sad look on his face made Rami wonder what that could possibly be.  They were the conquering warlords of Queen.  What was beyond their wishes?

*****

*****

Rami and Gwil wrote to Joe’s parents every other day, giving them updates on their son and his lessons and adventures.  They filled his letters home with cheery news and his pictures, wanting to do all they could to ease the pain of their only child being taken from them.  Hearing about the deaths in Joe’s family just made them more determined to offer what cheer and reassurances they could. 

Unfortunately, it was soon brought home just how serious Joe’s condition could be.

They were at the bath house, playing, twelve days after they had arrived in Queen.  They would soon leave for Sir James’ home and were speculating about how mean or nice their tutors would be, giggling and sharing stories of past tutors.  Joe stood up on a small step and slipped, scraping his right knee.  It would have been a minor injury for the other boys, but Joe knew immediately what it meant for him.

“Oh oh,” he said softly.

Rami looked down, confused, as he saw Joe’s knee begin to bleed as if it had been slashed with a knife.  It took him a second to realize what had happened and he grabbed Joe protectively, pulling him out of the water.

Annett was beside them in an instant, getting a towel to press against Joe’s knee.  “It is alright, my lord,” she said hastily.  She took Joe from Rami, and for once he didn’t hesitate to hand Joe over, knowing that Annett could run faster than he could.  A moment to tie the towel around Joe’s leg, and she took off for the main house, yelling for doctors to be summoned.   Hadar and Frankie ran beside her, barking frantically.

Elizabeth and Catherine were grabbing shoes, stopping the boys only long enough to make them pull them on.  “Where are they taking him?” Gwil demanded as they all ran. 

“To the young lords’ bedroom,” a guard answered, and they raced into the mansion.

Joe was on the bed, already surrounded by a group of doctors and nurses.  Everyone was tense, but acting quickly, and the boys had to shove their way past the adults.

“Joe!” Ben yelled.  He tried to throw himself on the bed and was stopped by a nurse. 

“Carefully, my lord,” she said.  “He cannot be jostled.”  For once, Ben stopped himself and nodded sharply in understanding.  He, Rami, and Gwil pushed their way to the head of the bed and stood huddled, still dripping wet until Lady Catherine bundled them all in towels.

“We are staying with him,” Rami said firmly.  Indeed, Ben took hold of Joe’s hand and flatly refused to let go.  It seemed to be keeping the child calm, so no one argued.

Joe was obviously used to being treated for an injury, but still, he was shaken and nervous at the first time with these new doctors.  While the doctors pressed towels and bandages to his knee, Ben climbed up to sit at the head of the bed, and the youngest looked at him with wide eyes.

“I want my mummy,” Joe whispered.  Ben practically snarled at the adults, clearly furious about his new baby brother being scared.

“We’re here, Joe,” Rami said quickly, Gwil nodding in agreement.  “We won’t leave you.”  Gwil also gave Ben a very stern look that had the younger brother calm down a bit for Joe’s sake and he stopped growling at the people trying to help Joe.

A few minutes later Lord John arrived with Freddie right behind him.  The lord went to the other side of the bed and without hesitation, Joe took his hand.  “It’s alright,” John said softly, his free hand starting to stroke Joe’s hair.  “The doctors know what to do.  Does it hurt?”

Joe shook his head a little shakily.  “Not much,” he whispered bravely.  He winced visibly, though, when a fresh wrap was held firmly to his knee.  Rami understood that pressure was needed to help control the bleeding, but he knew that it also had to hurt.

“Here, young master,” a doctor said kindly, coming forward with a cup.  “This will help.”  John put an arm around Joe’s shoulder to lift him up so he could obediently drink the medicine.  “One more,” the doctor said, giving John another small cup, and Joe drank it as well.  John laid Joe back down, and kept running his hands through Joe’s short curls, talking quietly, asking questions about his day and keeping Joe distracted.

Rami, Gwil, and Ben could only watch anxiously as Joe’s injured leg was elevated on pillows, salve applied every time the bandages became soaked with blood and had to be replaced.  To their relief, Joe relaxed after a few minutes, the medicine obviously starting to take effect, and he blinked his eyes a little sleepily, not in so much pain and becoming calmer.  After a seemingly endless time, the bleeding finally began to slow and Joe soon fell asleep.  Tight bandages were wrapped around the knee, the doctors murmuring amongst themselves and to John.  Rami and Gwil kept their focus on Joe until Freddie came forward and placed a gentle hand on each of their shoulders. 

“Come,” he said kindly.  “Benjamin will stay with Joseph.  Let us talk to the doctors away from Joe, shall we?  We don’t want to disturb him further.”  Reluctantly, the two oldest boys went to the main room, followed by the head doctor and John.  The door was kept open, and they stood so they could see both Joe and Ben.

“How is he?” Rami asked, biting his lip nervously.  Gwil was looking a little pale, shaken by what they had seen.

“The bleeding has stopped,” the doctor assured them.  “I know it looked horrible, but he is strong.  He will need to stay in bed and rest so the cut will not reopen, and he may be a little weak from the blood loss for a day or two.  His knee will likely swell from the internal bleeding, and there may be some pain.  We will keep him as comfortable as possible.”

“It was just a scrape,” Gwil said, still surprised.

The doctor nodded.  “It is a serious condition, but we know what to do when he has a bleed.  You helped a great deal by keeping him calm and that is very important.”

Lord John looked a little shaken himself, but managed a small smile for the boys.  “Why don’t you two go dry and change, and then you can stay with Joseph while Ben gets dry; you don’t want to get a chill.  Joseph may sleep the rest of the day.”

“We need to write his parents,” Rami said firmly.  “We promised we would always write when he has a bleed.”

John nodded.  “I will write also, as will the doctor.”  The lady nodded her agreement.  “We will send the letters at first light tomorrow with a special fast courier.”  He looked at the boys, and his grey eyes were calm and perhaps a little tired.  “I promise all will be well.”

Reluctantly, Rami and Gwil quickly changed into dry clothes and then managed to convince Ben to let go of Joe’s hand long enough to dry off and change.  As soon as he could, though, Ben was back beside a sleeping Joe, lying across the head of the bed, and the older boys saw nothing wrong with that.  Hadar and Frankie also stayed with Joe and Ben, taking up positions by the bed and guarding their young masters.  Lady Catherine, a nurse, and a doctor remained in the bedroom while Rami and Gwil sat down to compose a letter.

**********

Lord and Lady Mazzello,

Joe is alright.  He scraped his knee today but the doctors stopped the bleeding very quickly.  He is sleeping right now and everyone says that he will be fine.  It was not a bad bleed.  Joe was very calm and brave.

We are very sorry that we could not stop him from falling and hurting himself.  Please accept our apologies.  We will be more careful with him, as will Ben.  We will write you every day and help Joe write to you tomorrow.

The doctor and Lord John are both writing you as well.

Yours,

Rami Malek & Gwilym Lee

 

**********

The four lords joined Rami and Gwil for dinner, and both boys just picked at their food, nervously listening for any sound from the bedroom.  Ben had refused to leave Joe, so a small tray had been sent to the bedroom for him.  Joe was still asleep, and the doctors kept reassuring the boys that that was normal and to be expected.

“It is alright,” Freddie said softly.  “The doctors assure us that Joseph will be fine.”

“We promised we would take care of him,” Gwil said, biting his lip in guilt.

“It was an accident,” Brian said reasonably.  “It was not your fault.  Joseph’s condition is such that things like this will happen no matter how careful he is.  No one can stop him from simply walking and enjoying things.  The important thing is to know what to do.”

“No one blames you at all,” Roger added.  “You should not feel guilty about it.”

Rami sighed.  “Ben feels bad,” he admitted.  He had managed to get a few words out of his blond bother helping him to dry off and get changed while Gwil stayed with Joe.  “Joe wanted his mum.”

All the men winced a little, and Rami felt a stab of vindictive satisfaction.  They should feel guilty, he thought angrily.  They had taken Joe away from his parents when he was just a baby.

“I am sorry.”  It was John, his face sad and quiet.  “I know this makes no sense to you, but….” He shook his head after a moment, thinking as if not sure what to say.  “This is difficult for all of us, but of course especially for you. 

‘I don’t see how it’s difficult for you,’ Rami thought, but he managed to hold his tongue.  Judging by the look on Gwil’s face, he was having similar thoughts. 

“We should go back to Ben and Joe,” Gwil said icily, clearly done with his meal, and not even the warlords seemed inclined to disagree.  They said their farewells for the evening and left the boys.

A cot was set up in the main room for the older boys, but Ben was allowed to sleep with Joe, being small enough himself that he took up little space and could sleep at the head of the bed, away from Joe’s knee so he would not accidentally jostle it. Hadar and Frankie stayed at their posts as well, occasionally putting their heads on the bed so they could watch their young masters for a time.  A doctor and nurse remained for the night, and Lady Elizabeth went to sit in the room, letting Lady Catherine get some rest.

Rami didn’t think he would sleep, but when he opened his eyes at hearing some noises, it was dark.  He laid still, curious if he could overhear anything and sure enough, if he focused, he could hear soft voices coming from the doorway to the hall.  To his surprise, it was John and Brian, talking quietly.  Rami could see Lady Elizabeth and the nurse taking their seats back in the bedroom, and he guessed that the lords must have just visited Joe.  He closed his eyes, focusing on the men again.

“…only hurt him.”  It was John, and he sounded near tears.

“He is alright, John.”

“Now, but—“

 “We did what we needed to do.”

“Doesn’t make it---”

Rami let out an exasperated breath when the door closed and he could not hear them anymore.  He pondered over the words, trying to decipher what they could possibly mean.  What would have happened?

He worriedly laid awake for some time before he finally went back to sleep.

*****

*****

The next morning, Rami quietly informed Gwil of the overheard conversation while they dressed in their changing room.

“That is strange,” Gwil agreed thoughtfully.  “I wonder what they could mean by that.”

“Lord John did seem honestly upset,” Rami conceded. 

Gwil nodded.  “You could tell yesterday,” he said.  “He was really concerned.  And did you see how Joe held his hand?  I think Joe likes him, or at least he’s not afraid of him at all.  I don’t think Lord John would ever hurt him.”

“No, I don’t either,” Rami admitted reluctantly.  “I think Joe is about as safe as he could be away from his family.”

“We are his family now,” Gwil said, his voice serious. 

“I know.”  Rami smiled, and then hugged his brother.  “I am glad you are with me.”

Gwil returned the hug.  “We will take care of each other,” he said firmly.

 Joe woke up for breakfast and seemed his usual self, other than being tired and his knee aching a bit. He accepted having to stay in bed calmly, used to such a thing, and was brave when his bandages were changed, Ben distracting him with silly jokes.

“What would you like to do today?” Rami asked cheerfully after breakfast.  “Read?  Play games?  Anything you like!”

“Um….” Joe considered his options, savoring his power.  “Games,” he finally decided.

“Good choice!”

Gwil found some puzzles and the boys worked on them for a time before switching over to some of the elaborate toys that had been given to Joe and Ben as farewell gifts.  They also tried to teach Frankie some of the tricks that Hadar knew, and all had to laugh at some of the results.  The two nurses staying with Joe were indulgent, and let them play as long as Joe was not jostled in the bed.  He had to keep his knee elevated on pillows, and cold compresses were applied often to try to reduce the swelling.

John and Freddie visited for a time, and Rami glanced at Gwil, signaling that they both had to listen carefully.  Unfortunately, there were no more hints that either boy could discern, and the lords left after a short time when Joe began to fall asleep.

“He should rest for a while,” a nurse said kindly as she pulled a blanket over Joe.  Hadar wined a little from his spot on the floor; he had tried to crawl onto the bed earlier and had been firmly told to lay back down.  Now he seemed determined to try again and Joe was sleepy but also clingy.

“Hadar?” he called, and the hound’s ears perked up immediately.  The dog put his head on the bed and gave the nurses a sad look.  “Can he come up?  He won’t hurt me,” Joe asked sleepily.

Before either nurse could respond, Hadar determinedly crawled up onto the bed, moving slowly and carefully.  He stretched out on Joe’s left side, away from the injured knee, and Joe relaxed against his warm body.  “See?” Joe said brightly around a yawn.

“Alright,” a nurse smiled, shaking her head in defeat.  “He can stay, but he must be still.”

The older boys knew that Joe was safe with Hadar, and went to the main room.  None of them wanted to leave the area and by unspoken agreement settled themselves to a few hours of study.  Joe woke up for lunch which they all had on bed trays, and then Roger arrived.

“Would any of you like a riding lesson?” he offered to the older boys back in the main room.  “Joe is in good hands.  And paws,” he added with a smile, seeing both Hadar and Frankie trying to sneak back onto Joe’s bed.

Rami looked at his brothers.  “You two go ahead,” he decided, seeing Ben’s rather eager look.  He clearly wanted to go riding, but would not leave Joe unless given permission by an elder brother.  “I’ll stay with Joe.  Maybe we can swap tomorrow?” he asked Gwil.

“Alright,” Gwil agreed.  “Come on, Ben.  Let’s go get our boots on.”

Rami went back to the bedroom after Gwil and Ben left, and settled himself gently on the bed beside Joe, who was having a reading lesson with Lady Catherine.  He listened in on the lesson and did his own studying for a while, relieved that Joe was clearly relaxed and not in much pain.

“It’s alright,” Joe said to Rami when they were taking a study break.  “I’m used to having to staying in bed.”

Rami smiled, feeling proud of his tough little brother.  “It must be hard.”

“Sometimes, but someone was always with me, and now I have you, Gwil, and Ben, plus Hadar and Frankie.”

“Think all of us could fit on the bed?” Rami teased, and the nurses laughed with him as Joe made a face. 

“I’d get squished,” Joe decided, shaking his head at the idea.

“Do you think I would let my littlest brother get squished?” Rami said in mock indignation. 

Joe giggled.  “Maybe?”  He looked at Hadar and Frankie who were sharing a patch of warm sunshine on the floor.  “I like having brothers.  Are Hadar and Frankie now brothers too?”

Rami considered the notion.  “I guess so,” he agreed.  “I’m glad we have them both.” 

“Me too.”  Joe was getting sleepy again, and he snuggled down into the covers.  The nurses and Lady Catherine quietly withdrew to a corner of the room and Rami settled himself beside Joe.  He hadn’t slept well the night before, and the idea of a nap sounded good to him.  He ran his hands through Joe’s short curls, and the action soon had Joe nearly asleep.

“I really like having brothers,” Joe murmured.

Rami kissed his forehead.  “So do I.”  His heart ached every time he thought of Sami, but knew he now had new brothers as well, and it helped a little bit of the pain.

“Lord John says...” Joe paused to yarn again.  “It’s important that we be brothers.  We have to get along.”

Rami raised an eyebrow.  “When did he say that?”

“Last night.”

“What?” Rami wondered if John had spoken to Joe during his quiet night visit, but everyone had told him that Joe had not awoken during the night.  “Where you awake when he visited last night?”

“No…in…my sleep,” Joe said, yawning again.  “Talks to me in my sleep,” Joe murmured and then he was asleep.

Rami laid beside Joe, puzzled at the boy’s words.  He was still confused when Gwil and Ben returned from their riding lesson.  Joe woke up from his brief nap, happy to hear about the horses, and then everyone contributed to a letter to Joe’s parents, assuring them that he was well.  Joe and Ben added lots of drawings, and Rami put all the papers together in a packet to leave the next morning.

That night, Rami, Gwil, and Ben dinned with the lords in their main chamber as they had most every night since their arrival.  They didn’t like leaving Joe alone, even though the doors were open and they could hear and see Joe eating with his nurses and Lady Catherine.  Ben finished as quickly as he politely could, and then excused himself to go sit with Joe.

“Ben is very protective of Joe,” Roger said approvingly. 

Rami had to nod.  “He likes being an older brother,” he said quietly.  He also thought that Ben had been quite frightened at Joe’s injury, but would not betray his little brother’s secrets to the Queen lords.

“I understand,” Freddie said, smiling at the other lords.  “Being a big brother is a huge responsibility.”

Roger snorted at the words.  “Oh please, Fred.  I’ve had to pull you out of more messes than any of us.”

“Name three!” Freddie challenged.  His eyes were sparking and despite himself, Rami had to grin a little at the lord’s clear indignation.

“Oh, that is easy,” Lord Brian jumped in, smiling at Rami and Gwil.  “I do think it’s only fair for the boys to know some of your less glorious exploits.”

“There are none to be said,” Freddie snipped, tossing his head a little.

John cleared his throat.  “He fell off during his first warhorse lesson and landed in a cow pie face first,” he told the boys.  A soft smile lit up his face.  “It’s one of my earliest and fondest memories.”

Freddie gasped a little, but it only made Roger grin wider.  “He wrote an amazing love letter to a lady when he was twelve, professing his undying love and all his plans for when they were married,” he confided to the boys.  “But then it accidentally got delivered to her big brother, and he told Fred to stay away from his sister for the rest of his life.  I had to convince the brother to not kill him.”

Rami giggled a little, as did Gwil.  Both still thought of love as something quite silly and always worthy of a snicker.

“Now, see here--” Freddie began, but Brian cut him off.

“And, he had to stay in bed for nearly two weeks when a cat scratched him and the cut got infected because he wouldn’t tell anyone about it until he had a fever.  I had to hold a bucket while he threw up from the medicine.”

“Ewww,” Rami and Gwil said at the same time.  Rami had to admit that he would never quite look at Freddie the same way again.

Freddie was glaring at his brothers.  “Rami, Gwilym,” Freddie said, drawing himself up with great dignity, “I see no reason to sit here and be insulted.  Perhaps we should go be with Benjamin and Joseph.”

 “Oh, calm down, you silly goose,” Roger huffed, waving his hands. “John, why don’t we go sit with the other young pair, and let the big pairs visit?”

Gwil raised an eyebrow curiously.  “Big pairs?” he asked.

“Ah,” Brian smiled, his eyes light in amusement.  “A nickname.  Freddie and I are the big pair.  Roger and John are the younger or small pair.  We can’t remember who first called us that, but it has stuck.”

 “One of our guardians even had us dress alike by pairs,” Freddie said with a visible shudder.  “Brian and I had to wear matching outfits, and then Roger and John had to match.  It was most hideous.” 

“The neck ruffle nearly strangled me,” Roger grumbled.

“It wasn’t that bad,” John objected.

Roger glared at him.  “Yes, it was!  I could barely breathe!”

John smiled a little.  “He wanted to burn it,” he confided in the boys.

Freddie cleared his throat. “Anyway, don’t worry, dears.  We have threatened James with most violent repercussions if he tries the same with you.”

Rami and Gwil exchanged grimaces and nods of sincere gratitude.  Roger and John chuckled and then did leave the big pairs to visit while they went to keep Ben and Joe company.  Tea was brought out for the boys and wine for the lords, and they sat comfortably for a time, listening to the laughter and giggles from the bedroom as Ben, Roger, and John tried to teach Frankie tricks.  Ben’s dog had proven to be as sweet and loving as its master, but also as stubborn.

Freddie smiled as Rami and Gwil exchanged smiles of relief at hearing Joe’s loud laughter.  It was good to hear the youngest be so happy.  “Joe had a very good day,” he said.  “The doctors think we can travel to James’ estate in perhaps five to six days as long as he continues to heal.”

“I think it will do the young pair good to get settled,” Brian added.

Gwil nodded.  “I think so too,” he admitted, and Rami nodded his agreement.  Truly, he was curious to see what would be their home until they grew up.

“We do have a favor to ask,” Freddie admitted very seriously, and both boys looked up in surprise.  “This whole…situation…is of course very difficult for you boys, and we wish to make it as comfortable as possible.  Once you are settled at James’ estate, we hope things will calm down.  The past years have been quite…turbulent.  We four will visit as we can, and we hope you will agree to come visit our estates as well.”

Rami considered that thoughtfully.  Having seen Lord John’s comfortable home, he was curious about the homes of the other lords. “I would like to see your home,” he offered to Freddie.

“And I would like to see your home, Sir,” Gwil agreed, looking at Brian.  Both men smiled in approval.

“We have no intention of separating you,” Freddie said, still serious.  “We want you to be able to grow up as brothers, just as we did.  But still, we would like to spend some time with each of you.”

Brian nodded, his expression kind as always.  “We do not wish for anything elaborate, but I think it would be good for all of us to spend a bit of time with our future spouses before you leave for James’s home.  Perhaps each of us spend an afternoon together and take dinner so we can visit.”

Aww, so this was the favor.  Rami pondered the request carefully.  He was understandably curious to know more about Freddie, and had no doubt that Gwil and Ben felt the same about their future husbands.  All they really knew was from formal diplomats, and Rami conceded that much of it was far harsher than what they had thus far encountered.  He rather hated to admit it, but Rami thought that he quite liked Freddie.  And he wanted to get to know more about the man who loved cats, and fell off his warhorse.

Gwil tilted his head in thought as he too considered the words.  “I think Rami and I would be alright with that,” he finally said.  “But what about Ben and Joe?”

“As we have said before, we respect your promise to not leave Ben or Joe alone, and we do not suggest that you break that vow,” Freddie promised them.  “They are still too young – despite Ben’s firm notions – and of course we must be careful with Joe.  But still, Roger and John would like to spend some time with them, yes.  Roger thought about taking Ben for a ride, with one of you accompanying them.  John suggested that one afternoon he come to your room and he and Joseph can read or play a game with one of you sitting with them.”  Dark eyes smiled kindly at the boys.  “We have only respect and admiration for your sense of duty to them and would never ask you to forgo your decisions.”

“We do not mean to interfere more than we have already,” Brian said quietly.  “We will do as you wish; Roger and John told us to make it clear to you both that they will abide by your wishes and any conditions.  You have taken great responsibility, and we can only honor that.”

Rami had to blink at that: it was certainly a change from everything thus far.  Glancing at Gwil, he could tell the other boy felt the same.  It was a mix of astonishment, and yet satisfaction at being addressed as an adult.  And the request seemed reasonable enough, even for Ben and Joe.  After all, it was really no different than what had already happened when Gwil and Ben had had their riding lesson with Lord Roger.   They would not be leaving Ben or Joe alone, and Joe would no doubt still have a nurse or governess plus one of them in attendance. 

“I think that is…alright,” he ventured, looking at Gwil for confirmation.  The other boy nodded, and Rami turned to the lords.  “Very well,” he said.  He wasn’t quite sure what would happen, but was confident it wouldn’t be anything bad.

 Both men beamed in approval.  “Thank you,” Freddie said, and his tone was completely sincere.  “We only want to get to you know better, and suspect that you feel the same.”

Gwil nodded again.  “We do,” he admitted.

The Queen lords nodded again.  “We look forward to all of us getting to know each other,” Brian said warmly.

Chapter Text

Rami decided that as the eldest, he would be the first to spend time alone with his new lord.  Freddie suggested a music lesson, and Rami had to admit that he was in need of practice.  He agreed to the meeting, and the next afternoon was escorted to the elaborate music room of Lord John’s estate.

“Be careful,” Gwil said as Rami prepared to leave. 

“I will be,” Rami promised.  He and Gwil really doubted anything bad would happen, but still, they knew this was a big step.  “Be sure to keep Ben and Joe busy.”

Gwil nodded.  “I know,” he said.  They both suspected that Ben would object to them being alone with any of the lords, so they were trying to keep it quiet.  Fortunately, Ben had agreed to take a nap with Joe so the youngest ‘wouldn’t feel left out’, and he was sound asleep. 

Rami nodded to the servant sent to fetch him, and quietly followed him down to the music room.  As soon as the doors opened, he heard the sound of piano music and he was a bit surprised to see Lord Freddie playing with a skill that would rival any official court musician.

“Rami,” Freddie smiled and stood as he saw the boy arrive.

“Please, don’t stop,” Rami said, mostly out of politeness but also because he did love the music.  “I didn’t know you played so well.”

“Ah,” Freddie shrugged.  “I am really quite mediocre, but I do enjoy it.  Do you play?”

“Not really.”  Rami looked at the sheet music warily. “My father said you once asked in a letter if I played the piano.  I took lessons, but I am not very good at it, although I do like the music.  Sami is much better,” he added wistfully. 

The Queen lord nodded.  “We all have different talents,” he agreed. He made room on the piano bench and Rami reluctantly sat beside the lord.  “Let’s try...” Freddie shuffled through some pages, and finally selected a simple piece.  “If I play the left hand parts, will you take the right hand?”

Rami scanned the music, and nodded in relief, seeing it wasn’t too hard.  “Alright,” he agreed.  He nervously took a deep breath, and started playing.

After several pieces, Rami had to admit that Freddie was indeed a talented musician.  He was even more surprised when Freddie began to sing, and his voice was the beautiful that Rami had ever heard.  He had to actually stop playing so he could just listen, and Freddie easily took over the right hand parts on the music.  When he was finished, Rami found himself clapping.

“You are really a musician,” he said.

Freddie smiled.  “Were you told that I was?”

“Yes.”  Rami hung his head a little.  “I didn’t really believe it.”  The lord just chuckled.

“Well, I can imagine you had no reason to think that I was.  But yes, I do love music.  When I was young, I used to dream of being a court musician, and just be able to play and sing all day long.  I still would quite like that, but of course, things change.”

‘Like winning a war’ Rami thought.  Aloud he said, “Do the others play as well?”

“They do,” Freddie confirmed.  “We had different talents in most of our studies when we were young, but we all enjoyed music.  Even Brian is willing to leave behind his books if he can play music instead, and I used to think that nothing would get him away from studying.  He was always our tutor’s favorite student.”

“How long have you known the other lords?” Rami asked.  He realized that he knew little about them other than from the war.  The way the lords had laughed and talked the day before made Rami realize that they were more than conquerors. 

“Ah,” Freddie’s dark eyes sparkled.  “We have been together since Brian and I were toddlers.  One of my first memories is Roger coming to live with us, and then I was almost six when John arrived; he was just a baby, not even crawling yet.  Our families agreed that we would be raised as brothers and we grew up at various estates of our families and guardians.” 

“Why didn’t you stay with your families?”  Rami was curious about the elusive history of the lords.

“It was war,” Freddie said carefully as he put the music back into folders.  “A very bad time for both countries.  All of our parents were either away or busy protecting the estates.  We were sent away for safety.  We had a rather….travelled….childhood, going from one place to another, as borders and battle lines allowed.”

“Oh.”  Rami hadn’t really thought that war had effected the lords as well, but he knew it had to of.  Queen and Rhye had been at war for several generations.

Freddie stood up, and Rami automatically followed as the lord guided him out to the patio where they sat.  “I know what it is like to be apart from family,” he said quietly.  “But you still have a family with you.  Although, I know it is especially hard for you, Rami, since you have not just a brother, but a twin, and I cannot imagine that bond.”

“It is….hard to explain,” Rami admitted. 

“Is it true that twins sometimes have a secret language?” Freddie asked as he poured them tea.

Rami had to grin a little at the question.  “I think we did when we were really young, but neither of us remember it now.  Our great-aunt swears we would talk for hours and no one could understand us.  I wish we could remember it.”

The lord chuckled.  “That would be fascinating to hear,” he agreed.  “When John was learning to talk, Roger could always understand what he was saying, even when Brian and I believed it was total gibberish.  We thought they were both quite annoying for a few years, but we had to get along since it was just the four of us most of the time.  We seldom saw any family for more than a quick visit.”

Rami thought what it must have been like, growing up always travelling and not settled in one place.  He at least had had ten years of security with his family.  “Was it hard? Growing up like that?”

Freddie considered that for a moment.  “It would have been, yes, if not for my brothers.  As much as we annoyed each other at times, and fought like crazy, we knew we were the only family we had.”  He regarded Rami carefully.  “It is one reason we insisted – and have tried to reassure your parents – that you four will not be separated. We want you to have the security of brothers, of family." 

“You took us from our families,” Rami pointed out, and he knew his words were mean even as he said them.  He winced a little, not wanting to make the lord angry.  “I- I mean—“

Freddie held up a hand, his expression understanding and not at all angry.

“Rami, my brothers and I fully know what we have imposed on you and your families.  We cannot begin to understand how harsh it is for you.  You have every right to be angry with us, and we know that.  You may always speak your mind to us, and ask any questions; it is the least we can do for what we have ordered.”

Rami looked down at his tea cup, thinking.  “Why did you order it?”  he finally asked, his voice nervous.  It was what all of Rhye wanted to know.

Freddie studied his hands for a long moment before he could meet Rami’s eyes.  “You may ask any question, but I cannot promise I will always be able to answer,” he said eventually.

Rami blinked a little.  “You won’t answer?”

The lord shook his head.  “No.  I am sorry, Rami, but we cannot answer that question.” Freddie did truly look regretful.  “You will understand one day, that is all I can now say.”

Rami clenched his fists a little, thinking.  Well, it was only what he had expected.  The lords did not have to give any reason at all; they could do as they wished.  He shook his head a little, and tried to think of something else to ask or say.


“I am sorry, Rami,” Freddie said again quietly.  “Please know that it is necessary.  I don’t expect you to believe me now, especially since there are things we cannot yet speak of.  I have no right to ask you to trust us, but still, I am going to ask for your trust.”  Rami looked up at the lord, his light eyes curious.  “You are the eldest, and have the greatest responsibility, which is no small thing.  The other boys will look to you for guidance.  Please know that all we want is for you to be as happy as possible, given the circumstances.  We only wish you well." 

Wish them well.  Rami bit his lip as he thought over the words.  Taken from their families, no promises of ever seeing them again or even knowing why they were taken.  Yet, they were being asked to trust the very men responsible for this.

Rami thought of what his mother had once said; all they could do was trust that the lords would keep their promises of no harm to the boys.  That they would be treated kindly.  For the families, there was nothing else they could do but hope.  At least Rami and the other three could control their actions, and try to get to know their new lords in hopes they would be treated fairly.  Rami and Gwil had both been drilled in formal courtesy and hard practicalities, knowing they had to be careful.  They had to be strong, and try to accept things with grace. 

Nearly impossible, but sometimes there was no choice.

Rami took a deep breath.  “I…understand,” he said, looking down at the floor.  “We will trust in your words.”

Freddie nodded, a large hand gently covering Rami’s for a quick reassuring squeeze.  “You are very brave,” he said simply.  “We all respect and honor that.”

“We have no choice,” Rami pointed out.  “Neither do our families.”

There was a long silence before Freddie spoke.  “Neither did we.”

**********

**********

Ben had easily gotten Gwil to confess to the plan, and the blond boy was waiting for Rami when he returned to their rooms after dinner.  “Well?” he demanded.

Rami saw the sheepish look on Gwil’s face and rolled his eyes, knowing what had happened.  “He is…nice,” Rami said with some determination as the three older boys went onto the balcony for some privacy.  Joe was being entertained by the dogs and his nurses, and could be left alone for a few minutes.  “We played some music, talked for a while and had dinner; it was alright.  He’s not mean at all.”

“Well, that’s good,” Gwil said, always trying hard to be positive. 

Rami nodded.  “We talked about the other lords a lot.  They have been together since Lord John was even younger than Joe.  Maybe that’s why they demanded us now; they think Joe is old enough to be away from home.”

Ben grumbled a little.  “Maybe,” he conceded.  “But he’s sick, too.  Not just young.”

“All we can do is protect him,” Gwil decided firmly.  “He’s not afraid, and that’s a good thing.  I think the lords really are trying to be nice.”

“As nice as possible,” Ben muttered in reluctant agreement.

Rami sighed, looking out at the vast lands visible from the balcony.  “We are in Queen for better or worse,” he said.  “We have to make the best of it.  Our parents wouldn’t want us crying; they need us to be brave.”

“And try to get along with the lords,” Gwil added.  “Making them mad won’t help anything.  Rhye is counting on us to be responsible.” 

“So we keep doing what we have been doing,” Rami decided.  “They do seem to be trying to be nice; we need to do the same.”  Gwil and Ben nodded, and they went back to their bedroom as the doctor arrived for her nightly check on their youngest brother.

Joe had had a good day; his knee was indeed swollen and stiff but the medicine and cold compresses were keeping the pain under control, and he was used to having to stay in bed.  Having his brothers and the dogs was clearly helping the time to pass quickly, and he didn’t complain at all about anything.  One of the bathtubs was filled with warm water, and Lady Catherine and the doctor took Joe to soak for a while to help ease some of the stiffness in his leg.  They agreed to add soap to make bubbles, and Ben kept Joe entertained with various bubble shapes.  Hadar and Frankie were intrigued at the bubbles as well, trying to catch them.

“Lord Freddie has cats,” Rami said.  “I somehow doubt they will like to play with water or bubbles.”  Joe giggled at the idea.

“I like cats, but dogs are even better,” he said, blowing a bubble toward Hadar, who crossed his eyes trying to track the strange floating object.

“Horses and dogs are my favorites,” Ben said cheerfully.  “Gwil?”

“Ummm,” Gwil pondered the question.  “I like most all animals,” he finally said.  “Except snakes.”  Rami and Joe shuddered in agreement, but Ben just grinned, his eyes lighting up.  “Oh no,” Gwil said, pointing at the blond brother.  “I swear, Ben, no snakes.  Ever.”

“Ahw, come on,” Ben protested.  Gwil threw a handful of bubbles at him, and the argument was stopped for the time being.  The older brother suspected that he had just revealed something that Ben would tease him about forever.

Ben joined Joe in their large bed, but Rami and Gwil were still bunking on the cots in the main room, not wanting to possibly disturb Joe’s knee.  The younger boys eventually feel asleep after a lot of giggles and talking, and Lady Elizabeth just shook her head as she settled down to read.  The older pair played a few card games and then turned in for the night, but did their own quiet visiting.

“He is nice,” Rami admitted, talking about Freddie again.  “He won’t say much about the treaty or the war, but he talked about a lot of other things.  I kind of like him.”

Gwil nodded, relieved.  “Good,” he said.  “I think I will like Lord Brian too, and Lords Roger and John have been nice to Ben and Joe.  It’s a lot better than it could have been.”

“I know.”  Rami sighed, settling down to get comfortable.  “I do wish they would say something about why we are here, but they didn’t tell our ambassadors or our parents, so I guess they won’t tell us either.”

‘Maybe one day,” Gwil mussed.  He giggled a little.  “Maybe as our wedding presents?”

“Ewww—“ Rami mock slapped his brother’s head, and both boys giggled some more.  Being married one day was still a very odd concept to both the boys, and they giggled.  “Ugh, that will be so weird.”

 "Well, at least we have a long time until that happens,” Gwil reasoned.  “Eight years for you, and nine for me; that is like forever!”

“Ugh,” Rami just repeated, rolling his eyes.

**********

**********

The next afternoon Gwil went to the library to meet Lord Brian, and was impressed at the number of volumes for study.  He had never seen so many books before in one place outside a large library in the capital city.

“Do you like science?” Brian asked, a bit hopefully.

“I do,” Gwil assured him.  “It’s fun to learn new things.”

Lord Brian smiled at him.  “I think the same,” he agreed.  “Freddie and Roger always wanted to do things, but John and I were usually happy to read.”

“Did you like growing up with them?”  Gwil was an only child, and still getting used to having brothers. 

“Well, it’s all I really know,” Brian said as went through a pile of books.  “We were always together.  I suppose this is all very different for you, Gwil.”

Gwil nodded.  “I like having bothers, but sometimes it gets a little loud,” he admitted.  Brian chuckled at the confession.

“I can imagine, especially if they are anything like Freddie and Roger.  Sometimes you will just have to ignore them.  John was always very good at that; just do what you want, and don’t let them try to talk you into any trouble.”

“Trouble?”  Gwil couldn’t help but grin.  “Like what?” 

“Oh dear,” Brian sighed, but he also smiled.  “Let’s see, there was the time Freddie got the notion to tie clothes together to make a rope and see if he could climb out an upper window.  Halfway down a shirt ripped, and he was stuck on a third floor ledge until the servants got a real rope to the roof to tie on him and pull him up.  We all got scolded.” 

“Why did you get in trouble?”

Brian cleared his throat.  “Well, I may have tied most of the knots,” he admitted.  Gwil had to giggle at the words.

“I won’t let Rami or Ben do that,” Gwil promised.

“Thank goodness,” Brian smiled.  “Ah, finally, here is the book I was looking for.  I will never understand how John arranges his books; it’s enough to make one insane.”  He held up a large volume.  “Would you like to try a science experiment?" 

Gwil’s eyes shined in excitement.  “Yes, please!”

**********

**********

Now that he knew what was going on, Ben flatly refused to have Rami or Gwil accompany him to his next riding lesson with Lord Roger.  The older pair did their best to make it an order, but Ben simply slipped out of their room when they turned their backs for a second.  Rami raced down to the stables just in time to see Ben and Roger ride off.

“He is going to be quite mad,” Roger remarked, trying to hide his amusement.  He had at first objected to Ben coming alone, but the boy had been insistent.  Ben shrugged, completely unconcerned.

“I know,” he said.  “Oh, what is that?”  He pointed at a large object lying on the ground, being built by several carpenters.  It looked like a series of huge tables.

“A portable bridge, one of John’s inventions,” Roger explained.  “It can be transported to a river, and assembled quickly.”

Ben looked at it curiously as they rode by.  “That is very smart,” he said.

“It’s very handy,” Roger agreed.  “The trick is making the pieces big enough to hold the weight of men and horses, but still be portable.”  He clucked to his horse and Tor followed easily.  “You handle Tor very well,” he remarked.  “I’m glad you two get along so well already.  He will be very faithful to you.” 

“I love him,” Ben said sincerely.  “Was he your horse?”

“One of them, yes,” Roger said, pleased that Ben had figured that out.  “I wouldn’t give you or the other boys any horse that I didn’t have complete faith in.”

Ben nodded, and considered his next question.  “Did you ride him in war?”  He knew it would be the war with Rhye.

Roger raised a pale eyebrow, but nodded.  “Yes, I did,” he answered honestly.

“I have an aunt who fought against you,” Ben said quietly.  “She said you were good.  And that then you were very fair to the troops you beat.”

The lord nodded.  “I always tried to be fair.  It’s the least one can do.  War is….not good.  But sometimes, it is what you have to do to defend your country.” 

“Rhye is part of Queen now,” Ben said.  “Can I still learn how to fight?”  He looked up at the lord.  “I mean, not against you, of course,” he added.  “But I want to learn.”

“Then I will teach you,” Roger agreed.  He looked rather sad, but nodded.

“Joe can’t ever fight,” Ben said.  “I promised him that I would learn how to fight for both of us.”

“No, it would be far too dangerous for Joe to be in any battle,” Roger agreed.  “But there is much more to the military than just fighting, Benjamin.  An army also needs supplies, equipment like John’s bridge.  Never forget that.  Wars are won with support, never just by soldiers.”

“I’ll remember,” Ben promised.  They had come to an open path, and he grinned up at the lord, his solemn mood broken.  “Want to race?” he challenged eagerly.  Roger laughed.

**********

**********

Gwil made himself concentrate on his book, trying to not eavesdrop too much on the conversation in the bedroom.  Still, he was on duty to listen in, and make sure Joe was alright.  Not that he thought anything bad was going to happen, but nonetheless, he had to be alert.  Rami and Ben had gone swimming - Rami still irritated at Ben’s escape - and Gwil was in charge of chaperoning Lord John’s visit with Joe.

So far, it had gone well, Gwil decided.  Joe was clearly not afraid of the lord and had been happy to welcome John for a visit.  The two of them had first reviewed some more of Hadar’s tricks, and were now chatting while working together on a puzzle.  The usually reserved lord seemed much more relaxed around Joe and the two were obviously comfortable together.

“Do you like puzzles?” Joe asked.

“Absolutely,” John answered.  “I like to solve them.”

“They are fun,” Joe agreed.  “Thank you for the new one you gave me.  It was a lot of fun.”

“You are very welcome.”

Gwil heard the light clacking as wooden pieces of a new puzzle were pulled out.  “I’ve never seen a puzzle that is tall, that goes up like this one does,” Joe commented.  “Just flat ones.”

“Ah, yes.  Brian and I came up with it.  It’s more difficult, but also more fun.”

“How do you make the pieces?”

John chuckled.  “Lots of patience with a woodworker,” he explained.  “And then sanding so there aren’t any splinters.”

Joe giggled a little.  “That would be bad.” 

“What do you like to do besides puzzles?”

“Um…” Joe considered.  “I like learning how to read.  And playing with my brothers and Hadar and Frankie.”

“All very good,” John approved.

“Oh!  And seeing things with you,” Joe said happily.

Seeing things?  Gwil paused in his reading, unable to stop his gaze from going into the bedroom.  He could hear John murmur something, but couldn’t make out the words.  Joe nodded at whatever was said.

“Okay,” he promised.

 Gwil thought about asking, but shook his head and went back to his book.  It was likely some silly thing.

**********

**********

Four days after his accident, Joe was cleared to walk carefully around the rooms.  His knee was stiff from the swelling, making him limp, and Hadar immediately proved his worth and training.  He stood steady, and Joe held onto his harness for support.  Then the boy and dog would walk together slowly, Hadar taking much of Joe’s weight.  Joe declared it was far better than crutches or a cane.

Rami and Gwil just nodded when John asked if he could carry Joe down to one of the hot springs.  Joe was clearly comfortable with the lord, and they saw no reason to worry.  John, the boys, and their governesses had an enjoyable afternoon, glad to see that Joe had no fear of the pools or water.  He was learning to swim quite quickly, and was rather proud of it.

“I like the springs,” he said cheerfully.

“Wait until you see Sir James’ bathhouses,” John said with a smile.  “He is definitely trying to spoil all of you.”

Ben grinned.  “Good,” he said, and everyone laughed. 

Hadar and Frankie were both whining a little, watched Joe worriedly.  Both dogs were much happier when Joe sat quietly in a shallow end, soaking in the warm water.  “I’m okay,” Joe said, patting both of them.  Rami reflected that it was nice having extra guardians for his youngest brother. 

A few days later plans were made to move on to Sir James’s estate, which would be the boy’s new home until their marriages.  All were eager to see where they would live, and curious about everything.  Brian helped them plot the trip on maps, showing them various routes between the estates.  “A horse can make the trip in one day on shortcuts, but young Joseph must ride in a carriage, so we will take the good roads,” he explained.  “We will spend one night on the road, but thankfully not in a tent.  We will stop at a small outer mansion on John’s property.”

“You can sleep in a tent if you want,” Roger offered the boys with a teasing smile.  Even Ben shook his head.

They set out early in the morning, the older boys proudly riding their warhorses for the day.  Joe and Lady Catherine traveled in a carriage filled with pillows to keep Joe safe and comfortable, making him giggle and try to hide under the cushions.  The caravan moved slowly, the boys visiting with the lords and eager to see more of their new land.  They rode up and down the line, checking in with Joe often, and enjoying the new adventure.  The hard journey – leaving Rhye – was done, and this was not nearly as difficult. 

They stopped for lunch in a meadow and the boys were glad to run around for a bit and stretch legs sore from riding longer than they were used to.  Brian and Freddie took Gwil and Ben to a nearby small pond where they explored and found a turtle that they proudly took back to Joe so he could see it.  

“I’m surprised Brian didn’t bring back any injured animals to care for,” John remarked when he saw the turtle.

Gwil smiled at Brian.  “I do that too,” he admitted sheepishly.  Brian just chuckled. 

“We shall continue to do that,” he promised. 

They stopped that night at one of John’s manor houses that was managed by a young couple who were clearly thrilled to host the lords and boys.  A large dinner was waiting, and afterwards there was music.  Everyone was delighted when Freddie stood to sing a few songs, and it was even better when the other lords joined him on instruments. Rami had to admit that seeing how much the people of Queen clearly loved the lords made it easier for him to like them as well. 

The mistress of the house, Lady Tessa, guided them upstairs after dinner, Lord John carrying a sleepy Joe.  They were shown to a comfortable guest room with two beds set up for the boys and other bed in an adjoining room for the governesses.  

“May I ask, my lord, if the young master is Lord John’s betrothed?” Lady Tessa politely asked after John had bid them all goodnight.  Rami was holding Joe, who was now fast asleep, as the ladies turned down the bed for him and Gwil helped Ben wash up and change for bed.

“Yes, he is,” Rami said.  It was odd saying that for the first time, but he had to admit that it didn’t feel wrong.  Just unusual.

The lady smiled gently.  “Lord John is a good man,” she said firmly.  “My husband and I are honored to serve him, and we will be equally honored to serve the young master.”

Rami felt another sense of relief that there were many good people in their lives.  “Thank you, my lady,” he said sincerely.  “We have all quickly come to love Joe, and it is good to hear that others feel as we do.”

Tessa nodded.  “I look forward to serving him,” she said.  “I promise that we will honor him.”  She bid them goodnight and departed.  All the boys were tired after the day, and quickly fell asleep.

The group set out early the next day and were met on the road by Sir James.  It was mid-afternoon when they arrived at his estate, and all the boys were curious to see what would be their new home.  It seemed that most of the staff was assembled out front to greet them, and it was much easier than their formal arrival weeks earlier.  There were friendly calls of welcome and smiles, and Joe waved happily from Lord John’s arms.  He was completely comfortable being carried by the lord, and Rami and Gwil knew that he was safe.

Their new suite consisted of two main bedrooms, connected by a large chamber for study and play.  Rami and Gwil would share one bedroom, and the younger pair took the other bedroom.  Each bedroom also had its own dressing room, and there were smaller bedrooms off to the side for their governesses.  Everything was comfortable and spacious, and it was good to see familiar items from home that had already been unpacked.  

“We will of course help you move anything you like to a different area,” Sir James said, smiling as the boys happily found their items from home.  “I just thought you might like to see your things unboxed.” 

“It’s very nice, thank you,” Rami said honestly. 

“I hope you will be happy here,” Sir James added sincerely, and Rami nodded.

“I know we will be.”

Ben was excitedly showing Joe things from home, and Joe was just as happy to see some of his familiar things.  Between all of them and the dogs, it was rather loud but happy for a while, everyone helping the boys unpack and arrange things.  Brian approved of Gwil’s books, and Roger helped Ben take his practice weapons to the training yard.  Freddie meanwhile was fussing with the governesses about hanging up clothes, and John and Joe sat in a quiet corner out of the way and watched in amusement until Joe fell asleep on the lord’s lap and he was taken to Lady Catherine’s room where he could nap in peace, watched over by his governess and Hadar.

Brian smiled as he surveyed the rooms after several hours of work.  “I think we have done rather well here,” he chuckled.  “The tour of the estate can wait until tomorrow.”

“Agreed, my lord,” Sir James laughed as Frankie tried to crawl inside an open crate.  Ben appeared on the opposite of the crate, grinning, playing a brief game of hide-and-seek with his dog. 

Dinner in the main hall was quiet and relaxed, a contrast to the afternoon, as all the boys were sleepy.  The lords were planning to stay for several days, and promised that they would take the boys around the estate the next day.  Ben and Joe were soon yawning, and Rami and Gwil decided to go upstairs with them, politely declining an offer to stay up longer.

“I think we should be with them,” Rami half-apologized to Freddie.  He was a little worried how they would be in yet another new, strange, place.  The Queen lord just beamed his approval. 

“I agree,” Freddie said kindly.  “Get them settled; there is plenty of time for us to visit later.”

“Thank you,” Rami said, seeing Brian also nod his agreement.  “Good night, my lord.”

“Good night.  Sleep well.”

It was odd, after the past weeks, to have separate dressing rooms.  Fortunately their governesses had prepared baths in one chamber large enough for the boys to share as they had been, and they quickly changed into nightgowns.  Joe’s doctor checked on him and gave him his nightly dose of medicine, and was pleased at how well Joe was healing.  His knee was still a bit swollen and stiff, but he could walk mostly without pain, only becoming tired easily.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Joe assured the doctor between yawns.

“That is good,” the lady smiled.  She turned to Rami and Gwil.  “He is doing very well.  It will take a few more days for the swelling to go down, but he is almost completely healed.”  Both boys breathed a sigh of relief, and made notes to add in their daily letter to Joe’s parents.

Joe was tucked into his new bed, and he frowned a little when the others did not join him.  “We aren’t sharing a bed anymore?” he asked, a hint of nerves in his voice. 

“Well, you and I are,” Ben said quickly, catching on immediately.  He climbed into Joe’s bed and gave the older pair a pleading look.  Ben didn’t really like the idea of sleeping alone either. 

“We are most definitely still sharing a room,” Gwil agreed, reassuring Joe.  “Just different beds.  Rami and I will move into our bedroom only when you are ready.”

“Alright,” Joe said, obviously relieved.   He quickly fell asleep, glad to have his brothers and the dogs nearby.

Ben looked at his big brothers a little sheepishly. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. 

“Not a problem,” Rami said, smiling.  He and Gwil climbed into the other bed and all settled in for the first night in their new home.

**********

**********

The next few days were busy with settling in, and sending letters home filled with news and drawings of their new home.  They also met their tutors, and decided during whispered conversations at night that they liked them well enough.  Rami and Gwil would study most subjects together, while Ben and Joe each had a separate tutor.  The lords promised that they could have another week free from formal studies, but then it would be time to renew their lessons in earnest.  Rami and Ben frowned, while Gwil and Joe smiled.

Joe was completely recovered from his accident, eager to explore with his brothers.  They walked all over the mansion and the outer buildings, getting to know the staff.  Everyone was friendly to the boys, and all began to feel comfortable.  Each boy spent some more time alone with their lords, and even Ben had to admit that he enjoyed the time.

Rami was surprised to realize that he would miss Lord Freddie when the men left, and the other boys felt the same.  They had gotten to know the lords, and while they would never stop missing their families, each had come to accept things and admit that they were looking forward to their new adventures.  They all knew they had to make the best of things.

“I like them,” Gwil said one night.  “If we have to be away from home, it certainly could be worse.”

“They are nice enough,” Ben admitted.  “It’s not so bad.”

Rami nodded.  “We’re lucky,” he agreed.  All of their letters home were filled with happy news and kept positive.  “Sami wrote that it really does help our parents feel better knowing we are safe and the lords are keeping their promises about things.”

“They better,” Ben grumbled, but he also shrugged, indicating that he wasn’t too worried.

A month after the boys had arrived in Queen, the lords prepared to leave, confident that everyone was settled at their new home.  “We are not far apart, remember the maps,” Brian said at dinner the last night before the lords would leave.  “We will see each other often.”

“We’d like that,” Rami said, and the others nodded.

“There will be many visits,” Roger added cheerfully.  “And you need to visit our other homes as well.  I’m sure your families would like sketches.  And in winter, we will have several festivals that you should come to, weather permitting, of course.”

Ben winced.  “Do we have to dress up?” he complained, and the men chuckled. 

“Perhaps a little,” Freddie admitted with a smile. 

Roger scowled at the words.  “No neck ruffles, I promise,” he assured Ben.

 After the meal, Ben and Joe said goodnight and went upstairs, comfortable now in their own bedroom with Lady Catherine nearby.  Rami and Gwil remained with the lords for tea, pleased to be treated as more grown up.

Freddie cleared his throat and looked at them seriously.  “We are very proud of all of you,” he said quietly.  “But especially proud of the example you two have set for your younger brothers.  We are honored by your strength.  This has not been easy, and you have done well.”

Rami felt his face grow a little warm at the praise and saw Gwil blush a little as well.  “We are grateful for all you have done to make us comfortable,” he said, trying to sound mature.  Of course he would never thank the lords for taking them from their families, but Rami knew it was good to accept things and focus on the good, as Gwil always said.

“It’s the least we can do,” Roger said, and his usual light tone was serious as well.  “We want you to be happy.”

Gwil nodded.  “We wish that as well,” he agreed.    

“We hope you will write to us,” John said.  He smiled softly.  “And of course help Joe read his letters, although he is learning very rapidly.”

“He is,” Gwil agreed, quite proud of his new youngest brother.

“We will write,” Rami promised.  “And we look forward to seeing you when you visit.”

Brian smiled as he poured them more tea.  “At least one of us will always be within a day’s ride,” he assured them.  “We take turns patrolling, but will also take turns being at our estate and near you.  If you ever need anything, just ask James, and he will do all he can." 

“We told him to spoil you,” Roger said cheerfully and the boys grinned in anticipation.

“Roger…” Brian frowned a little.

“Brian,” Roger fussed right back.  “They deserve it!”

“They do,” Freddie jumped in.

John shook his head as the men turned to him.  “I am staying out of this,” he decided, and the boys giggled a little.

**********

Dear Mum and Dad,

Tomorrow the lords leave Sir James’s home, and we will settle into our studies.  Our tutors are very learned, and I am looking forward to studying with them.  Lord Brian has agreed that I may concentrate on Sciences, which I know that I will enjoy, but promise that I will not neglect the other subjects!

Lord Roger teased us this morning, bringing absolutely horrid matching outfits to our room, saying that he had changed his mind, and wished for us to dress alike by pairs.  He winked at Rami and I, so we suspected right away that it was a joke.  I truly thought Lord Freddie and Lord Brian were both going shout in horror and indignation on our behalf.  When they realized it was a joke, Lord Freddie chased Lord Roger down the hall and outside.  I believe they may still be running.

We are all very comfortable and pleased with Sir James’s home.  Ben and Joe are now happy in their own room, and Rami and I enjoy a bit of privilege in staying up latter at night.  We use this time to write to all the parents and add notes to Ben and Joe’s letters to their family.

I want to assure you that we are well looked after and are cheery and well.  All four of us agree that we are content.  We miss you, but please know that we are honored that we can serve Rhye in this way and we regret only being apart from you.  We are strong, and find much good in our situation.

My love,

Gwilym

**********

The next morning, everyone gathered out in the courtyard to see the lords off.

“It will be rather quiet at home without you all,” Freddie said cheerfully.  “Do keep James busy now, promise me.  I want to know all the trouble you get into.”

“Freddie,” Brian sighed, shaking his head.  Roger just laughed. 

“I agree with Freddie,” he seconded.  “I will warn you that James knows all of our tricks and stories, though.  You will have to be very creative to outsmart him.” 

James gave Roger a pained look.  “Thank you, my lord, for encouraging them,” he said with dry sarcasm. 

“Oh, don’t be silly.  I’m just joking,” Roger protested.  When James turned his back to speak to a servant for a moment, Roger bent down and whispered something to Ben that made the boy giggle.  Roger quickly straightened up and Ben quieted when Sir James turned around to face them, both looking innocent as could be.  Rami reflected that it was really quite scary. 

“We will leave you in peace now, my dear Miami,” Freddie told the guardian, making Rami tilt his head in curiosity.

“Miami?" 

“Ah, a nickname we gave him,” Freddie explained.  “No reason, just for fun.”

“It was to torment me,” Sir James claimed, but none of the lords listened to him.

Brian came over from where he had been consulting with Rami and Gwil’s science tutor, giving last minute instructions.  “Alright, we should leave and let the lads settle in,” he said.  He smiled at the boys.  “We will take turns coming to see you at least once a week,” he said.  “I suspect we might be around more than you would wish.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Gwil reflected honestly.  Lord Brian looked very touched at the comment and smiled, laying a hand on Gwil’s shoulder.

John knelt down on his knees so he could be at Joe’s height.  “Take care of Hadar,” he admonished, making Joe giggle a little.  “And take care of your brothers.  I will see you soon.”

“Alright,” Joe agreed.  He hugged the lord, and John closed his eyes, clearly a bit emotional.  He controlled it well, and then stood, clearing his throat.  Roger came to his side, and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“The boys will be fine, John,” he said softly.

The youngest lord took a deep breath.  “Yes,” he said in harsh tones, looking down.  “They are boys.”

Rami and Gwil glanced at each other, puzzled.  John saw their concern and visibly gathered himself and managed a tight smile.  “It is alright,” he said to them.  “Just….being in my mind.  I worry about things.”

“And that is just fine!” Roger said quickly, a bright look on his face.  He distracted the boys by yelling to Brian to quit fussing about books and get on his high horse.

“We will see you soon,” Freddie promised as they mounted their warhorses.

Everyone waved as the lords took their leave and as one, rode out of the courtyard.

Chapter Text

The next months passed peacefully, the boys settling into their new lives.  Sir James was a kind and understanding guardian, although firm when it came to their safety and education.  He insisted on a strict curriculum of study that had Ben rolling his eyes, but the boy also rose to the challenge and impressed his tutors.  After a few weeks, Rami graciously conceded that Gwil was the true scholar among them, and took pride in his brother’s accomplishments.  It was easy enough, as their interests and their tutors subtly drew them in different directions.  Gwil enjoyed the sciences and engineering, while Rami was drawn into studies of government and history.  Each of them worked hard to excel in their areas. 

Every day there was at least one letter from a family member and the boys continued the habit of sharing letters over breakfast, taking turns reading Joe’s letters.  It seemed that all their families were taking comfort in the positive messages that the boys sent, and it made them glad in return.  There was honest laughter and friendly news between the families that made all the boys relieved.  None of them wanted their families to feel bad because truly, their lives were happy. 

There was homesickness, of course, but each of them determinedly bore it.  Rami and Gwil were impressed at Ben and Joe’s strength.  Ben seemed determined to prove he was mature, and Joe was generally happy and sunny, only the occasional nightmare making him sad   Together, they all made each other stronger.

As promised, one of the lords visited every week, checking on the boys.  Freddie was called to the capital for several months of government business, but he sent letters describing all the things he saw and did, and Rami found it all rather fascinating, as did Gwil.  Their tutors made sure they studied the government and laws of Queen, but also fairly included the Rhye kingdom, which made Rami pleased. 

After some negotiation, Sir John Reid was sent from Rhye to be the official liaison.  He spent much of his time in the capital, but made a point of coming to Sir James’s estate at least twice a month and was diligent in his correspondence and support, always making sure the boys had what they needed.  Rami and Gwil liked him well enough, although he did tend to treat them like small children.

“Well, our parents like him,” Gwil pointed out one day after Sir Reid had come for a visit.  “And he does completely support us.” 

“I know,” Rami sighed.  “But I do wish he would treat you and I more like adults and not babies.  We know more than he thinks.” 

Gwil nodded.  “We will show him how much we know,” he said confidently.  

Lord Freddie approved of their handling of their liaison, sending his support and advice.  ‘Always seek advice and other opinions, but in the end, you must make the decision,’ he wrote.  ‘Just be sure to be open to ideas and thoughts and know that no one is always completely correct.’  It was good advice that both took to heart.

During his studies, Rami was rather surprised to learn just how close Freddie was to the throne of Queen.  When the lord next visited, they had dinner with Gwil, and Freddie explained the rather tangled succession to the big pair. 

“Yes, well, it basically comes down to those closest in succession not having children,” he observed.  “And one can refuse the crown if they don't want it. Fortunately, it is common for cousins or nephews and nieces to be named as heirs, and it has never caused much of an issue.  I personally think it would be better for a sovereign to be able to name an heir, rather than rely just on bloodlines.  You might end up with someone dreadful as the heir just because of their birth order, which is ridiculous.”

“Rhye’s succession is a bit more limited,” Rami observed.  “I don’t know the last time a direct offspring did not inherit.”

Freddie looked thoughtful.  “Well, either way, the throne is a bloody nuisance,” he said.  “I don’t want it.”  His eyes grew thoughtful and shadowed.  “I really don’t want it,” he repeated softly, almost to himself.  Rami and Gwil looked at him curiously, and he quickly changed the subject. 

Ben and Joe had settled into their new life with an ease that relieved Rami and Gwil.  Joe had kind and happy disposition that made him adapt easily, and Ben was determined to be strong for his little brother and set a good example.  It also kept Ben out of some trouble, as he was naturally mischievous and came up with a number of plans that he reluctantly abandoned because of fear that Joe might get hurt. 

“You are not climbing to the top of that tree,” Gwil ordered sternly, hands on hips as he looked up at Ben.

“Gwillllll….” Ben whined, hanging upside down.

Gwil shook his head.  “No, absolutely not,” he said.  “Get down from there this instant.”  Frankie and Hadar were barking anxiously, running around the base of the tree.  “Start down now, or I swear I will tell Sir James.”

“You’re no fun,” Ben pouted, but he reluctantly began working his way down. 

“Are you okay, Ben?” Joe asked anxiously when the other boy had made it back to the ground. 

“Of course!” Ben said cheerfully.  ‘I’m sorry if I scared you, Joe.” 

Joe nodded, hugging his brother.  “It looked scary,” he admitted. 

“Well, then I won’t do it again, I promise.”  Ben glared at Gwil, but kept his promise. 

All of them liked Sir James, but like any group of boys, pranks were planned and executed.  Their guardian bore it with dignity and a long-suffering attitude, which only made the boys more determined to make him laugh.  Several elaborate schemes were launched, one including Hadar and Frankie trained to steal Sir James’s favorite hat.  The guardian just sighed and bemoaned his fate, and was especially on guard when Lord Roger visited.

“You are a bad influence,” Sir James lectured the lord firmly.  Roger, Ben, Rami, and Gwil were all lined up in Sir James’s study after an attempt to make an explosion failed and set a haystack on fire.  Even Joe had been scolded because he had been keeping lookout from a safe distance away.

“Miami….” Roger tried, and the older man gave him a firm look.

“No.  Go clean up the mess you made, and tomorrow you are all cutting and stacking straw.”

“He was one of our last guardians,” Roger confided the next day as they struggled to pitch hay in a wagon.  “He’s not that much older than us, but he sure acts like he’s ancient.”

Gwil sighed as he struggled to pack down a pile of straw.  “I like him,” he said. “Maybe we should take it easier on him?” 

Roger looked honestly appalled.  “What?”  he gasped.  “Are you joking?”  The lord looked around to make sure they were alone.  “Alright, now, here is what we can do to get back….”

Their next prank went well.  Sir James had his obvious usual suspects, but he could not find any hard evidence that it was the boys who somehow put dye in his favorite shampoo, turning the guardian’s hair a nice shade of blue for several days. 

To everyone’s relief, Joe suffered few accidents or injuries and his health was good.  Hadar was another guardian for him, always at his side.  More than once the dog stopped Joe from tripping and falling, easily catching his young master.  Ben helped Joe tie ropes from Hadar’s harness to a small wagon, and the dog happily pulled Joe around the courtyard.  While the older boys had their riding lessons or weapons training, Joe would study or ride his pony. 

The boys attended a harvest festival at Lord Roger’s estate, and all were curious to see his home.  It turned out to be a very large but still comfortable mansion, and Ben and Rami were thrilled by the stables where Roger raised warhorses.  They watched young knights training and were allowed on a few young horses for practice.  The festival was a large event, and all the lords came.  John and Joe were content to simply watch events, but the other lords and boys competed in friendly competitions and generally had a good time.  Freddie sang every night to the delight of everyone, and all played music.  Ben was warmly welcomed by the staff and people who lived on Roger’s lands and he felt confident that he would be happy there.

They also visited Freddie and Brian’s homes after leaving Roger’s, and everyone enjoyed the time together.  Lady Catherine and Rami were kept busy making sketches of the estates to send home, and Gwil was amazed at the number of books Lord Brian had in his library.  He was allowed to take some back to Sir James’s home, and he and Joe spent hours trying to make their choices. 

“Maybe Hadar can carry some books,” Ben suggested when Joe was having trouble deciding.  Joe’s eyes lit up. 

“Yes!” he said happily.  In no time at all, the boys had several books in bags and attached to Hadar’s harness.  The hound bore it with good will and John just laughed when he saw them.  He promised to find room in the wagons so Hadar would not have to pack them back home. 

Winter would soon arrive, and the boys returned to Sir James’s estate.  Weather permitting, they would make several short trips to each estate so they could see them in winter, but mostly they planned to stay at their new home for the season.  All the boys were eager for snow, already planning elaborate battles and forts.  The first light snowfall had all of them out laughing and playing, Hadar and Frankie trying frantically to catch the funny white things falling from the sky.

“Time to come in,” Lady Catherine told Joe when his nose turned bright red.  “We have a surprise waiting.” 

“Alright,” he said cheerfully.  He was delighted to see hot chocolate waiting on the porch, and happily had a treat while waiting for his brothers.  Ben smelled the hot chocolate and ran for the mansion, leading the other boys, and Joe generously shared the large pot of drink. 

“I hope it snows all night,” Ben said happily.  “Then tomorrow we could have a snowball fight.” 

Gwil chuckled as he brushed snow off his shoes.  “I don’t know if we will get that much,” he said.  “But that would be fun.”

“Have you ever ice skated?” Rami asked.  He loved the activity and had found the perfect small pond for it.  Sir James had promised they would be allowed to skate once the ice was solid.

“I tried once, fell a lot,” Ben said shrugging.  “But I’ll try again.” 

“It seems hard,” Gwil commented. 

Rami shook his head.  “You just have to keep your balance.”  He eyed his brother.  “Or is that hard for you?” he teased. 

Gwil’s cheeks flushed red, and he threw a napkin at his eldest brother.  He was in the middle of a growth spurt that had taken all by surprise, and he had grown taller than Rami practically overnight.  Already his clothes had to be taken out to accommodate his long legs and arms, and he had tripped more than once over his own feet, very self-conscious.  “Very funny,” he huffed. 

“I hope I grow tall like Gwil,” Joe said loyally, always ready to support his brothers.

“Thank you, Joe,” Gwil said with snotty dignity.  “I know I can count on you.”  They all giggled.

The snow did continue, to everyone’s surprise, and by night it was a true storm.  The staff rushed about making sure windows were secure and all the animals safe in the stables and barns.  The boys visited their ponies and horses, giving them treats and then went back to their rooms.  Joe was sniffling a little from the cold, and the doctor made him take some extra medicine.


“We do not want him to develop a nose bleed,” she explained quietly to Rami and Gwil, who both nodded their understanding.  They bid the younger pair goodnight, and enjoyed a last drink of hot chocolate before turning into bed.

Screams woke all of them.

“Rami!  Gwil!  Ben!”  It was Joe.  Hadar and Frankie were howling and barking, adding to the confusion as Rami and Gwil ran to the other bedroom.

Joe’s night terrors had continued, striking him once every few weeks.  There seemed to be no pattern to what triggered them, and the doctors assured the older boys that there was no reason to worry; it was simply something that some children went through.  Joe never remembered the dreams the next day, so they were careful to not speak of them to him. 

Lady Catherine had already reached Joe and was carrying him around the room, humming softly and rubbing his back to try and soothe him.  “It is alright,” she said when the older boys burst in.  She nodded to Ben, who was nearly crying himself, and the older pair knew now what to do.  They quickly got Ben and took him to the main room.  Ben hated to cry in front of anyone, especially Joe, fearing it would upset the youngest.  It was easier if he was taken aside and allowed to calm down.  Joe’s nightmares upset Ben almost as much as they did Joe. 

“I wish there was something we could do,” Ben fretted. 

“I do to, but it’s alright,” Gwil said, hugging him.  “Joe doesn’t remember them; I think it’s harder on us than on him.”

The servants knew what to do by now, and had sent for warm milk for all the boys.  After half an hour, Joe fell back asleep and Ben crawled into Joe’s bed to join him, always feeling clingy after Joe had a nightmare.  Rami and Gwil assured Lady Catherine that they had it under control and took Ben’s bed so the younger pair were not alone if they woke up again.

“Do you think we should tell his parents?” Gwil asked quietly. 

Rami bit his lip.  “I don’t know,” he said honestly.  “Everyone says it is nothing to be concerned about.  And we don’t want to worry his parents even more than they are already.” 

Even Ben, the resident skeptic among the brothers, was hesitant to worry Joe’s parents.  “How do we know he hasn’t always had these night terrors, and they didn’t think to mention it because it is common?” he argued quietly the next day while Joe was playing with Hadar in a corner of the main room.  “It’s nothing that we can’t handle.” 

“That is true,” Gwil admitted, looking at Rami.  The eldest took a deep breath, weighing their options. 

“Alright, we don’t say anything right now.  Just keep track of how often they happen.

“Agreed.”

Joe’s night terrors continued, but all the adults explained them away, and the boys were happy to encourage that.  It was Joe’s other dreams that began to truly make them worry. 

At some point during their first winter in Queen, Joe began making eerie statements to his brothers.  It was always quiet and private, never in front of any adults.  But still, it made the older boys take notice. 

“Be careful riding today, Ben,” Joe said suddenly at breakfast one day, thankfully when their governesses were busy talking to servants.  “The snow is deeper than you think.”  Later that day, Ben and Tor went into a deep snowbank and he and his warhorse had to be dug out.  It was fortunate that Tor stayed calm and didn’t struggle, otherwise they both could have been hurt. 

When the ice was finally frozen on the pond enough for a skating lesson, Joe looked up at Rami and shook his head. “I am going to be in bed tomorrow,” he said calmly. 

“What?”  Rami questioned.  Despite the best efforts from all the brothers, Joe smacked his elbow against a doorframe the next day and his joint swelled painfully within an hour.  They had all learned that internal bleeding was even worse for Joe than bleeding from a visible cut, and panicked.  The doctors and nurses were attentive as always, but still, Joe had to spend nearly two weeks in bed recovering, and it required many cold compresses and warm spring baths to heal.

Bits and pieces began to add up.  Joe knew if any of them were going to be even slightly hurt.  He knew when one of the lords would come visiting even if was meant to be a surprise. 

It was Gwil, the logical, practical, brother, who first spoke the words. 

“I think Joe knows things,” he ventured to Rami late one night when Joe’s night terrors had awoken them all.  Joe had babbled to his brothers that they had to be careful the next day at weapons training and it had taken them long minutes to assure Joe that they would be careful before he fell back asleep. 

“Don’t say that,” Rami practically hissed.  He couldn’t really explain why he didn’t want the words spoke aloud, but never the less, he felt strongly about it. 

“No,” Ben snapped from Joe’s bed, where he was curled around his baby brother protectively.  “You can try to deny it, Rami, but we know it’s true.” 

Rami glared at both his brothers. “We don’t know that for certain,” he snapped. 

“What proof do you need?” Gwil argued.  “Everything that he says will happen, does happen.”

Ben took a deep breath.  “I think he might be a mage,” he whispered, daring to say the word.

Rami and Gwil both immediately tensed, half expecting their governesses to appear, but there was no sign of either lady waking up.  Agitated, Rami gestured for Ben to join them in bed where they could whisper under the covers.  Ben clucked at Hadar, and the wolfhound gladly took his place in bed beside Joe, keeping his master warm and protected.

“We can’t say that out loud,” Rami hissed once the three older brothers were under the muffled safety of covers. 

Even under the covers, Gwil looked intense.  “It’s not a bad thing, Rami,” he said. 

“But its so rare,” Rami whispered. “I don’t know what happens to children who have those powers, no one talks about it.” 

Mages were magic users, said to be able to do everything from reading minds, seeing the future, and even casting powerful spells. They were respected, honored, and feared even by kings. Mages were profoundly rare in their world, and Rami had never known of one personally. The possibility that Joe was a mage was almost terrifying in that he didn't know what happened to people with those special powers.

“I’ve heard there are special schools," he whispered to his brothers. "That they take children away!”

Gwil and Ben both looked horrified at the notion.  “I’ve never heard of that.” Ben admitted. 

“That’s the point!  No one knows,” Rami said.  “We can’t take any risk with Joe.  We have to keep him safe.” 

There was no hesitation from the other two.  “We will keep him safe,” Ben vowed. 

Gwil was biting his lip in thought.  “If there are schools, would that be a better place for him than with Lord John?”

“No!” Rami said vehemently.  “Not away from us.  Nothing could better than him being with us.”  Gwil quickly agreed and Ben nodded.  “Then it’s decided,” Rami said firmly.  “We keep him safe with us.” 

“We can’t tell even his parents then,” Gwil cautioned.  “And especially not the lords.  We like Lord John and the others, but we can’t let them find out that he might be a…..a mage.” Even saying it was difficult.  “We don’t know what they might do.” 

“And we have to talk to Joe,” Rami added.  “He has to learn that he can’t tell any adults about this.  We promised to protect him.” 

“We will,” Gwil promised.

The next day, the older boys sat down with Joe and carefully talked to him about things that he sometimes saw.  Joe seemed to understand it had to be kept secret, and promised that he wouldn’t tell any adults.

“It’s to protect you,” Rami explained.  “We have to keep it secret. No one can know that you sometimes know what is going to happen; that you can see the future.”  Joe looked at him with wise eyes.

“Alright,” he said quietly.    

Gwil hugged him.  “Sometimes we have to keep secrets, Joe.  You can tell only us.  If its something that hasn’t happened yet, you can’t tell any adults.”

“It’s to keep all us safe,” Ben added.  Joe nodded again.

“I understand,” he agreed.  Rami kissed his forehead. 

“We will be safe,” he promised. 

**********

**********

Winter passed quickly, all the boys kept busy. The older three had weapons training as well as riding lessons, and Rami and Ben took to the exercises with gusto.  Gwil was more hesitant about fighting, but he was nonetheless proving skilled with the bow. 

Whenever Lord Brian visited, he would take Gwil into the library to show him maps and talk about battle strategies.  Gwil was intrigued in learning about the role of how to support an army, and he took lessons from a retired supply officer.  Rami and Ben would join them to hear about famous battles and how they were won or lost.  

“Just remember, an army travels on its stomach,” Brian teased Roger one day when both lords were visiting.  Roger scowled a little. 

“He will never let me forget about the time I forgot to check the food supplies before we went on a training mission,” he complained to the boys. 

“We ate roots,” Brian said, clearly still irritated. 

“You like vegetables!” 

“Not for six days straight!”

“Because you wouldn’t let me kill the deer!” 

“It had a fawn, Roger!” 

The boys just smiled as they watched the bickering, now accustomed to the lords arguing.  They often made bets on who they thought would win. 

Gwil had the first birthday away from their families, and he determinedly put on a happy face.  It was difficult, but he kept positive, and was honestly happy with the day.  Brian gave him a whole box full of books, and they had a big party with lots of laughing and fun.  Sir James made sure that the presents his parents had sent were delivered, and Gwil enjoyed the day.  It set the pattern for the other birthdays which were celebrated with parties and games. 

Almost before they knew it, spring arrived and a year had passed.  They wrote their parents long letters, assuring them that they were happy.  Each of them was comfortable around the lords now, and were content with their lives.  They never stopped missing their families, but they had made a new family that was comfortable and supportive.  

Their only worry was Joe.  The night terrors continued, as did Joe’s occasional predictions.  The older three worried that the adults would somehow find out, and they had no idea what would then happen.  They watched over their youngest brother, reassuring him that they were safe, and just hoped they could keep their secret.

Until one night during the second summer they were in Queen. 

Joe’s screams woke them and Rami and Gwil rushed to the bedroom where Ben and Lady Catherine were already desperately trying to calm the child.  This time, Joe looked up as the older pair enter the room, and there was a wild look in his open eyes different from the night terrors. 

“Get Sir James!” he cried.  

“No, Joe, it’s alright,” Gwil tried, but Joe pulled away from Lady Catherine’s hold and he started running for the door.  

“I need to see Sir James!” Joe shouted.  “Now!” 

Rami picked Joe up as best he could with the child’s failing limbs.  “Joe, it’s us, it’s alright.” 

“No, its not!  I need to see him!”  Joe looked at Rami, and it was different from his usual blank expression after a nightmare.  “Now, Rami!”  Joe seemed clearly awake and aware.  “It can’t wait!” 

Rami looked helplessly at Lady Elizabeth who had joined them and she nodded.  “I will send for him,” she said.

“Thank you,” Rami whispered.  He sat down and pulled Joe into his lap.  “Joe, we are sending for him now.  Calm down.  It’s alright.”

It was several long tense minutes before Sir James arrived, hastily dressed in a tunic and loose pants.  He dismissed the governesses and hesitated, looking at the boys.  They all glared and it was clear that they were not leaving Joe.  He nodded, and cleared his throat.

“My lord?” he asked politely.  Joe had relaxed against Rami’s chest, his eyes closed as he continued to sob, but they opened wide when Sir James spoke, and he focused intently on the man.

“Rhapsody,” Joe whispered.

The effect on Sir James was instantaneous.  He visibly tensed, his expression sharp.  “Where?” he demanded.  Joe didn’t answer, and Sir James raised his voice.  “Where, my lord?” 

“Bay Falls,” Joe answered softly, his face scrunched in concentration.  Speaking seemed to exhaust him, and he slumped back against Rami’s chest. 

Sir James wasted no time.  “Eric!” he bellowed, and a moment later his second in command rushed into the room.  “Gather the forces.  We leave in 3 minutes,” James snapped.  He turned to the boys who were looking at him with wide eyes.  “Stay here,” he ordered.  “Do not leave this room unless you are directed by your governesses.  There will be guards posted.  Do as you are told.”  He turned and strode from the room without any further words.

Within a minute, it seemed the entire estate was alert.  People were shouting, running to posts, alarms raised.  The governesses returned, and the older three noted that the ladies were armed with swords.  Other guards took up posts outside the door to the suite, and four guards came inside and stood by the windows.  

“Get dressed,” Lady Elizabeth said curtly, shoving clothing into the boy’s hands.  “We will see to Joseph.”  Lady Catherine took Joe from Rami’s arms without a word of explanation, and for once, Rami was too stunned at everything to protest.  The boys quickly changed in a dressing room and returned to the main room to find guards on post and Joe struggling in his governess’s arms. 

“Joe!” Ben ran to his brother’s side, his face pale in concern.  Joe quickly jumped on his brothers, and Gwil picked him up.  Hadar and Frankie were nervously pacing the room, and they took up stations beside their young masters, both growling slightly. 

“What is happening?” Rami demanded. 

“We may be under attack,” their governess said honestly, checking to make sure the boys had on warm clothes and sturdy boots.  “We have defenses in place, and Sir James has ridden out with the best troops.  We are to wait here for word.”

Rowan Feltwell stepped forward.  He was the arm’s master for the estate and the tutor for the older boys in weaponry.  Without a word, he handed Rami and Ben scabbards and their small real metal swords and gave Gwil a bow and quiver.

“They are old enough,” he said at Lady Elizabeth’s look.  The governess’s expression tightened, but she nodded as the master turned to the boys.

“Draw only if I tell you to,” he ordered curtly.  “Stay together.  Be ready to leave if we receive word to escape.  Right now, we may be safer here, but there are escape routes if necessary.”

“Yes, Sir.” Rami whispered and Gwil and Ben repeated his words.  They went to sit on a couch in a corner, watching the adults’ pace and talk quietly.

Joe was shaking, and crawled onto Rami’s lap.  “It’s alright Joe,” Rami whispered, pressing his lips against Joe’s soft hair, wrapping him in a blanket.  “We’re safe.” 

“They aren’t,” Joe sobbed. 

“Who isn’t?” Gwil asked.  Joe looked up at him, his face pale.

“The lords,” Joe whispered. “They are in battle.”  He squeezed his eyes shut for a minute, and then opened them again.  “It’s bad.” 

Rami looked around in alarm, but it seemed none of the adults had heard them.  Gwil and Ben gathered closely around, trying to cover them, and Rami made sure the blanket was wrapped around Joe.  “Joe,” Rami whispered.  “Are…..are you seeing things now?”  It was the first time they had watched Joe actually have some kind of vision or knowledge.  Joe nodded, whimpering against Rami’s chest.  The older boys tensed, knowing they had to keep it quiet. 

Joe flinched at something only he could see, and Rami drew the blanket over Joe’s head, trying to muffle his cries.  “It’s alright,” he whispered, rubbing Joe’s back.  “We are here with you, and we are safe.”  He looked at Gwil and Ben helplessly, not knowing what to do.  Normally he would ask Joe what he was seeing, but they could not risk the adults overhearing them. 

Gwil understood the situation, and moved so he could whisper in Joe’s ear.  “Joe, I know this is hard, but try not to say anything unless we ask, alright?  We will watch and make sure no one knows you are seeing it.”  Joe whimpered and nodded, squeezing his eyes shut, and the three boys surrounded him.  Hadar and Frankie joined the cuddle, and the five of them kept Joe covered. 

Fortunately, the adults seemed content to let the boys and dogs comfort Joe, apparently believing it was normal fears of a young child at the events.  Joe did his best to muffle his cries, but the boys knew he was suffering, and it pained them.  All they could do was rub his back and whisper that they were safe. 

At one point Joe jerked and his eyes opened, dark and wide.  “Lord Brian is hurt,” he whispered, and Gwil flinched.  Ben immediately grabbed his older brothers’ hand, trying to convey comfort.  “He is bleeding,” Joe added, and then squeezed his eyes shut again, as if trying to block what he was seeing. 

It went on for over an hour, Joe trying his best to muffle his cries.  Hadar pushed his way close, and Joe clutched the hound’s thick fur, whimpering.  Rami, Gwil, and Ben kept their hands on Joe, trying to offer whatever comfort they could.  Every one of Joe’s sobs made them flinch, wishing there was more they could do.  Lady Catherine came over, offering to take Joe, and the others refused quickly, knowing they had to keep Joe quiet and safe.  They hated making him stifle his cries, but they didn’t know what else to do.  If they asked Joe what he was seeing, the adults might hear it. 

At last, Joe relaxed a little and he took a deep breath.  “It’s…over,” he whispered. 

Rami made sure the adults were a safe distance away, and said quietly.  “Is everyone alright?” 

“I don’t…know…” Joe mumbled, and then he went limp.

“Joe?  Joe!”  Ben lightly patted Joe’s face, but the youngest was sound asleep, his face pale and stained with tears.  Ben looked at his older brothers helplessly, not knowing what to do. 

“I think he’s asleep,” Gwil whispered, checking Joe quickly.  “He’s breathing fine; he just looks exhausted.”  He bit his lip, and then turned to their governesses.  “Lady Catherine?” he called.  Joe’s governess came over with the doctor who had also come to stay with the boys. “He….he had those bad dreams,” Gwil said, not really lying.  “Then he suddenly fell asleep.” 

The doctor examined the child, and nodded.  “He seems to be exhausted, which is to be expected if he has been awake and frightened,” she said kindly.  “His breathing is good, and his pulse is strong.  Let him rest for now.”  She helped to wrap Joe back in the blanket, and Rami took him into his arms, holding his youngest brother close. 

It seemed like an eternity, but soon another signal rang through the estate.  Rami, Gwil, and Ben all stiffened, not certain yet if Joe had really seen the truth, but relaxed when they saw the adults clearly rejoicing and relieved.  A messenger came to the barricaded door and whispered news to the adults.   “It is alright, it is the safe alarm,” Feltwell told them gruffly.  “The threat is gone.  You did well,” he said, clasping each of the boy’s shoulders. 

Rami took a deep breath of relief.  “What happened?” he asked. 

“We don’t know yet, only that guards alerted to an attack.  The messenger said that the lords and Sir James are on their way back.” 

“Was anyone hurt?” Gwil asked nervously, Joe’s words ringing in his mind. 

“Unknown,” Feltwell sighed.  “I promise I will let you know when I hear anything.”  Lady Catherine had returned to check on Joe, and she nodded her agreement.

“We need to see the lords and Sir James,” Rami managed to say.  Both adults nodded.

“Of course,” Lady Catherine promised.  “You will know immediately when the lords or Sir James arrive, but it may be a while.”  She looked at Joe, still curled up in Rami’s arms.  “Perhaps we can put Joseph in his bed, and he might rest easier there,” she suggested. 

Rami considered, and nodded.  “We will stay with him,” he said firmly.  He had no idea what state Joe would be in when he awoke, and they had to make sure that the adults didn’t find out that Joe had seen the battle.  Rami himself had no idea how to address that when Joe awoke. 

“Of course,” Catherine agreed.  She took off Joe’s shoes that she had put on him earlier, and tucked him into his bed, his brothers and the two dogs standing guard.  “You may wish to get some rest as well,” she suggested gently.  “It may be some time before Sir James or the lords return.” 

“We are alright,” Rami said firmly, and Gwil and Ben nodded.  They were not taking any chances, and would not leave Joe alone.

Now that the threat was over, the adults seemed content to leave the boys and their dogs in Ben and Joe’s bedroom.  Ben climbed into bed so he could hold Joe, but was clearly wide awake and had no intention of sleeping himself. 

“What are we going to do?” he whispered when the adults had left. 

Rami ran his hands over his face.  “I don’t know,” he admitted worriedly.  Gwil was also biting his lip in concern as they tried to think what to do.  “We have to just say that Joe had nightmares.”

“Why did he ask for Sir James?” Gwil asked, his voice low.  “We have to think of something to say for that.”

Ben looked up.  “We can say he was scared, and asked for Sir James,” he suggested. 

Gwil was shaking his head a little.  “But what he said to Sir James….rhapsody.  Why did he say that?  What does it mean?” 

“At least he said it only when Sir James was in the room, and no one else,” Rami fretted.  “Maybe we just say nothing….wait and see what they say or ask.  Just insist we don’t know anything.”  He looked at Gwil who was near tears, and understood the reason.  “We will hear soon, no doubt, about Lord Brian,” he said, hugging his brother.  “Joe said he was hurt, but only that.  It could be minor.” 

A tear ran down Gwil’s face.  “I want them all to be safe,” he said quietly. 

“We will pray,” Rami agreed.

The boys waited nervously for the next few hours, too worried to sleep or even try to rest.  Their governesses checked on them, bringing tea and snacks, and promised to let them know the minute anyone returned.  They worried how to explain Joe’s words, and decided it would be best to just stay quiet as much as possible, and say only that Joe had had a night terror, and then claim ignorance of anything else.  Maybe in all the confusion, no one would really remember. 

“We will protect him,” Rami reminded his brothers, and they both nodded.  Even Hadar and Frankie were on edge, sensing their master’s fear, and pacing when not lying with Joe on the bed. 

It was nearly dawn when they heard noises from the courtyards, and all ran to the windows.  Their windows faced the back of the estate, but they could still see soldiers and horses returning and servants bustling about.  Ben’s sharp eyes spotted warhorses being collected by grooms and led the stables, and they all tried to spot the colors of the lords.  Even with the torchlight and the breaking dawn, however, it was too dark to make out much.  They nervously went back to check on Joe, and gathered around his bed, ready to defend him. 

A few minutes later there were voices in the main room, and Rami determinedly went to the doorway, glancing at his brothers to let them know to stay where they were.  He sagged in relief when he saw Lords Freddie and John, and then then gasped when Lord Brian entered, a bandage around his forehead, but otherwise looking well enough.  Gwil quickly joined him, and his relief was visible at seeing his lord safe.  Rami squeezed Gwil’s hand in gladness, and then they both focused on the lords who were talking quietly to the adults.  Their governesses looked at the boys and then nodded and curtsied to the lords, leaving with the other guards and Feltwell.  As one, the lords turned to the boys, and came into the bedroom.

“Lord Brian!” Gwil stepped forward, his eyes wide.  “Are you alright?”

“It is just a scratch,” the lord said, his eyes tired but clear.  “Head wounds bleed horribly.” 

Gwil nodded. “I am glad you are safe,” he said.  He looked at Freddie and John.  “All of you.” 

“We are just grateful you are alright,” Freddie said.  All the lords still had on their light armor, indicating that they had come directly from the field.  Indeed, Freddie still had his broadsword, which he finally unbuckled and laid on a table.  “Roger and James will be here soon. Are you well?” he demanded. 

“Yes, we are fine,” Rami said.  He looked at the men carefully, not sure what to say.  They could not let them know that Joe had raised the alarm.  “What happened?” he finally said, deciding that was safe and normal to ask. 

“Bandits,” Brian said wearily, sitting down in a chair.  John went directly to Joe, pulling up a chair to be close by the bed.  Ben, sitting on the edge of the bed, tensed a little, but said nothing.  “There are several bands who sometimes attack.  They were bold to attack Sir James’s estate, but fortunately we stopped them.” 

Rami wanted to ask why they would attack, but held his words, fearing that asking questions could lead to the lords asking questions in return.  He knew Gwil and Ben felt the same and they all remained silent. 

“Is Joseph alright?” Lord John sounded exhausted, and his face was drawn and pale as he gently touched Joe’s hair. 

“Yes.  He is sleeping,” Gwil offered carefully.  He and Rami edged closer to Joe’s bed, and Ben got up and made room for them to slide between the lord and the bed. 

Lord John nodded.  “I am sorry,” he said simply.

Rami and Gwil exchanged worried glances.  “For what?” Rami cautiously ventured. 

“For hurting him.”  The older pair tensed, wondering what Lord John meant by those words.

“John,” Freddie said, coming over to lay a hand on John’s shoulder, interrupting.  “Surely it can wait,” he said quietly. 

“No, it cannot,” John whispered.  He looked completely stricken, and his voice was rough with pain.  “I am so very sorry, truly.” 

Lord Brian had stood and also came to be beside Freddie and John.  Rami and Gwil were on alert now, not liking how the three lords were near Joe.  What was Lord John sorry about? 

“Deacy,” Brian said gently, using an apparent nickname.  “We have talked about this.  It can wait a bit.  At least wait until---” 

“No!”  John stood up, and while Rami and Gwil tensed at the sudden movement, they were glad that John stepped away from Joe and his bed.  John turned to face his brothers, his hands waving in agitation. 

“We have demanded so much; I have insisted upon so much,” he fretted.  “Demanded and taken, but never given in return.  This cannot continue now.  Tonight has changed everything.” 

“No, it hasn’t,” Freddie said, his voice tense and angry.  “I won’t let it change anything.” 

John gave a bitter laugh.  “You can’t control or order this, Freddie,” he snapped.  “It doesn’t work that way and you should know that by now.  It’s not always about what you want!” 

“John,” Brian was looking upset, his already pale face now a sickly white with some unknown dread.  “We cannot do this.” 

“We have to!”  John turned back to face Rami and Gwil as they stood between the lords and Joe in his bed.  Rami was near panic, not having any idea what was happening and Gwil looked equally alarmed.  Even Hadar and Frankie were suddenly growling again, standing beside the boys.   “I am sorry,” John began, taking a step closer to the bed, “but Joseph –” 

“No!” Without even fully realizing what he was doing, Rami drew his sword that was still in its scabbard around his waist.  Gwil and Ben didn’t hesitate but immediately drew their own weapons.  Rami saw to his relief that the three lords slowly backed away.  “Hadar, Frankie,” he said, glancing at the dogs.  “Alert.”  It was an order that Feltwell had taught them.  It was hardly needed as the dogs were already growling at the tension in the room, both of them as on edge as the humans.  Hadar especially shoved his way to block anyone from getting to the bed where Joe still slept, and Frankie snarled viciously, a sharp change from the usually friendly dog. 

The lords were clearly taken aback.  There was a long moment where all three looked shocked, as if they couldn’t not believe what they were seeing.  Then Freddie cleared his throat.  “Boys,” he said carefully, “calm down.  There is no need –” 

“No!”  Rami snapped.  He was terrified and only knew that they had to protect Joe.  “Stay away from Joe.  Don’t touch him.” 

“We aren’t going to hurt —” Brian began, but Gwil also jumped in to defend their youngest.

“Then what do you want?” he demanded shakily.  “What are you keeping from us now?”

“Haven’t you done enough?” Ben demanded, his voice shrill.  “Taking us from our families?  Lying to us?  What do you really want?” 

Brian chocked back a sob.  “We want you to be safe!” he cried. 

“And how have you done that?” Rami snapped.  

Freddie drew himself up, his face blazing with emotion.  “We did everything!” he cried.  “We gave up….we did it to keep you safe!” 

“Why?  What do you want now?” Gwil shouted. 

Freddie stepped forward and Ben expertly swung his sword in the lords direction.  “Don’t come closer!” he yelled.  

“Benjamin!” a new voice shouted.  Everyone looked up to see Roger in the doorway, his face pale with anger.  “Put it down, now!” he ordered. 

“No!” Ben argued.  “They want to hurt Joe!” 

“We are not going to hurt him,” John pleaded, pushing his way past Freddie and Brian.  “Gods, we would never hurt him.  I won’t allow it.” 

“Then what?  What are you keeping from us?” Rami demanded, his voice shaking with strain.  “We have trusted you, accepted that you will not tell us everything, just like you refused to tell our parents.  We have not had any choice but to trust you, but we will never let you hurt Joe or take him from us!” 

To the boys’ shock, John dropped to his knees, only inches from Rami and Ben’s swords.  “If you think that I would let Joseph come to any harm, then kill me now,” he said, his voice harsh.  “I would deserve it if you honestly thought that of me.” 

“John!  Get up!” Freddie ordered.

“No, Freddie,” John argued, looking at his brother.  “I deserve it, if they truly think I would harm Joseph.”

Gwil swallowed hard, his voice shaking, but his arrow was still aimed steadily.  “We don’t want to think it,” he cried.  “We have trusted you!  We have done everything that you and our parents and the treaty demanded.  But we don’t know what to think about anything now!” 

“Then let me tell you,” John said, his eyes frantic.  “Joseph awoke, and demanded to see Sir James.  He used the word ‘rhapsody’.”  The boys all tensed, signaling the truth of John’s words.  “He knew we were in battle,” he continued, tears running down his face.  “He knew Brian was hurt.” 

Rami stepped forward, the tip of his sword pressing against John’s neck.  “How do you know that?” he demanded.  He knew he was giving away their secret, but he felt they had no choice; the time for secrets was over. 

“I—“ 

“John, get up now,” Freddie snapped, and his voice was now suddenly icy, clearly expecting nothing but obedience.  John blinked, and did as he was told, Rami staying still and not protesting as the youngest lord moved away.  “Roger, give me your sword,” Freddie continued, and without hesitation the blond lord obeyed.  Freddie took the weapon, and crossed it with Rami’s.  

Gwil gasped and drew back his bow, and Ben stepped forward, but both stopped at Roger’s hard voice.  “Stand down,” he ordered.  “This is Rami’s fight.”                                 

“Come, my dear,” Freddie said, his eyes glittering with something dark and powerful.  “You have sworn to protect your little brothers, and now believe that we are the enemy.  Show me how you will protect them.”

Rami trembled, but lifted his sword, refusing to back down.  Without hesitation, he swung his sword and struck Freddie’s.  The lord easily deflected the blow, stepping aside lightly.  “You think big, but can you really take me?” Freddie taunted.  “We did take you from your families, we defeated your country.  Now you think we will take Joseph?  What else might we do? So far we have done everything we wanted, isn’t that right?”

Rami scowled, furious at the words, and doubled his efforts.  Freddie made sure the swords didn’t get even close to anyone around, and his skills were enough to prevent Rami from causing any accident as well. But at the moment, none of the boys could see that. There was their brother, fighting for their cause.

The blades were getting quicker and Rami’s face flushed, while Freddie provoked him even further by looking almost bored by the situation.   Suddenly Freddie lifted his sword arm up, leaving himself open to attack.  With a gasp, Rami stopped his sword at the last moment from hitting the vulnerable spot on Freddie’s armor and piercing his skin.

Everyone froze, and Rami locked eyes with Freddie, terrified at what he had almost done.  Freddie regarded him sternly for a moment, and then nodded at the boy, regarding him intently.

“Once you decide to draw a weapon on an enemy, you must be absolutely certain you will carry it out,” he said shortly.  “There is no way back.  Empty threats are unworthy of people like us.  Save it for your true enemies.” 

Rami flinched as if the words hurt him, his breath coming in short gasps as he thought about what he had just done.  “I can’t,” he realized.  “You are not an enemy—“

“I’m glad we established that,” Freddie interrupted shortly, handing Roger’s sword back to him, and then taking Rami’s from his with an expert move. “And once you decide to make peace, you have to mean that as well.  Consider this your first important lesson from me.  There will be many more.”  He seemed to suddenly fill the room with his presence, and all the boys hesitated, not certain what to do.

Gwil and Ben lowered their weapons, and Roger came forward to take them from the boys.  “You did well,” he said quietly.  “Always protect your brothers.”  He looked around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes.  “But no matter what you may feel, this is not the time nor place for fight.  There is no need.”

“We would never harm Joseph,” Brian said, his voice thick with emotion.  “We understand your fear, however.”  He had put an arm around John, and was holding up the young lord.  “They are the same fears we had for John.”

Rami stiffened, his eyes wide.  “For John?” he asked, uncertain.  Beside him, Gwil drew a sharp breath at a sudden realization.

Lord John finally met the boys gaze and nodded.  “I am a mage, a magic user, just like Joseph,” he said.

Chapter Text

Rami sat on the edge of Ben’s bed, trying to control his shaking hands.  He could scarcely believe what he had done; dawn a weapon and challenged Lord Freddie in front of everyone…actually crossed blades with him.  He would no doubt have to pay a price for his actions and he could not argue that it wasn’t warranted.  “I was a fool,” he whispered, mostly to himself.  Ben shook his head vehemently.

“You were protecting us; protecting Joe,” he said firmly.  He glared at the lords who were gathered on the other side of the bedroom.  “It’s their fault.”

“Maybe it’s no one’s fault,” Gwil said softly.  He was sitting on Joe’s bed, a protective arm on their youngest brother who was somehow still sound asleep even after the shouting and fighting.  Rami tried a small smile but it failed to reach his eyes.

After Lord John’s confession, Freddie had ordered the boys to stay where they were while the four lords withdrew to speak quietly.  Rami shuddered, his mind whirling as he wondered what would happen now.  He was guilty of treason against his lord.

“No, it is my fault, my responsibility,” he said in a shaky but determined tone.  Despite all his protests, Ben was young, and could be excused for following his oldest brother’s lead.  Gwil too had acted only after Rami had drawn his weapon.  But Rami had no excuse for his actions.  “I am the oldest, the leader.  I have just failed you all.”

Ben took his hand.  “You could never do that,” he said loyally. 

“I have, Ben.”  Rami looked at his brother, struggling to stay calm.  “I may have just failed all of Rhye.”

“How so?”

All three boys jumped a little at Lord Freddie’s voice.  He was standing in front of them now, hands on his hips, looking at them carefully.  Rami was shaking, but he stood, ready to face his lord and his judgement.

“I challenged you, my lord, and drew a weapon on you,” he freely admitted, confessing his crimes.  He looked back at his brothers who were also now standing, loyally coming to Rami’s side.  “I take responsibility for my treasonous actions.  It was I who started it, my lord.  I beg only that you spare my brothers.  They acted at my lead.”  Rami had no idea what Freddie would demand for his disobedience and defiance, and only hoped he would spare Gwil and Ben.

Freddie raised a dark eyebrow, his expression calm as he faced Rami.  “You took responsibility for your brothers,” he commented, his voice very neutral. 

Rami wanted to hug himself, but made himself stay still, trying to be calm and mature.  “I promised I would do so long ago.”

“And you have kept your word.”  Freddie looked at the boys for a moment longer, his presence still filing the room, and then he nodded firmly as he reached a decision.  “Your actions were justified,” he ruled, his voice clear.  “Granted, you were impetuous, a trait you must overcome.  But you were given the weapons earlier to protect if needed, and you did as you felt best at the time.  In the future, though, your complete obedience to myself and my brothers is expected. Is that clear?”

Rami let out a breath.  “Yes, my lord,” he said sincerely, bowing his head.  Gwil and Ben repeated his words and also bowed.

One minute Freddie had been a powerful lord, and now he was back to the kind and charismatic singer of songs that they had grown to know over the past year.  He looked at them, his eyes shadowed.  “We have much to discuss,” he said simply.  He then looked back at his brothers.  “But perhaps not right now,” he added quietly.

Part of Rami wanted to object, but he held his tongue, seeing how Ben was barely still awake, and how pale both Brian and Gwil were.  Freddie seemed to make some decision, and looked back to the boys.

“We will send in your governesses’,” he said firmly.  “Wash, and rest.  It has been a long night for us all.  We will talk later today.”  He looked at John, his eyes dark with power and some inner control.  “Is Joseph alright?”

Lord John nodded, his own face pale and drawn.  “He needs only sleep,” he said quietly.  “I have taken the worst of the battle memories from him.”  Rami and Gwil both tensed at the words, and Ben looked up, his eyes wide.

“You can do that?” he blurted out.

John smiled wearily. “Only when I must,” he assured the boys.  “I do not do it for trivial reasons.  He is in an honest sleep after being awake all night, and will remember much of it, but not the worst of the battle.  I have not taken anything vital from him, I promise.  I simply do not wish him to be afraid at what he saw.”

Rami took a moment to simply marvel at Lord John’s power, and then nodded.  “Thank you, my lord,” he said sincerely, bowing his head again. 

John smiled a little, his face drawn in exhaustion, accepting the thanks.  “I have always tried to protect him,” he said, and the boys believed him.

“We are in your debt, my lord” Gwil added humbly.  Even Ben bowed his head, deeply respectful to the lord and mage.  Mages were rare and powerful, and all who wished to live paid them honor and respect, including kings.   Rami had heard more than one story about mages who extracted horrible revenge on those who crossed them.  The last thing they wanted to do now was anger Lord John.  They had all considered him the kindest and gentlest of the lords, but knowing he was a mage made them all slightly reconsider.

“Sleep now,” Brian said, coming to lay his hands on each of the boys, conveying his comfort.  “We will meet later today and do our best to answer what questions we can.”  He started to guide Gwil to the big pairs bed and dressing rooms, and Roger took Ben as John left the bedroom, saying he would send for the governesses.  Rami looked at Freddie carefully as his brothers were guided away, his brows drawn in thought as he was left with Freddie.  Only Joe still slept in his bed, guarded by the dogs.

“May I ask one question now, my lord?” he asked cautiously.  Freddie looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded.  Rami choose his words carefully, thinking.  He didn’t know how he knew, but he had no doubt it was true.  “You are even closer to the throne than what I have been told, correct?”

Freddie’s dark eyes shone in what seemed like approval at the question, and then drew hooded.  “Yes, we are,” he answered shortly.

**********

**********

Rami had often been of the opinion that he was too old for a governess, but he would concede that thought now.  He was grateful as Lady Elizabeth and Lady Catherine returned, and quickly saw their charges bathed and tucked into bed after a quick bite of food.  Both Rami and Gwil nearly fell asleep over the improvised breakfast, and Ben did succumb to sleep, carried to his bed by Lady Catherine.

“Is Joe alright?” Rami asked, refusing to rest until he had checked on the youngest.

“He is fine,” the doctor assured him.  “Simply exhausted from being awake all night.  Get some rest, my young lord, and I shall stay with Joseph and Benjamin.  If they awake before you, we will simply have them eat something and wait for you to arise.”  Rami nodded his thanks, and collapsed in his bed.

It was early afternoon when Rami awoke, feeling sluggish and out of sorts from the unusual sleeping schedule.  He ate some late lunch and changed into casual clothes, and then went to a quiet window bench in the main room after assuring the ladies that he was fine and simply needed some time alone.

Rami’s hands were still trembling a little as he thought over the past hours.  He had committed treason, raising a sword to Freddie.  Yet the lord had forgiven him, and Rami knew there was much more to be revealed about their lords.  And especially about Lord John….and Joe.

Joe, a mage.  Rami had come to accept it over the previous months, but it was still hard to put into words and clear thought.  It seemed that John had communicated through Joe, sending the alert of the bandits.  And then Joe had seen the battle?  Rami had heard stories about mages able to see events far away, as if through the eyes of another, but it was hard to believe that his youngest brother had seen the fight.  He knew there had to have been things that would terrify the child.

A soft sound made him look up, and Gwil joined him, his hazel eyes also tired and haunted.  They sat quietly for a while, each lost in their own thoughts before Gwil cleared his throat.

“I think Sir James knows; about Joe, I mean.”

Rami nodded.  “It seems so,” he agreed.  “He knew to act when Lord John….contacted…Joe.”

Gwil sighed, running his hands over his face. “What do we do?” he asked simply.  Rami shook his head.

“I have no idea,” he admitted.  “Other than we promised our allegiance to the lords over a year ago, and then again this morning.  We have trusted them, and I believe we must continue to do so.  We can never challenge them again.”

“I agree,” Gwil said without hesitation.  “We are bound to them.  The only thing that could make me change my vow is if they were to hurt Joe, and I can’t see them ever doing that.”

“Nor can I,” Rami agreed.  “Even if they were to attack Rhye itself, I think we must follow them now.”

Gwil tilted in head in thought.  “I do not think they would ever do that either,” he mused.  “Lord Freddie said that when you make peace, you must keep to that promise; to mean it.  They have given no sign that they would go back on the treaty.  Our countries are at peace.”

Rami leaned back against the wall, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face.  “And we must do whatever is necessary to continue that,” he knew.  “We will do as we are told, and never defy them again.  We must honor our word.”

“We will,” Gwil promised.

They sat for a while, both lost in thought, until stirring from the other bedroom told them that Ben and Joe were awake.  Ben was sitting on the edge of Joe’s bed, holding his brother, who looked very confused and young, rubbing his eyes.

“How are you, Joe?” Rami asked gently.

Joe looked up at his eldest brother.  “It was scary,” he said quietly. 

Rami felt his heart break a little, and he sat on Joe’s other side.  Gwil sat next to Ben, and they all hugged.  “I know it was,” Rami said gently.  “You were very brave, Joe.  You did well.”

Gwil gave him a kiss on the head.  “We are very proud of you,” he said.  “And I know our lords are as well.”

Ben rubbed Joe’s back.  “It’s alright now, everyone is safe.  And you were really brave last night, and smart.  You saved a lot of people.”

Joe chewed his lip carefully.  “I did?”

“You did,” Ben confirmed.  “You gave Sir James the warning and they stopped the bandits before anything too bad happened.”

“I didn’t want to see it,” Joe said sadly.  “But I couldn’t get away.”

“Did you see what Lord John saw?” Rami asked, making a guess.  Joe nodded.  “I know he is sorry you saw that, Joe.  I’m sure he didn’t mean for you to see it.  You are so very strong.”

The youngest perked up a little at the praise, and small smile started.  “I bet you are hungry,” Gwil said cheerfully, changing the subject.  “Let’s go see if we can sneak pastries from the kitchens again!”  It was a favorite game between the boys and the head baker, who ruled with terror over the her area of the kitchens.  Only the boys were immune from her wrath, and she always had food available for their sampling and stamp of approval.  She had once told Rami that she understood growing boys sneaking treats, and made no objection or fuss when items disappeared from her board.

Joe and Ben both looked happy at the notion, and with their governesses blessing, they headed down to the kitchens.  Fifteen minutes later they had a variety of meat pies and cookies, and settled down happily with mugs of milk.  The chef let them sample the fresh fruit tarts straight from the ovens, cementing their friendly bond.  She even found some meat scraps for Hadar and Frankie, who had waited obediently but whimpering pathetically in the doorway to the kitchens, knowing better than to set paw inside.  It was a welcome relaxed meal, much needed after the stress of the night before.  Joe still looked a bit tired, but he ate well and seemed no longer upset at what he had seen.

They were finishing their meal when Lord Brian found them at the tables in the kitchens.  All the boys quickly stood when the lord entered, and he gestured at them to sit back down and finish.  “Ah, found the pastries, did you?” he smiled.

“Yes, my lord,” Gwil said, a little bashfully. 

“Sir James has the best kitchens in Queen,” Brian commented, thanking the proud chef as she brought the lord a plate of desserts for him to try.  “Roger keeps trying to hire her away.”

Joe looked at the chef with wide, worried eyes, pausing between bits of his apple tart.  “You aren’t leaving are you?” he gasped.  Ben looked ready to burst into tears at the possibility.

“No, my lords,” Mira chuckled.  “I am content here, especially with such loyal diners as yourselves.  If I were to leave, I fear you would starve to death.”  All the boys were relieved at the assurance.

Brian laughed, shaking his head as the chef excused herself to return to her work.  “I fear James would starve as well,” he remarked.  The boys giggle a little at the notion.  “Now, how are you this afternoon, my lads?” he asked, his voice more serious.

Rami looked at his brothers, who all straightened a little in their chairs and he nodded at them.  “We are well, my lord,” he assured the man.

Brian looked at them kindly.  “We all had a rough night and morning,” he said gently.  “But I think we agree we need to talk, correct?”  Rami, Gwil, and Ben nodded.  “Then I have been asked to bring you to the library. Are you ready?”

“Yes my lord,” Rami said firmly.  They got up and followed the lord to the large library on the main floor.  The other three lords were already gathered, and Brian shut the door behind them once they were settled.  Hadar and Frankie took up places on the floor by their young masters as the boys seated themselves on a long couch and the lords pulled up chairs.

“We are very proud of all of you,” Freddie began, and by the kind look in his eyes, Rami knew that he had been forgiven for his attack.  “It has been an unfortunate time for all of us, but we are proud of how you handled yourselves, and protected Joseph.”  He smiled at the youngest, who was settled in between Rami and Ben.  “How are you, my dear?”

“I am alright,” Joe said honestly.  He looked at Brian.  “I’m glad you are alright, my lord,” he said softly.  Brian nodded kindly.

“I’m sure it was frightening, wasn’t it?” he asked.  At Joe’s firm nod, he smiled.  “Head wounds always look bad because they bleed so much, but I am very well.”

“Lord John told me you were alright,” Joe admitted.  “It was just scary.”

Roger patted Joe’s knee gently.  “It is scary, even for adults,” he told the boy.  “You were very brave.”

“Well, now,” Freddie sighed, running a hand through his dark hair.  “To explain…” he took a deep breath, thinking how to begin.  “As you know, we four grew up together.  What we have told only a very few is that we learned early on that John was a mage.”  He looked at his youngest brother, his expression fond.  “As you have with Joseph, we swore to protect him; to keep it secret.  We did not know what would happen if people learned of his powers.”

Rami cleared his throat.  “I have….heard stories,” he said carefully, not wanting to upset Joe.  Freddie nodded in understanding.

“As had we,” he agreed.  “None of us fault you for your…actions…this morning,” he said tactfully, glancing at Joe.  “We would have done the same for John.  It became especially worrisome for us by the time John was just eight years old; he began to see visions on how to fight Rhye.”

Ben looked at their lords with interest.  “Is that how you won the war?” he asked astutely.

“Largely,” Roger admitted, looking pleased at his intended’s question.  “We learned early on that all John saw was true, and to not doubt what he said.  We put our complete trust in him, and we rose rapidly through the ranks.”

“It wasn’t just me,” John protested softly.  “You are great generals on your own, without anything that I can see.” He looked at the boys.  “The visions showed how to defeat Rhye quickly, but also with as little destruction as possible.  They showed that our two countries would become allies and be at peace.  None of us wanted to destroy your country completely and utterly.  We did not want to be harsh conquerors.”

Gwil nodded in agreement at the claim.  “My father always said that Queen fought honorably, and respected all courtesies to fellow soldiers.  You were known for being generous victors.”

“I am glad,” Freddie smiled a little.  “We had no wish to destroy anyone; just end the war.  It had gone on long enough.”

Rami thought on his history and government lessons.  “It was time,” he agreed.  “But…the treaty?” he ventured, looking at his brothers.  “Did Lord John see that as well?  And what to demand?”

“He did,” Brian confirmed quietly.  “The visions were rather…persistent,” he added with a grimace.

Ben raised a blond eyebrow.  “How?”  he asked.

There was a pause before Freddie spoke.  “Because they told us to claim you….and two of you had not yet even been born.”

Rami thought about that for a moment, frowning a little.  He could imagine that it had not been easy for the gentle lord to tell his brothers that they had to involve children. 

“I did not want to believe it,” John said softly, confirming Rami’s thoughts.  “It did not make any sense, to claim children, especially two still unborn.  I was….angry.”

“He fought against it, for months he would not say a word,” Roger added.  “We practically had to beat it out of him.  Then we didn’t want to believe it either.”

Gwil was deep in thought, his eyes narrowed as he pondered everything.  “Do you ever know why your visions show things, my lord?  Do you know the reasons for the things you are told to do?”

“Sometimes, and it does help,” John admitted, smiling a little at Gwil, clearly appreciating his insight and question.  “I did not see any reason why we had to claim you for the longest time.  For a while, I could not see anything past demanding you; I didn’t understand why it had to be and it was nearly impossible to think we would do such a thing with no clear reason.  But finally, I did see the reason, and then it….made sense,” he hesitated, looking at his brothers. 

There was silence for a moment and Rami frowned, wondering what the reason could possibly be.  He saw Freddie look at John, and the lord shook his head a little, glancing at Joe.  Freddie put on a bright smile and turned to the youngest.

“Joseph, darling, I need you to do something very important for me.  Do you remember the insignia on the badges of those we fought last night?”  Joe frowned in concentration for a moment and then nodded.  “Can you draw it for us, please?  It would be a great help.  And then draw the horses as well?”

“Alright,” Joe said happily, glad to be of assistance.  He was quickly set up in a far corner of the library with paper and pencils, the dogs at his feet.   John saw him start to his assigned task, and then returned to the group.

“Joseph does not know,” John said quietly.   “And he does not yet need to know.  We well know the insignia; the task is to simply keep him busy while we speak.”  The other boys nodded their understanding, and looked to the lords to continue.

Roger took a deep breath, picking up the story.  “In any battle, it is good to have allies.  Sometimes those allies can come from surprising places.  John has seen that there is an as yet unknown mutual enemy facing both Queen and Rhye.  If we were still at war with each other, we would be easily defeated.  But there is strength in numbers and unity.  Since the war ended, we have worked hard to build up forces in both countries under strict control and secrecy.  It will take both Queen and Rhye working together to defeat this evil.”

Rami was shocked, and he could see looks of surprise on Gwil and Ben’s faces as well.  It was completely unexpected news.  “Is that why it was important to defeat Rhye?” he asked carefully.  “So we could become allies?”

“Yes,” Brian said, nodding his head in approval at Rami’s intuitive question.  “It was time for war between our countries to cease, and begin to prepare for what will be an even greater war and threat.”

Ben looked at Lord John curiously.  “What can you see of this enemy, my lord?” he asked politely.

“Very little.  Only that they are like nothing we have faced before.  I cannot see any face or name yet, only the greatest of evil incarnate.”  John took a deep breath.  “They have magic users,” he said quietly.  “Some willing, and some…unwilling.  When they attack, it will be for total annihilation and victory.  Any opposing will be killed.  They will not stop with Queen or Rhey, but move on.”

Rami looked sharply at Joe, sitting innocently at a table, working earnestly on his task. “Magic users, unwilling?” he asked hesitantly.  John simply nodded.

“Slaves,” he said quietly.  “Forced to use our powers for their ends.”

Freddie laid a hand on John’s shoulder, squeezing it briefly.  “John and Joe are both in great danger,” he said simply.

Gwil’s eyes were wide as he rapidly put pieces together and still looked for missing sections.  “And how do we play into this, other than Joe?” he asked carefully.  “Why were our houses named in the treaty terms?”

Brian sighed, running his hands through his hair briefly before looking at his future consort.  “John saw that the first born of Joe’s house would be a mage, so he was named.  As for you three…” he smiled a little.  “Gwilym and Benjamin, you are the perfect counterparts to Roger and I.  John has seen Roger and you, Benjamin, leading armies on the battlefield as the high generals.”  Ben looked at Roger with wide eyes, and the blond lord nodded simply.  “Gilwym, you and I are needed to organize, to rally forces and supplies.  It is our talent and best ability.”  Gwil swallowed nervously, but nodded in determination.

Rami hesitated before gathering the courage to speak.  “And I?” he asked softly.

Freddie reached out and laid a hand on Rami’s shoulder briefly.  “You too, are closer than you think,” he said softly.  Rami flinched, but kept his gaze on Freddie, seeing it was the truth.  Gwil and Ben exchanged slightly puzzled looks, but said nothing.

Rami had to force himself to breathe, to calm down.  Trying to focus on anything other than himself, he looked at John, who gazed at him with sadness.  “May I ask, my Lord Mage, why we were taken when we were?  Was there something that forced your hand?”

John looked a little startled at the title, but Rami knew it was true and appropriate, and time for him and his brothers to use the proper address.  Mages were honored by even kings.  He knew he could not address John as such outside of the room, but it was only right to acknowledge it inside, and set the example for Gwil and Ben.  Rami didn’t miss Freddie giving a small nod of approval at his words, and Brian and Roger also looked pleased.

It was Freddie who finally spoke. “Joseph would have died,” he said softly.

The boys looked at him, and Freddie ran his hands through his dark hair, taking another deep breath to steady himself.   “Do you remember that the coughing sickness that swept through Joe’s house just weeks after you came to us?” he finally said.  The boys nodded.  “John had a vision; Joe would have died if he had still been there.” 

Rami felt sick as he heard the words.  How had that not occurred to him?  He had been so blinded by everything.

“We wanted to wait; we thought we could wait until you were all older,” Brian said desperately.  “But we knew John’s vision was true, and a warning.  The only way to save Joe was to demand him when we did.”  Tears were appearing in the hazel eyes.  “We thought we would have more time,” he whispered.  “We truly did.”

“I understand,” Rami said carefully, taking responsibility again for his younger brothers.  “I am grateful that you acted as you did.”  Gwil and Ben looked rather horrified, but also inclined their heads in thanks, acknowledging their understanding of the situation.

There was silence for a moment, while the boys considered what they had been told.  “May I ask a question, please?” Ben finally asked, his voice soft and respectful.  Freddie nodded at the boy.  “Why are we to marry each of you?  I do not know about mages, my Lord Mage,” he looked at John apologetically, “but even generals can be ordered.  Why marry us?  You could order any troops or supplies from Rhye for the war.”

“Ah, an excellent question,” Freddie sighed in approval.  “The truth, Benjamin, is that we do not really know.  John’s visions are not always perfectly clear.  We only know that we must do as they show, and trust we will one day know the reasons.”  He glanced at Rami, and the younger lord met his gaze without blinking, guessing at the reason for their marriage.  “Perhaps it is to make stronger bonds,” Freddie said vaguely.

“We have come to honestly love and honor you in all ways,” Brian said, and his voice was also rough with emotion.  “I speak truly; we would not lie about this.  We never wanted harm to come to you, and did only what we had to keep you safe.”

A faint sound from the corner caught their attention.  Hadar had taken one of Joe’s pencils, and was chewing on it, making his master giggle and pause in his work.

Gwil was concentrating again, his eyebrows drawn tight in thought. “Hadar is a familiar, isn’t he?” he guessed.

“And truly, for Joe’s protection,” John said quietly.

“Do anyone else know that Joe is a mage?” Rami asked. 

“No.  No one knows,” Brian said quietly.  “We told James only that if Joe ever said the code word “rhapsody”, then it meant there was danger.” 

“He has said before that you talk to him and show him things.  We thought he was just playing,” Gwil said apologetically.

John looked up a little. “I only send good things, I swear. Things to make him happy, and relaxed.  Last night I had no choice but to contact Miami through him.  I saw enemies attack the estate, and you possibly being harmed.”

“Miami does not know all, but we told him long ago that if anyone spoke the word ‘rhapsody’, he was to do as ordered,” Freddie explained.  “It is to be used only in cases of great need.”

“John sent the message because we had no way of knowing how great the danger was,” Brian said quietly.  

“Joe has had night terrors since we came to Queen,” Rami observed.  “Where do those come from?” 

Freddie took a deep breath.  “We are not certain,” he admitted.  “If we knew, we would tell you, I swear.  But John cannot see everything.  We think that Joseph’s night terrors are the result of him seeing things as well.  John also had nightmares since the time he was a baby.  It is a burden mages bear.  He also might be seeing the battle ahead, but does not realize it yet.” 

Ben had been thinking carefully, looking at his younger brother. “Mages can heal, right?” He looked at John.  “Can you heal Joe from his illness, my Lord Mage?” 

John shook his head sadly.  “I have tried,” he admitted.  “I can add protections so he is not hurt as often, and ease his pain when he is injured, but curing his illness is beyond my power.”  He sighed, rubbing his forehead.  “Perhaps, one day,” he said sadly.  “I continue to try.” 

Freddie looked at the boys with a sigh.  “And, there you have it my dears,” he said.  “We have confessed what we know, and why we have done what we did.  I hope you can understand one day, and forgive us for taking you from your families.  We fought against it, but knew there was no choice; we had to do as John saw.  We never wanted to bring children into this war.”

Ben straightened, giving his lord a firm look.  “We won’t be children forever,” he pointed out logically.  “It sounds like we will be grown up by the time of the great war.” 

Roger nodded.  “We think that as well,” he said.  “But still, we are sorry we had to take you from your parents when we did.” 

“It saved Joe’s life,” Gwil said reasonably.  “It was worth it.”

John was looking down at his hands again, clearly sad.  “I wish there had been another way, not just for when we claimed you, but for bringing you into this at all.  But all the visions show that it will take the combined forces of Queen and Rhye, and all eight of us, to fight this evil.  We each have an important role to play.  I am sorry I cannot be more specific, but truly, the visions control me, and not the other way around.  We are crucial, but I cannot explain more yet.”

“Then it is good that we are here now,” Rami said with determination.  “And good also that we were called to you when we were.  We have a great deal to learn, don’t we?” 

Brian sighed.  “We had no wish to raise warriors,” he said quietly.  “So many in both Queen and Rhye think that this is a new generation that can grow up in peace, and not war.  Both our countries were ready for the war to end, and now we are preparing you for yet another war. I am sorry that it has come to this.”

Rami shook his head at the words.  “We are from noble houses,” he pointed out a bit proudly.  “Duty is ingrained into us even before we are born, and we have always known that we had to grow up quickly.  We knew our place was to serve Rhye, and now it is to serve Queen and Rhye in both war and in peace.  We accept our destinies.”  Gwil and Ben nodded with pride and the lords all smiled in approval.

“Still,” Roger persisted, his guilt evident, “we want you to be happy.  John’s visions say we have time…years…to prepare.  We will need it, I think.  But you do not need to leave your childhoods behind just yet.  We have learned to find and take happiness whenever and where we can.  We all have a heavy burden, but there is no reason to not enjoy life as well.”  He smiled, his eyes twinkling a little, much like Freddie’s often did.  “I see no reason to stop the pranks on Sir James.”

Ben grinned, and both Rami and Gwil laughed a little. 

“Live in the moment,” Freddie advised.  “We can never forget what lies ahead, but we cannot let it crush us.  There is also great happiness ahead for us.  We are not cursed or doomed, I promise.  We have great challenges ahead of us, but we are stronger together.”  Even John smiled and nodded, and the boys felt better at that.  

“I have a question, my lords,” Gwil said thoughtfully.  “We cannot tell anyone of this, can we?  It must be kept secret.”

John shook his head.  “I am sorry, but yes, we must keep it all secret,” he said softly.  “We cannot risk anyone finding out what Joseph and I can see.  It is why we have always refused to explain the treaty.”  He looked back down at his hands. “Perhaps we can explain one day,” he offered. 

“I am sorry we must ask you keep this great secret from your families and your ambassador,” Freddie said quietly.  “We promised you once that we would not interfere with your correspondence and counsel from your ambassador, and we must ask for a change only one year later.” 

Rami glanced at Gwil and Ben, and they nodded. “We understand,” Rami said firmly, speaking for them all.  “It will be difficult, but we agree that is the only option.  And we don’t want to worry Joe’s parents.  Do they have any idea is a mage?”

John shook his head.  “None,” he said.  “It is important it stay that way.” 

Freddie looked at them proudly.  “We are honored by your bravery and understanding,” he said honestly.  “There will be many more questions and still much to explain, but we will always speak as truthfully as possible with you three.”

“Then you have our loyalty,” Rami said firmly, and Gwil and Ben nodded again.  “We give it to you of our free will.” 

Freddie looked down for a moment.  “We are humbled by your trust,” he said quietly.  “We know we have little right to ask it.” 

“I understand now that it has not been easy for you either,” Gwil said thoughtfully.  “We know our duty.”  He looked at Freddie a little nervously.  “My lord, Rami apologized earlier, and Ben and I must do the same now.  We should never have raised weapons to you, I—“ he broke off, embarrassed.

Freddie waved a hand in a gentle gesture.  “It is forgiven,” he assured the boys.  “You were protecting your brother.  I would ask nothing less.  We have your promise it will not happen again, and that is sufficient.”

“Still, it was wrong, and I am sorry,” Ben added, biting his lip in concern as he too reflected on what their acts had meant.  “You are our—“

“Our king.”

Everyone turned to see Joe standing nearby, his eyes fixed on Freddie, the dogs at his side.  The child had a gaze to his eyes that his brothers had never before seen, but the lords all seemed to recognize it. 

Freddie drew in a sharp breath, his gaze never leaving Joe’s.  “What am I?” he asked sternly, his voice calm, but deep.

“You are our king,” Joe repeated steadily.  “Not now, but in the future.” 

Everyone held their breath, not knowing what to say.  Finally, Freddie stood and went over and knelt before Joe so he was his height.

“Do you see and name me so, my young Lord Mage?” he asked softly. 

Joe nodded, and John got up and came to his side.  “We both do,” John said, his voice a little shaky as he laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “I know you have never sought the throne, brother, but one day you will need to claim it.”

Freddie looked down and sighed.  “I have never wanted it, not even for a moment since the first time you saw a crown on my head, little brother.” 

“Yet it will happen,” John said softly.  “You know my visions are true, and Joseph has seen it clearly as well.  You cannot deny it any longer.  We do not yet see when, but you will wear the crown.” 

Freddie kept his gaze down for a moment, and then finally slowly nodded.  “If I must, my Lord Mages,” he finally said, and bowed his head to them. 

Rami was watching in awe, and saw that Gwil and Ben looked honestly shocked.  Brian and Roger both looked a little sad, as if knowing their brother did not want the crown.  Freddie shook his head a little, and then stood and turned back to them.  As he did, Brian and Roger also stood, and the boys followed their example.  For another long moment there was silence, and then Brian stepped forward. 

“I gave my loyalty to you long ago, brother, and it will never leave you,” he said.  “We know you have never wished for the crown, but we now know for certain that it will come to you, and we will support you.”  He then bowed low before Freddie, and for a moment the older man seemed ready to scold him.  But then Freddie stopped himself, and merely took a steady breath, lifting his chin and accepting the vow. 

“My brother,” Freddie said, clasping Brian’s arm. 

Roger was next and he took Freddie’s hand and kissed the ring that the eldest wore.  “My brother, my king,” he said simply.  Freddie also clasped his arm and the three hugged briefly.

Quietly, John picked up Joe, who settled easily in his arms.  Freddie turned to them and bowed respectfully to the two magic users.  “My Lord Mages,” he said softly.  John shook his head a little and bowed his own head, Joe also lowering his head, copying John’s action.

“Your servants,” John corrected.  “Your mages, my brother and king, to command as you will.”

“I have never wanted to do that,” Freddie said, looking at John sadly.

“We have…and will…insist on much from you,” John answered, his eyes bright with unshed tears.  “Our service and loyalty is only to you; our powers only for your use.  I make this vow on behalf of myself and my intended, who will be bound by my word that I give to you today.”

Freddie nodded in silent understanding and turned to face his brothers and the boys.  “I will not seek out the throne,” he declared, his voice rough with emotion but also strength, “but if… when… it comes to me, I will accept it.”  Something had shifted in the room.  All knew it was power and the fate of the future.  Freddie paused for a moment, and then spoke carefully to the older boys.

“You are lords of Rhye, but you are also young lords of Queen,” he said.  The other three men stood a few feet away, their eyes wide, but saying nothing as they watched Freddie and the oldest boys intently.  Freddie suddenly seemed even more powerful than he usually was, his presence filling the room.

“Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Benjamin Hardy, you are under our protection and rule.  I name you princes of Rhye and Queen, together with your brother the Lord Mage Joseph Mazzello.  Do you now swear allegiance and obedience to me?  Do you acknowledge me as your High liege lord?”

Rami felt almost dizzy at hearing the words, words that he had never thought he would hear.  It was the most serious promise that could be made, a vow that a prince gave to a king.   

Freddie continued speaking, his voice grave as he regarded each of the boys.  “Gwilym, Benjamin, your future spouses gave their allegiance to me long ago.  Will you join them in swearing your obedience?”  Dark eyes look at Rami, and the youth held his breath, knowing what was next.  “Rami, my betrothed, and royal consort.  Will you acknowledge me not just as your husband, but as your High liege lord?”

Even through his shock, Rami knew what had to be done, and he did not hesitate.  He knelt before Freddie.

“I swear my allegiance to you, Lord Frederick of Queen, my husband and High liege lord,” he said.  He looked up at Freddie.  “My king.”  He took a deep breath, understanding more than his brothers, except perhaps for Joe.  “And I too, shall not seek, but will accept if offered,” he said carefully, not wanting to say more at the moment.  “And if I do, it will be subject to you, and your crown.”  He looked to the other three men, and bowed his head again.  “And I swear my allegiance also to you, Lord Brian, Lord Roger, and Lord Mage John, as my other liege lords and I as your servant.”  Rami didn’t know where the words came from, but he knew they were true. 

Lastly, he looked at Joe, held in Lord John’s arms, who was watching it all with eyes that were both young and yet wise.  “And I swear my protection to you, Lord Mage Joseph, as your brother and servant.  You are my mage, and I will do your rightful bidding.”

Freddie extended his hand, his eyes watching Rami intently, seeing what he would do.  Rami didn’t hesitate, and taking Freddie’s hand, pressed his lips to the ring that the lord wore, a true act of obedience and loyalty.  He kept his gaze down as Gwil and Ben followed his lead.

“My High liege lord,” Gwil said, kneeling before Freddie and kissing his ring.  He then turned to Brian.  “I take your vow of allegiance as my own, my promised spouse,” he said steadily.  “What you have sworn, I second.  I pledge my obedience to your brothers as my liege lord and as the Mage of Queen.”  Gwil turned to Joe, his eyes wide with understanding.  “And to you, my brother, Lord Mage Joseph, you have my service.”

Ben was next, and his face was pale from the seriousness of the moment.  He knew what was happening, and he did not hesitate to kneel beside Gwil and Rami.  “My king,” he said simply to Freddie, his head bowed very low and he pressed his lips to the ring.  He then looked with pride at Roger.  “My lord, I also take your vows as my own words, and make myself bound by them.  I give my service to your brothers, who are my king, liege lord, and mage.”  He looked at Joe, and his expression grew even more serious.  “And to my younger brother, Lord Mage Joseph, I offer my protection.”

“Rise,” Freddie said calmly.  The boys scrambled to their feet and dared to look up at the lord.  “We can speak of this to no one, not even our most loyal servant.  Our tasks now are to prepare for war.”  He looked at everyone seriously.  “We seem to have time, but make no mistake, we must prepare for what has been seen.  My brothers,” he looked at Brian, Roger, and John.  “We will continue what we have been for these past years.  Seek what we can, and prepare.  My princes,” he looked at the boys.  “Your tasks are to lean all you can, and I know you will continue to make us proud.  Your childhood is not yet over; I beg you to take what you can.  We will ask you to grow up soon enough.”

Brian bowed his head, and everyone followed his example.  Then Freddie seemed to shrink a fraction, and the power he had easily wielded was tucked away, leaving the song singer in the room.  Roger was quick to pull his brother into a hug, and Brian and John joined, Joe still in John’s arms, patting Freddie on the head.  The lord laughed a little and then the older boys were pulled into the hug as well.

“We will do great things,” Freddie promised.

Chapter Text

Dear Mama and Papa,

As always, I send you my love and greetings, and I am enclosing a letter for Sami. 

Not much of importance has occurred since my last letter.  I was pleased to receive a perfect evaluation on my essay of history about –

**********

Rami starred at the words on the paper and had to put down his pen.  He knew he had no choice but to lie to his parents, and his brother, and would never forget that promise, but still, it was difficult to write for the first time and try to ignore all that had occurred in the past day.

A soft sigh caught his attention, and he looked over at Gwil, who was sound asleep in his bed.  Joe and Ben had been exhausted after the events of the previous night and day, and had quickly fallen asleep after a light and early dinner, with Gwil not been far behind them.  Gwil had been quiet, his eyes narrowed, a sure sign that he was thinking and brooding, and he had taken to bed as soon as the younger pair were tucked in.  Rami had to smile at his brother who was already tanged up the bedding, his legs almost too long for the youth-sized bed.  He was mildly annoyed, but mostly amused, at Gwil growing taller than him, and took it with good grace.

After their meeting in the library, both Lord John and Joe had been stricken with headaches, Lord John murmuring that it was an unfortunate common ailment of mages, the price of seeing visions.  Freddie had quickly dismissed them, and Rami, Gwil, and Ben accompanied Joe and Lord John back to the boys’ suite where the doctor gave both secret mages a dose of medicine.  They had then curled up on Joe’s bed while Ben read them a story, proud to show his expertise in reading.  Both Lord John and Joe had quickly fallen asleep, needing the rest.  They awoke only for a light dinner, and then John was guided firmly to his room by Lords Brian and Roger, and Joe was tucked back into bed by Lady Catherine.  Ben had quickly followed Joe to bed and then Gwil collapsed.  Only Rami was unable to rest.

He starred at the writing paper for a good 20 minutes, unable to think of anything else to write to his family.  He added a few notes to Ben’s letter to his parents, assuring them that Ben was studying hard, and wrote a P.S. to Joe’s proudly self-written note to his family, praising Joe’s studies.  The letters were bundled and given to a page for the next day’s post, and then Rami was back to sitting at the desk in his and Gwil’s room, staring blankly out the windows.

Finally, he got up and put on his robe and slippers.  Lady Elizabeth was straightening the main room, and she looked up in surprise as Rami came out of his bedroom.

“My lord?”

“I know it is late, but would it be possible for me to speak with Lord Frederick, my lady?”  He knew he could not rest until he spoke with the lord.

The governess paused only for a moment, and then bowed her head.  “Of course, my lord.  I will send a page immediately.”

“Thank you, Lady Elizabeth.”  Rami checked on Ben and Joe, and patted Hadar and Frankie who were as always on guard around their young masters.  “Keep an eye on Gwil also, alright?” he whispered to the hounds.  Hadar nudged his hand, and Rami remembered that Lord John had said that the wolfhound was also a familiar to Joe.  He wondered what all that entailed, and shook his head a little, amazed.

A few minutes later a page returned and announced that Lord Frederick would be pleased to meet with Lord Rami in a study.  Rami thanked the page, and followed him down the halls, feeling that he should have dressed and not come in his nightshirt like a child, but it was too late now, and he brushed it aside.  Lady Elizabeth accompanied him, and she politely curtsied to the young lord and waited outside in the hallway while Rami took a steadying breath and entered the study.

Freddie was in a chair by the fireplace, pouring fresh tea for his guest. “Come in, dear.”  He handed Rami a teacup and saw him settled in a comfortable chair.  “How can I help you? I thought you were surely going to bed early.”

Rami shook his head.  “I cannot rest,” he sighed.  “I think I should apologize, again my lord, for before.”

“Oh, not at all,” Freddie shook his head, “You made a choice to not hurt me, and that is important.  You showed mercy and realized your inner feelings and that I am not an enemy after all.  There’s no need for more apologies. I proved my point and you accepted your defeat quite gracefully. I’m proud.”

“Still…” Rami bit his lip in thought.  “You must think me a child.”

Freddie shook his head.  “Rami, in years of age, you are still a child, and there is no shame in that.  But in terms of your maturity, you are advanced more than you know, as are your brothers.”  The lord sighed, looking at the flames in the fireplace.  “I do wonder if we are responsible for that,” he said softly.  “Making you grow up too fast.”

Rami looked at the lord with determination.  “You too, grew up quickly, my lord,” he said.

“War does that to people, especially those of us who are responsible for so many.  You are starting to understand this, and I am afraid that it does not get easier.  We have many privileges, but also duties and responsibility that can come at a great price.” Freddie took a long drink of his wine.  “We who rule must put country first, even if it means we need to tear our lives apart…and sacrifice that we thought was ours forever.”

The near bitterness in Freddie’s voice surprised Rami, and he looked carefully at his lord.  He knew there was more behind Freddie’s words than what he was speaking.  He wanted to ask, but suspected the lord was not ready to speak of it.  Rami was learning that some things were not yet to be spoken of.

“I am sorry,” Freddie said suddenly.  “You came here to speak to me, and all I have done is complain.”

“No, it is not complaining,” Rami assured the lord.  “We understand our duty, and always have.”

Freddie looked back down at his wine.  “It is still unfair to you,” he said.  “We have done all we could think of try and compensate for it; to spoil you as much as possible.  We want you to have good childhoods before you have to grow up and face this evil.”

“We are happy,” Rami said firmly.  “Joe is in the best possible place for him and we other three would not be any other place.”

“You should be with your families.”

“It’s not meant to be.  And I think we are with our families, aren’t we?  You told us to be brothers, and we are.”

Freddie sighed a little.  “And yet again, you are reassuring me, while I have no right to expect that of you.”  He smiled at Rami.  “What may I do for you, my young prince?”

Rami looked at his hands nervously.  “I – and Gwil and Ben – mean what we swore earlier,” he said softly.  “We accept you as our king.”

Freddie sighed, a sad smile on his face.  “Under the Act of Succession, I am fourth in line,” he said.  “Normally it would not be that close, but my three cousins are older with no heirs, and have no interest and ability for the crown.  I have never wanted it, but it seems it will indeed fall to me.”

Rami looked at his lord carefully.  “And I?” he asked.

A dark look crossed Freddie’s face.  “A vision of John’s; one that is terrible, but we must accept it.”  He reached out and laid a hand gently on Rami’s small hands for a moment.  “We know no details, or how or when, but it seems that something will cause the throne of Rhye to come to you.”

“That is….hard to believe,” Rami said shakily.  He had suspected it since Freddie had alluded to it that morning; it seemed like a life time ago, but Rami still was unprepared.  “I checked on my studies of the succession,” he said in almost protest.  “I am so far down, it would take—” he broke off as a thought occurred to him, and he was left starring at Freddie.

“It would take a catastrophe,” Freddie finished softly.  “I am sorry, my dear,’ but it seems that will take place.  John’s visions have paired us as the kings of both our kingdoms.  We will unify our countries.”

Rami shook his head.  “I know nothing of being the crown,” he whispered, the weight already pressing on him.  He blinked and looked at Freddie.  “Will you….teach me?” he asked simply.

Freddie squeezed their joined hands.  “I will,” he promised.  “There is much to learn, and it will not be easy.  But I will be with you,” he vowed.  “You are not alone.  I will walk that path with you.”

Rami nodded vaguely, his mind whirling.  “I do not wish my brothers to know yet,” he whispered softly.  He thought of Sami, and chocked back a near sob. “And I must keep yet another secret from my twin.”

“Sami, too, has a role to play,” Freddie said carefully.  “Our Lord Mages cannot see it yet, but he will be a vital figure on our chessboard.”  Rami bowed his head, not knowing if he was glad or saddened by the news.

There was a pause, and then Freddie drew himself up again. “Now, come,” he said briskly.  “It is late, and you have been through much.  We all need to seek our beds tonight.  We shall talk more tomorrow, but for now, rest is what we all need.”

Rami nodded and stood as Freddie directed, letting the lord quietly guide him back to the boys’ suite.  “Goodnight, my lord,” Rami said quietly at the door.

Freddie squeezed his shoulder gently. “Good night, my betrothed,” he said.  Rami blushed a little, but smiled, pleased at the notion for the first time.

**********

**********

The next morning, the lords met with Sir James privately in the library.  Rami and Gwil were excused from their morning lessons so they could wait in the hall to be called in, and both nervously wondered what was being said.  When Roger opened the door, they were ushered inside where their guardian regarded them with his usual calmness.  “My lords,” he said formally, bowing low to them.

“We have told Miami all,” Freddie explained, sitting back in his chair.  “He has our complete trust, and you will need him as an ally here.  But there is no one else we can speak to of this.”

“I am honored by your trust, and understand the need for secrecy,” Sir James assured them all.  He looked carefully at Rami, but did not say anything, for which the boy was glad.  It was enough that Gwil and Ben knew he would be a royal consort; he did not yet want them to know that one day Rami would be a king in his own right.  It was something he needed time to accept himself.

“Roger and Brian will return to the field tonight to scout if there are any more bandits that we need to be aware of.  John is leaving in the morning to supervise our estates for the next few weeks,” Freddie explained.  “I am unfortunately needed in the capital, and will also leave tomorrow.  You boys will remain here.  For now, we simply continue as we have.  There is no reason to believe the dark forces are gathering any faster than they have been.  We will continue to plan and train.”

“I understand,” Rami assured him, and Gwil nodded as well.

“With my lord’s permission, I will arrange for some….extra instruction…for you,” Sir James said tactfully to the older boys.  “They have told me enough that we should alter some of your curriculum.”

“I need to study more about supplies and organization,” Gwil agreed.  “And accounting, since we need to store and manage our supplies.”  He had clearly been thinking on the matter.  Rami just met Freddie’s eyes and he knew private instruction would be arranged for him in other subjects. 

Sir James nodded.  “Yes, and more weapons training for you all,” he said.  “I will speak to Master Feltwell this afternoon.”

Rami smiled.  “Ben will be glad,” he said, and Sir James snorted a bit.

“Yes, well, he still needs to concentrate on his book studies,” their guardian muttered.  “He will not get out of that.”

“Of course not,” Gwil said, and he and Rami exchanged grins, already imagining Ben grumbling.

“Umf.”  Sir James politely excused himself, and left the lords and big pair alone.

Brian shook his head, smiling as the guardian left.  “How are you all this morning?” he asked the boys.

“We are well,” Rami assured him.  He looked at John with a respectful smile.  “Joe is feeling well this morning, my Lord Mage.  No more headache.”

John smiled at the news.  “That is good,” he said.  “They can sometimes last for days, unfortunately.  I will speak to Joseph, and let him know that he must tell you if he has any pain.  There is not much we can do, other than let him rest when they strike.”

“We understand,” Gwil assured him.  “I was thinking last night, my Lord Mage, that it seems Hadar can sense when he is in pain.  We will watch both of them for clues.”

“That is part of what Hadar is trained to do,” John admitted.  “Give comfort when Joseph is in pain from either an accident or a vision.”

“John had cats,” Freddie smiled fondly at his youngest brother.  “There always seemed to be at least three or four felines hanging around him.  I, of course, approved mightily.”

Roger snorted.  “Horses are better,” he argued.  “The cats were creepy.  They would just stare at me; I knew they were judging me.” 

Freddie raised his eyebrows.  “Only because you gave them something to judge.”

“Shut up, Freddie.”

“You shut up.”

Brian and John both sighed and looked at the big pair.  “How about we let the two geniuses battle this out?” Brian suggested.  “Let’s see if the young pair would like to go swimming.”

“Yes, please,” Rami nodded, stifling a giggle as Freddie waded up a piece of paper and threw it at the blond lord.

Ben and Joe were thrilled to be excused from their studies for a swim, and Joe proudly showed off his swimming skills.  He had completely taken to the water comfortably, and admitted shyly to John that one or twice he had fibbed a bit about a leg or arm hurting so he could go soak and swim in the warm pools.

John just smiled, and bushed some wet bangs out of Joe’s face.  “I know you did,” he teased gently.  “It’s alright to fib a few times, but don’t make a habit of it.”

“I won’t,” Joe promised.  “I know I have to study a lot too.”

“We all do,” John agreed.

Ben swam up to where John and Joe were sitting on a ledge in the water and joined them.  “May I ask you a question, my Lord Mage?” he asked curiously.  It was just Brian and John with the boys; their governesses had been given some free time while the lords took charge of the boys.

“Of course, Benjamin,” John smiled kindly.  “You may ask me anything.”

Ben considered for a moment, the look on his face indicating that he was trying to think how to phrase his question.  Finally, he just blurted it out.  “Is it true that mages can turn people into animals?”

“Ben!” Gwil threw a towel at his brother, absolutely mortified.  “What in the god’s name kind of question is that?”  He looked at John, near panic on his face. 

Rami was horrified as well, barely able to speak.  “My Lord Mage, I am so sorry for my idiot brother’s idiot question—“

John held up a hand, his eyes crinkling.  For a second he was still….and then he began to laugh, his shoulders shaking in mirth.  He laughed so hard that tears appeared in his eyes.  Ben just waited expectantly, his arms crossed, and Joe was looking at John with wide eyes.

“We can?” he asked, sounding hopeful.

“That would be so amazing,” Ben agreed, looking at his little brother.  “Just think of it…Sir James as a mule!  Or a duck!”  Joe’s face lit up in delight at the thought.

“Ben!” Rami shrieked.  He had reached his brother and yanked him away by the arm.  “Good Gods, do you want to anger him?”  One did not ask a mage about their magic; it was held in utmost secrecy.  He shoved his blond brother behind his back and Gwil proceeded to try and stuff a towel in Ben’s mouth.  “My Lord Mage, I cannot apologize enough—“

“It’s alright,” John finally managed to say, gasping for breath between laughs.  “Oh my, I have not been asked that question in years.  And it was Roger who asked me the last time!  This cannot possibly be more fitting—“ he broke off as he burst into more giggles.

Ben escaped from Gwil and looked at the mage.  “So, can you?” he asked hopefully.  Joe had his hands clasped in eager anticipation, looking adoringly at his lord.

John just laughed some more.  “Ask Roger,” he finally gasped, now holding his stomach in laughter.

“No, do not ask Roger,” Brian said, joining them.  He was also grinning and laughing, but shook his head at them.  “Promise me, you will not say a word of this to Roger.  It is not a subject to broach with him if you want any of us to live.”

“We won’t say anything,” Rami promised, giving Ben a deadly look of warning.  Ben pouted, but sighed and reluctantly muttered a promise darkly under his breath. 

John had finally managed to regain his own breath.  “I will tell you one day,” he said, still snickering.  He looked at Joe, and hugged him lightly.  “And you, my young mage, you will need to find the answer for that on your own.  Study hard what I send you.”

“Alright.”  Joe looked extremely disappointed.  Then he looked at Hadar and Frankie who were on their usual duty of watching their masters, and his eyes lit up again.  “What about turning animals into people?” he asked brightly.

“Yeah!” Ben agreed enthusiastically.

Gwil grabbed Ben and shoved his head under water.  “Excuse me, while I drown him,” he said.  Rami was all for assisting, but Lord Brian pulled their big mouthed blond brother from the water.

“No drowning,” Brian admonished, his eyes twinkling.  John was also still chuckling, wiping tears from his eyes.  Ben sputtered cheerfully as he surfaced, not the least bit bothered at the attempted fratricide.  He merely thanked Lord Brian, and then threw himself at Gwil to try to return the drowning attempt. 

“My gods,” Rami moaned, covering his eyes and sincerely wishing for a governess at the moment.  “Gwil, Ben!  Out of the pool now!  I swear I’m telling Lady Elizabeth that you two are fighting again!”  That was enough to make both boys stop and looking a little contrite.  Lady Elizabeth held firm views about siblings needing to get along and had made the boys write long essays on the subject as punishment after an earlier disagreement.

“We should go back up the house,” Brian said, still smiling.  “With luck, maybe Freddie and Roger have stopped fighting.”

“Or finally killed each other,” John said cheerfully.  He tweaked Joe’s nose a little.  “We are joking, my future spouse,” he assured him.

“Good,” Joe smiled.

After lunch, Brian and Roger prepared to leave that evening on scouting trips, and Gwil and Ben made a point of helping them pack while the lords explained the routes they would each take.  They were already learning more, and Gwil took careful notes.  John took Joe to read to him – and settle him in for a nap – and Rami was invited to accompany Freddie on a ride.  Rami figured that he hadn’t promised to not tell Freddie about the morning’s conversation, and the lord almost fell off his horse from laughing so hard after Rami quietly confided what Ben had asked.

“Oh, my, I am going to be thinking about that when we see him off tonight, you know,” Freddie chuckled.  “And you expect me to keep a straight face?”

“Yes,” Rami said, just a touch smugly.  “If I have to, then so you do, my lord.”

Freddie shook his head in admiration.  “You are evil, my prince.”

Rami smiled, and looked around them pointedly.  “So, can they?” he whispered. “Turn people into animals?”

Dark eyes just twinkled. “My turn to be evil, and say that that is something you will have to wait and learn in good time.” 

Rami rolled his eyes.  “You could call it one of my lessons,” he suggested.  “We should know the true extent of powers of all our forces, correct?”

“Nice try.”  Freddie clucked to their horses.  “Now, tell me what you know of the history of the first Queen/Rhye war and the terms of peace in that year.  Several important points in the treaty led directly to the second war, and you need to understand why.”  Rami sighed, but knew it was lesson time and he obligingly began to recite all he knew.

Brian and Roger set out after dinner, and after they had left Freddie and John called for Rami, Gwil, and Ben to join them in a small study while Joe went up to his room to play with the dogs before his bedtime.  “We must discuss some things with you,” Freddie gently told them.  “Some of it may be distressing to hear, but it must be spoken of.”

Rami looked at his brothers worriedly.  “Is it about Joe?”

“Yes,” Freddie confirmed.  “It is…not easy….being a mage.”  He looked at John, who was nervously biting his lip, and laid a gentle hand over his youngest brother’s hands.  “Just as Brian, Roger and I have watched over John, you must know what to expect with Joseph.”

John took a deep breath, looking at his hands for a moment and everyone waited respectful for the mage to begin.  “There is a cost to seeing visions,” John finally began.  “Joseph will always have vivid dreams.  They are not always bad, of course, and not all are visions, but many will be frightening to him.”

Gwil nodded.  “His night terrors,” he said quietly, and John inclined his head in agreement. 

“Some are normal dreams, and you will learn to tell the difference between idle dreams and visions.  The visions will be vivid to him; very clear.  He will also speak of things that are about to happen as if they are fact.”

“He has already done that,” Rami confessed.  “He told us once to be careful at weapons practice, and the next day I cut my hand being careless while sparing with Ben.  A few days later Gwil twisted his ankle badly.”

John sighed and nodded.  “Then you know some already,” he said.  “You do not want to push him, but as much as possible, it would be helpful to ask him what he dreamed of,” John said.  “You know they are visions, and they are true.  He will be able to tell you many things if you know what to listen for.”

Freddie squeezed John’s hands.  “It will be difficult while he is so young, but when he has the frightening visions, you must find out what you can from him,” he advised.  “Ask him what he has seen, take note of it.  If he is truly too frightened, then do not force him to speak, but learn whatever you can.  No detail is too small to note.  Then you must write to us immediately.”

Rami nodded, understanding the need.  “We will,” he promised.

“Joseph instinctively understands much of the need for secrecy,” John continued, “but he still has much to learn.  You swore to not leave him alone, and that is good action to continue.”

“We won’t leave him alone,” Ben said firmly, his chin set in determination.  Freddie nodded his approval.

“We will make sure that at least one of you is always with Joseph.  I do not mean that you cannot leave him alone in a room; of course, you can.  But one of you will always be at the same estate with him.”

“In an emergency, I will send Joseph a message, as I did the other night,” John said.  “The code is rhapsody.  If he says that, then know it is a true message from me.”

“We understand, my Lord Mage,” Gwil promised, looking focused. 

John smiled a little at the boys.  “Just as I was fortunately to have my brothers, Joseph is lucky to have you,” he said.  “I have already begun to teach Joseph things in a very subtle way.  When we sleep, our minds can often…meet… for lack of a better word.  I promise I send only good things; sights to entertain him, happy memories of his parents so they do not ever dim for him.”

“Joe has said that you show him things,” Gwil remembered.  “He likes it.”

 “I am glad,” John said kindly.  “He is not truly aware of it yet, but I also teach him how to focus some of his powers.  We can rarely control our visions, but sometimes we can at least focus them.  And I will also slowly teach him other powers as well, including spells.”  He smiled at Ben and his eyes were full of humor.  “And no, young lord, I will still not answer your earlier question yet.”

Ben blushed a little, but confidentially grinned back.  “I understand, Lord Mage,” he said respectfully.

“There is something else you must know,” John continued, now serious again.  “Many mages suffer from illnesses.  It is as if the energy needed to have magic takes a physical toll on the body.”

“Joe’s bleeding sickness,” Ben realized.

“I do what I can to protect him, and ease pain and injury, but the illness is part of him.  As he grows older, his powers will grow, taking a higher toll on him.”

“He will get worse?” Gwil asked quietly, his eyes wide in concern.

John looked back down at his lap for a long moment.  “It is likely, yes,” he finally said.  “More injuries, taking longer to recover; these are very possible outcomes.”  He ran his hands through his hair, sighing.  “I wish there was more I could do.  I am trying, I promise.  Hadar – and Frankie – will help you protect him.  Joseph understands that he must be careful.  He accepts that he is different, and is not afraid.”

Freddie smiled softly.  “He is very brave, as are all of you.  Now,” he said rising, “Benjamin, I am quite certain it is your bedtime.  Gwil, John, I need to speak to Rami privately, please.  Would you mind giving us some time?”

“Of course not, brother,” John said, standing with Gwil and Ben.  “We will see you in the morning.  Good night.”

“Good night, my lord,” Gwil said politely to Freddie and Ben echoed him.  John ushered the boys out and Freddie smiled as he sat back down in one of the comfortable chairs.  Rami was a little uncertain what they needed to discuss, but he welcomed any time alone with Freddie.

“How are you and your brothers today?” Freddie said as he poured Rami a mug of tea.  “You will have more and more questions as things sink in, and I am sorry I cannot always be with you, but you know you may always write.”

“We are well,” Rami assured him, taking a sip of the tea.  “Gwil is already memorizing accounting ledgers and Ben is thrilled to know he will have extra weapons practice.”

Freddie chuckled a little as he sipped his own tea.  “I thought that would please him,” he said.  “He reminds me so much of Roger; it is truly uncanny.  I always worried so much about him, but by the time he was 16 he could beat me in competition at anything he liked.  He made me so angry, and we would have dreadful fights about completely pointless things.”

Rami smiled as he pondered that.  “I think you still argue quite a bit,” he reflected, thinking about the morning.

 “Oh, that,” Freddie waved a hand.  “That was nothing.  In truth though, the worst arguments are between Roger and Brian.  And believe it or not, they have considerably mellowed since they were young.”

A small giggle escaped Rami’s lips.  “That must have been something to see.”

“It was indeed.  Sometimes I would pick John up and carry him right out of the room for fear the middle two would start throwing furniture and John would get caught in the crossfire.  John would get so mad because he wanted to see them fight…he thought it was fun!  But we had to be careful with him, much as you must be careful with Joseph.”

The thought of gentle Lord John watching a fight made Rami shake his head.  “May I ask what toll the magic takes on Lord Mage John?” Rami asked quietly.

Freddie sighed at the change in subject but nodded.  “His heart is weak at times.  He has never been strong physically.  During the war, we had to always leave him behind, guarded for his own protection.  He hated us quite a lot, but it was necessary.  He snuck into battle a couple times, and acquitted himself well, but as soon as we found out, Roger threatened to tie him to his bed, and I would have helped him to do so.”  He shook his head, smiling.  “If John is any example, you will find that mages are incredibly stubborn.  He wanted to fight, but we could not take the risk.  Even without his physical weakness, there was the other factor that made us have to keep him guarded and safe at all times when we could not be with him.”

“What was that?” Rami was fascinated at learning more about the lords.

“A mage’s power also makes them vulnerable,” Freddie said carefully.  “In John’s case, it is his physical weakness, his heart.  For young Joseph, it is his bleeding illness.  John cannot control when visions come, and when they do, he can be unconscious and helpless for hours, followed by headaches.  That is why we refused to let him into battle or any dangerous situation if we could at all prevent it.  We would leave him guarded by our best soldiers, and he hated us for it.” He looked at Rami carefully.  “The worse time was when we were riding out for the Battle of Snow.”

Rami had known about the Battle of Snow nearly all his life.  It was the last great clash between Queen and Rhye, and where Rhye had been finally defeated after two days of constant fighting and struggle.  “My father was there,” he said quietly.

Freddie nodded.  “Yes, I know,” he said.  He looked at Rami carefully.  “We took no pleasure in defeating Rhye.  But we knew it had to be done for us to unite and then face this darkness that John – and now Joseph – can see.”

“I understand,” Rami sighed.  He had learned a great deal over the past year that no war was simple, and peace was not easy as well.  “What happened to Lord John?”

“He was sick for weeks before – headaches and vomiting - almost constantly seeing visions.  He forced himself to stay awake and tell us how to organize the troops, what would happen and how to plan for it.  The information was invaluable, but it took a toll on him.”  Freddie looked at his tea.  “I had never seen him cry before, but the pain was so great that he sobbed between breaths, still telling us all he saw.  We begged him to take a sleeping draught, but he refused.  Roger and I finally had to leave and Brian stayed with him as long as he could before he had to enter the battle.  Sir James then came to stay and protect John with his last breath, and I have never seen Miami so near tears himself.  John still stayed awake for the first day of battle, sending messages through Miami.”

Rami had to shake his head.  “It must have been horrible,” he whispered.  He hated to think of the gentle lord in pain, just as it was so hard to see Joe suffer.

“It was,” Freddie said.  “I was the first to reach him after the battle was finally over and I truly thought he was dead. Nothing the doctors did helped.  He was in a coma for nearly two weeks.  One of us stayed with him at all times, and I thought we had lost him once or twice.  He did stop breathing at one point, and Roger had to breathe for him.  After that, we all stayed together, refusing to be parted.”

His hand was shaking slightly from the memories as Freddie took a sip of his tea.  “I tell you this, Rami, because you need to be prepared for Joseph to also suffer.  You and your brothers must be strong; there will times when all you want to do is bundle Joseph up in silk and lock him in a tower to protect him.  But you must be ready.”  He looked at Rami carefully.  “It is the hardest part of being a ruler, my dear.  You must be able to send people into dangerous situations, even when knowing they may not come back.  And you must let your young lord mage be the mage he has been born to be, even when it will endanger his health.”

Rami looked down at his hands.  “I….understand,” he said finally.  He had no idea how he would do it, but he knew it had to be.

Freddie looked at him sadly.  “I am sorry, Rami.  It seems that all I do lately is bring you sorrow and more burdens.”

“It must be done,” Rami said, raising his chin.  “None of us want Lord John or Joe to suffer, and I know you did not want to take us from our families.  But we know we must follow these paths we have been set upon.” 

Pride shown in Freddie’s dark eyes.  “Have I told you today how proud I am of you?” 

Rami felt his cheeks turn pink.  “Yes, I think so,” he mumbled, blushing. 

“It bears repeating.  All of us are so proud of you and your brothers.”  Freddie considered something.  “The Battle of Snow was the first time I have seen John cry.  The second time was when he admitted that he saw that we needed to claim you four.”

The words surprised Rami.  “He cried?” 

“He did.”  Freddie looked at the eldest child.  “I told you once that John came to Brian, Roger, and I when he was just a baby.  He never knew his parents.  His father died in battle shortly after he was born, and his mother passed from illness caused by injury just over a year later.  He was lord of his lands by the time he was two.  I knew my parents, as did Brian and Roger, but John was sent away from his estate when he was just one week old, and his mother saw him only a few times.  His father never saw him at all.” 

Rami winced at the news, thinking of his family.  “That must have been so difficult,” he said.  “I can’t really imagine.” 

“We really are the only family he has ever had,” Freddie explained gently.  “When he was told to take more children from their families, it nearly broke his heart.  Brian had the idea to insist on sending portraits, to make sure you were allowed correspondence with your families.  We tried to think of anything we could to ensure that you still have contact with your families.” 

“We have been grateful for it all,” Rami assured him quietly.  “And I understand why we had to leave when we did; Joe would have died.”  Freddie nodded.

“I am sorry it had to be done, but I am not sorry that it saved Joseph’s life.”

“We do not regret anything that saved Joe,” Rami said firmly.  “And we would do it again if necessary.”

Freddie smiled at him kindly.  “Then take strength and comfort in knowing that there are also many joys ahead of us.  I told you before that we are not doomed to destruction or misery.  We have great challenges, but also great happiness in our futures.”  His eyes twinkled again.  “Such as our marriages.”

Rami couldn’t help his nose wrinkling a little.  “I understand of course, but that still seems…..” he trailed off, trying to think of a polite word.

“Strange?” Freddie offered with a smile.  Rami blushed again.

“Yes,” he admitted.

The lord chuckled.  “I am not so old that I do not remember being your age and believing marriage was quite silly and downright embarrassing to think of.”

“May I ask something, my lord?”  At Freddie’s nod, Rami tiled his head a little in thought.  “I remember that some in Rhye thought it odd that you four would tie yourselves to us.  It was thought that of all people who could marry for love, it would be you.  When did Lord Mage John see that you had to marry us?  Did none of you want to marry earlier?”

“Ah,” Freddie looked down for a moment, then smiled.  “We each had our loves,” he said carefully.  “And yes, thought of marriage.  But something held us all back; perhaps John’s visions, but in a very vague manner.  And it was immediately after the Battle of Snow that John saw the terms of the peace treaty.”  Freddie looked lost in thought for a moment.  “It was difficult for all of us to accept,” he said, his voice soft.

Rami pondered that for a moment.  “You were in love,” he said carefully.  Freddie nodded. 

“Very much so,” he agreed.  “Each of us was.  And as you understand, we of noble families can rarely marry for love.  But it does not mean that we cannot find love and happiness in our arranged marriages.”  He smiled at Rami.  “We will be happy,” he said.  “We all will.  I promise you.”

“Truly?”  Rami looked at the lord nervously.  “I mean, I would like that.  My parents were an arranged marriage, but I think they are honestly happy.  I don’t want any of us to be unhappy.”

“We will be happy,” Freddie promised, his eyes kind and reassuring.  “John has seen this clearly.  It has always made it easier for us, knowing that you and your brothers would be happy with us.  We want you to be content, and will do all we can to make sure it happens.”

Rami felt relief at the words.  “I am glad,” he said sincerely.  “It would be awful to be married to someone you don’t like.”  His nose wrinkled a little at the thought. 

Freddie chuckled.  “It would be indeed,” he agreed.  “Now, come,” he stood. “Off to bed with you, young prince.  John and I will leave after breakfast and we can say our goodbyes then.” 

“Goodnight, my lord.” 

The next morning the boys gathered to bid Freddie and John farewell.  “Roger will be back within a week,” Freddie told them.  “I suspect I will be away sometime, but letters can reach me within a day if sent urgently.”  He clasped Rami on the shoulder.  “I will send you some books to read,” he said vaguely, and Rami nodded in understanding, guessing they would be political or historical books as part of his new lessons.  “You will also spend some time with Sir James, learning from him.  He is my most trusted advisor, and you may speak to him as you do to me.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Rami inclined his head.  He knew he had much to learn and Sir James was a valuable teacher.  “I promise I will work hard…in all things.”

Freddie squeezed his shoulder gently.  “I know you will,” he said quietly.  “Remember, you still have a childhood ahead of you, as do all your brothers.  There is no rush for things.”  He winked at all the boys, and lowered his voice.  “Let me know how the next prank goes; I am dying to hear about it.”  Ben and Joe giggled while Gwil smirked confidently.  Lord Brian had approved the next prank on Sir James, and Gwil knew it would be a success.  “I want all the details sent to me,” Freddie continued.  He spotted Sir James approaching, and cleared his throat, straightening up quickly.  

“Yes, yes, details on all of….your lessons.  Details on your lessons,” Freddie said loudly, trying to look casual. 

Sir James just looked at his lord with a defeated air.  “I would say ‘get out of my house’, but it would do no good, would it, my lord?” he asked wearily.  But there was also a faint grin on the serious face and sense of humor.  Sir James put up with a great deal, and he did it well.  Truly, he loved all his lords. 

“I have no idea what you speak of, Miami,” Freddie said, waving his hand.  “John, are you ready?”

John smiled from where he was saying goodbye to Joe, which included also having to say goodbye to Hadar and Frankie.  Frankie was very much Ben’s dog, but he had clearly taken on Joe as a second human.  On the rare occasions when Ben and Joe were apart, the hounds stayed with Joe, protecting him and keeping him company when he was ill or injured.  Ben completely approved of it.

“Yes, Freddie,” John said, standing up.  He gave the dog’s once last ear scratch.  “Take care of him,” he said quietly, and Rami reflected that both dogs seemed to clearly understand.

“I will come next week after Roger’s visit,” John said to Rami and Gwil, smiling at the big pair. “Make sure Ben and Joe study.”

“We will,” Gwil promised. He eyed Ben narrowly, who stuck his tongue out at his big brother. “Extra studying, for certain.”

“That’s not fair,” Ben fussed.

“Too bad,” Rami countered.

Ben looked up at John. “My lordddd…..” he wined. John just shook his head.

“Behave.” He leaned down to whisper just loud enough for Rami and Gwil to overhear. “Or I will turn you into a newt.” Ben just grinned in excitement, scarily not at all upset at the prospect. John sighed. “I have created a monster,” he muttered.

Freddie was fussing now, complaining that he had a long trip ahead and for his youngest brother to move his lazy rear end. John eyed his brother with an expression that made Rami wonder if the newt threat was real, but unfortunately the secret mage made no move to show it. The lords said their final farewells, mounted their warhorses, and left.

**********

My dear twin,

As always, it is so good to receive letters from you. They are the best part of my day.

We are all studying hard, as I know you are. We also have time for training with both our horses and with weapons. The lessons are very good, but it is not the same without you. Gwil and I sometimes have a friendly competition on some subjects, but I am usually content to let him study sciences while I take history. Ben has a talent for science as well, but he is not terribly interested in it, and would stay at weapons training all day if he could. Joe seems to enjoy all his studies and is proudly reading well above his age.

I miss you every day, but please be assured that I am happy here. We have three wonderful younger brothers and while they will never take your place, they are still brothers to us both.

But you, my dear Sami, are my twin, and you know the bond we share is one that can hardly be described. You are always with me, no matter where I am, and it will always be so. I swear this.

Rami

**********

“Rami?”  Rami looked up at the soft voice and saw Ben and Joe standing in the doorway to the big pair’s bedroom, their dogs close behind.

“Ben, Joe, are you alright?”  Gwil got off his bed where he had been reading and scribbling neat notes about grain reserves.  “Did the storm wake you up?”  A fierce thunderstorm was pounding the estate and lightening filled the sky.

Ben and Joe looked at each other bashfully.  ‘I had a dream…a good one,” Joe said shyly.  “I dreamed we were riding horses and it was fun.  And then Rami fell off and landed in a cow watering trough.”

“He was laughing in his sleep and it woke me up,” Ben confirmed with a small grin.  “Oh please, let this dream come true.”

Rami rolled his eyes.  “And you had to come here to tell me?” he teased.  “I’m touched at your thoughtfulness.”

“Well, actually, then we couldn’t go back to sleep,” Ben admitted.  A boom of thunder sounded and the young pair tensed.  Even Hadar and Frankie whined a little, huddling close to their masters.  “Um….could we…um…." 

Gwil and Rami exchanged knowing looks.  “You know,” Rami said, “I certainly couldn’t sleep with the storm, and I would feel much better if we were together. You know how much I hate thunder.”

“And I hate lightening,” Gwil said.  He was already pulling up covers on his bed.  “Ben, can you help me please?  I think we should all be together.”  He started to shove his bed toward Rami’s and Ben hurried to assist him.  Within a few minutes the two beds where shoved together and all four boys and two dogs pilled in.

“Yes, this is much better,” Rami declared cheerfully.  He was rather squished between Ben and Frankie, and would not have it any other way.  Joe, Gwil, and Hadar were somehow crammed into the other half of the makeshift large bed and everyone relaxed.  “Maybe we can go back to sleep now.”

“Umm,” Ben yawned, clearly relieved at the protection of his big brothers. “I hope I have a good dream like Joe’s.”

Rami sighed.  “So do I,” he chuckled.  “This is nice, thank you for joining us.  You know I always feel better when we are together.”  Both Ben and Joe were pleased at his words.

“We will be together,” Joe confirmed, himself yawning now that he felt safe and warm again.  “Even when you are our king,” he mumbled sleepily, his eyes closing.

Gwil looked sharply at Rami, his breath catching.  Rami met Gwil’s eyes and slightly shook his head.  Fortunately, Ben didn’t seem to have caught all of Joe’s words and he too was quickly falling back to sleep.  Gwil frowned a little, but finally nodded, understanding that whatever it was, Rami was not ready to speak of it. 

Rami breathed a sigh of relief and mouthed ‘thank you’ to Gwil.  He knew that soon he would have to tell his brother; maybe when Freddie was able to come on his next visit.  But for now, he was still so uncertain how to think of that.

He did know one thing for certain, however, no matter what, he and his brothers would stay together.  He knew it even without Joe’s early visions and dreams and even without Lord John’s magic.  They could be no other way.

They were brothers.

Chapter Text

Seven years later……

Rami stood in the bedroom, just looking at everything.  It was perhaps the last time he would stay in this room, he reflected.  The next time he came to Sir James’s, Freddie might be with him, and of course they would share a bedroom as spouses.

"You will be a married man when you come back here next," Gwil said, as if reading his mind.  He was sitting on the edge of his bed, frowning a little as he watched his eldest brother finish packing his travel bag.  The day had come for Rami to leave and marry his lord.

“I know,” Rami sighed, running a hand through his hair.  “It seems so odd.”  It didn’t seem real at all, and Rami wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it now that it was close to happening.  It had been one thing to know he would one day marry Freddie, but it was another thing entirely now that the day was near. 

Eight years had passed since the day he and his brothers had left Rhye, and now it was time for the first of the marriages to truly bind the countries together.  Rami had always taken a bit of comfort in thinking that day was far away, but it had finally arrived, and there was nothing he could do about it.  It had been a busy eight years, seeming to go by so quickly.  They studied every day, working hard to prefect their skills and talents, and striving to make the lords proud of them.  And even though their parents didn’t know the truth, they wanted to make their parents proud as well. 

It had not always been easy.  Even though they could logically understand Lord John’s visions, and agree they had to leave Rhye when they did, each of the boys had had periods of difficulty adjusting to the weight of the expectations put upon them.  Rami studied everything he could about the rulers of Rhye and Queen, worrying how he would compare to them, and all the while having to keep the awful truth that many would die to put him on the throne of Rhye.  It had taken him months to confess it to Gwil, and he never failed to feel sick about the fact. 

“It is not your fault,” Gwil had said that second winter in Queen when Rami had confessed what Lord Mage John had seen for the crown of Rhye, pale faced but firm in his words.  “You are not taking the throne, Rami, it is coming to you.” 

“But if I could warn people, they might not die and then it wouldn’t fall to me!” 

Gwil held Rami’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes.  “And how would you warn them?  And who will you warn?  Everyone in the line of succession before your House?  How will you explain it?”  Harsh and cold words, but true.  “You will expose Joe and Lord John if you say anything,” Gwil said flatly, and Rami could not argue with that reality.  He had to stay silent.

Rulers must be able to send people into danger.  Words that Freddie had advised Rami of.  He had never thought he would have to make those decisions so early.  He was only eleven, and he had to lie cheerfully to his parents and his twin in every letter.

Gwil and Ben had faced their own burdens.  Gwil had always been serious and thoughtful, and it could easily turn into great worry.  Lord Brian spent as much time as he could at Sir James’s estate, and he would take Gwil off for quiet rides or just private time in the library.  Rami knew they both needed that time, and respected it, remembering another lesson from Freddie. 

It is possible to feel too much.  There is a fine line, Freddie had once said.  It is not always possible to let things out, but we must always listen.  Rami worried about his brother and knew all he could do was be there for him.  Sometimes Gwil went to dark places, and he had to find his own way back.  

For Ben, it was refusing to see the dark places.  It was maddening at times, but as he grew older, Rami began to understand that Ben dealt with things by refusing to be slowed down.  Ben simply ignored or destroyed anything or anyone in his way.  It was never easy, but it was his way. 

And Joe.  Rami sighed, thinking of his youngest brother.  Out of all of them, Joe had suffered the most, physically and mentally.  As John and Freddie had warned them, Joe had many bad days spent in bed recovering from injuries and headaches.  But when he was confined to bed, it just seemed that his mind soared higher.  He was still small for his age, but to his relief he had grown a bit in the past year and was now thirteen years ago and as full of mischief as Ben.  Many of their greatest pranks and adventures were planned when Joe was confined to bed and it was downright scary to see their innocent smiles at times.  At some point Rami and Gwil had become additional foster parents to the young pair, and more than once they had been right beside Sir James and Lady Elizabeth or Catherine giving a stern lecture to the boys. 

Funny how that never seemed to slow the small pair down.  

To be fair, Rami knew that there had been much happiness in their lives, and all the boys were truly grateful for many things.  They had indeed been spoiled by the lords, the worst offenders being Freddie and Roger who seemed incapable of being stern for very long when it came to the boys.  Even Brian and John would crumble when faced with Ben’s big blue eyes, or Joe’s innocent look.  It had saved them from more than one punishment after a misadventure, such as when Ben broke an arm trying to fly after building himself bird wings, and Joe trained Hadar to steal shoes. 

The lords had refused to make the boys stay isolated at Sir James’s estate, and had done all they could to let them see as much of Queen as possible.  Rami and Gwil had travelled to the capital several times, accompanying Freddie and Brian for meetings, and Ben and Joe had joined them on one long visit.  They attended festivals and fairs at all the estates and other locations, and felt welcomed and comfortable in their new land. 

It had never been easy, being separated from their families, but they did make a new family with themselves and the lords.  Still, it was difficult to imagine themselves marrying the lords one day; it had always seemed so far away. 

But now it was happening for Rami, and he knew his brother’s times would come sooner than they thought.  His was the first marriage to officially bind the two countries, and was critical for the treaty.  Even knowing what he did – that there was good reason for the treaty – it was proving difficult to face this part. 

He was leaving his brothers, and he didn’t like it one bit. 

Gwil finished packing his bag and looked at Rami, nervously chewing his lip.  Rami immediately pulled him into a hug, knowing it was what was needed for his tall brother.  His big little brother, as Rami sometimes teased.  It never failed to make Gwil smile, and right now Rami needed to see all his brothers’ smile.  He was putting on a brave face for them, and knew it had to stay in place.  Just like when they had left Rhye, Rami had to set the example for them.

It wasn’t that he had anything to really fear, Rami knew logically.  This was a far better situation than when he had been just ten years old, responsible for three younger boys, and being taken from his family.  Back then, it had been truly scary, no matter the assurances from Queen, and totally unknown.  At least now all the boys knew the reasons, and accepted them, and they knew and trusted their lords.  They had grown up with them as mentors and there was nothing to fear from them. 

But that didn’t mean Rami really wanted to marry Lord Freddie.  He knew he had to; he had known that since he was three.  And he even understood now why he had to marry him.  It still didn’t mean he was truly excited about it. 

It wasn’t Freddie’s fault.  The lord had been completely kind to Rami, as had all the lords.  Every privilege that they could be given, had been given.  They had wanted for nothing, expect their families, and that they knew could not be so.  Rami just wished that he could have had more choice in his life.  He had accepted that it was impossible in almost all ways to control his course, but he treasured every possible bit of freedom. 

And now he was being married off, and he feared that his life would be even more controlled. 

‘Our deepest desires are the one thing that has been denied us since birth’ Freddie once told him.  ‘I am sorry, my prince, but it is that way for us.’

Rami had understood, truly.  It was just hard for his heart to accept what his mind knew. 

At least he hadn’t been married exactly on his 18th birthday.  It had been the year before, at his 17th birthday party, that the now very near and real discussion of his marriage began.

“Will you be married on your 18th birthday?” Joe had asked innocently as they ate the special cake the baker had prepared for the occasion.

The cake was suddenly dry as dust in Rami’s mouth.  He managed to swallow what was in his mouth and take a nervous sip of punch, looking at Lord Freddie.  It was really up to him, wasn’t it?  Rami had honestly never thought of that possibility. 

“I think not; perhaps a month or so later,” Freddie said, looking at Rami curiously.  “You deserve two separate celebrations, I think.”

Rami nodded.  “I…that sounds good,” he said.  He made himself smile at Joe and the others gathered around the table.  They returned to the light conversation they had been having, relaxed and comfortable, but Rami was suddenly very tense.  He was not at all surprised when Lord Freddie asked to see him after dinner. 

Rami entered the study and Freddie smiled, welcoming him kindly, and offering him a small glass of watered wine.  They settled in the comfortable chairs, and Rami thought back to the first time he had met with Lord Freddie there, in his nightshirt, stressed and frightened for his brothers to the point he had earlier attacked the lord with a sword.

“What are you thinking?” Freddie was leaning back in his chair, relaxed, but as always, his eyes were alert and piercing.  Rami shook his head a little.

“Just that we have had many talks here,” Rami said vaguely, smiling a little.  Freddie chuckled. 

“That we have,” he agreed.  “I hope not all of them have been dreadful.”

“Of course not,” Rami shook his head.  “I have always learned so much, and you are a patient teacher.  I like this time we have together to talk.”

Freddie nodded.  “As do I,” he said.  “But I know it is often topics that you would prefer to not have to address.  Such as our marriage.”  Rami winched a little. 

“I am sorry, my lord.  I didn’t mean to be so….” He trailed off, trying to think of the right word. 

“Nervous?” Freddie supplied, looking at him with a kind smile.  Rami sighed. 

“Yes, nervous,” he admitted.  “It has always seemed so far away.  But now we have to actually begin planning, don’t we?” 

“I already have,” Freddie said, and Rami blinked.  “I am sorry, my dear, but yes, plans have been underway for many months now.  I have not tried to keep you out of any plans or decisions, but I also didn’t want to bring it up before I had to.” 

Rami looked at his hands.  “I trust your decisions,” he said vaguely.  “I wouldn’t really know what to decide anyway.”

“No, it is time for you to be part of the decisions,” Freddie said gently.  “It is your day, after all.”

“Our day,” Rami said.  He glanced at Freddie and tried to smile.  “What do we have to do first?” 

Thus began months of planning.  Rami was more than grateful to leave most of it to Freddie, who definitely had a knack for planning celebrations, and besides, he truly agreed with Freddie’s view.  They had to have certain dignitaries attend due to Freddie’s position to the throne, and of course there would be representatives from Rhye as well to witness that the peace treaty continued to be followed.  Rami had begun to receive worried notes from Sir Reed and others in the Rhye court, reminding him again and again how the treaty depended on Rami and his brothers. 

“They act as if we are going to run away and leave you all at the altar,” Gwil muttered in disgust one afternoon after reading ten full pages of a lecture about their duty.  “What do they know?”

“Nothing,” Freddie agreed.  He and Brian were sitting with the other big pair in the library, reviewing plans.  “All you can do is nod, say and write yes, and leave it at that.” 

“We know what is at stake,” Rami sighed, wishing he could just once tell the counselors what he thought of them.  “We know it must be secret, but it is still so hard.” 

“John says that knowing is often a great burden,” Brian said gently.  “I wish it was easier.”  Rami and Gwil nodded, and then got back to their work.

Knowing of other things– including things that had never occurred to Rami when he was a child – was also cause for much thought and worry. 

After some profoundly embarrassing lectures from Sir James – complete with illustrations – Rami and Gwil had decided that they were mostly on their own when it came to the topic of the marital bed and bedroom, and that seemed it was for the best.  They were protected and sheltered; but not completely naïve.  They’d been allowed to go on training missions with other young cadets and solders, and had had rather illuminating talks late at night when the adults thought no one was awake. 

It was actually Lord Roger who gave them talks that taught them the most.  Rami and Gwil were mortified the first time Roger had sat them down, but had to concede that he knew what he was talking about.  It made Rami and Gwil a little queasy at first, and they blushed for quite a while whenever they saw Lord Roger, but they eventually got more mature about it. 

It was facing Lord Freddie that made Rami truly want to die. But he had to admit now that it was a good thing that they had had a talk shortly after Rami turned 16.  Rami privately suspected that the age held some special significance for Freddie, likely reflecting on the Queen lords own personal experience, but politely didn’t say anything.  

Freddie had at first chatted about very ridiculous things when he asked to see Rami privately when he arrived for a visit, which made Rami immediately suspicious.  Freddie offering him a glass of very watered wine hadn’t helped matters any; he knew for sure then that it was something big. 

“We will be wed in two years,” Freddie had finally started, and Rami patiently waited.  “I want you to know, my prince, that I will be faithful to our vows.” 

“Alright…?” Rami ventured.  

“Yes, well, umm….”  Freddie ran a hand through his dark hair, taking a deep breath and focusing.  “I think surely you understand that since I am an adult, that I have had lovers before.” 

Oh.  Rami blushed bright red, but managed to nod.  “I do…..understand,” he somehow said.  He tried to gather some real thoughts.  “You were an adult when we were pledged by the treaty; no one would think you had been…er…” he had to stop, unable to say the words, especially not when Freddie was looking right at him. 

“Yes, exactly,” Freddie said, smiling.  “I do hope this does not bother you.” 

Rami shook his head.  “No, my lord,” he said truthfully.  As much as he didn’t want to think about Lord Freddie having sex, the notion that he had had sex didn’t really bother him.  It was only to be expected because of how old Freddie was, Rami reasoned in his teenage mind.  

Freddie nodded.  “And just as I had a chance for an… uninhibited youth….it is only fair for you to have the same.” 

“I….understand, my lord,” Rami said again meekly.  There was a long silence, Freddie seeming to wait for Rami to continue.  “I…I don’t know…I mean….no one has…. caught my interest,” he finally managed to say. 

Freddie nodded thoughtfully.  “It would be perfectly normal if someone did,” he said gently.  “Do not feel that you must wait, Rami.” 

“Oh.”  Rami looked back at his hands, clenched tightly around his glass.  “Would….would you want me …to….to…—” 

“Rami.”  Freddie’s voice was firm, but kind as always, and Rami was relieved to stop talking and just listen to his lord.  “All I have ever wanted for you and your brothers is to be safe, and happy.  To have what normal youth you can, given what we have done to you.  I do not mean to make you uncomfortable; I am sorry.” 

“I…of course, thank you,” Rami said automatically, wincing internally at how idiotic that surely sounded to Lord Freddie’s ears.  But the lord just smiled, and allowed Rami a few sips of undiluted wine before dismissing him so he could flee upstairs.  The next day it had been very difficult to look at the lord without blushing. 

Gwil picked up his travel pack, and it pulled Rami back to the here and now.  “I am going to miss you,” his brother said quietly, very serious.  Rami reached out and clasped Gwil’s shoulder. 

“It is going to be a change for you too,” Rami said.  Gwil would now be the oldest brother at home, and Rami knew the duty was weighing heavily on him.  “We will write every day we are away,” Rami reminded him.  “And we still have Ben’s code.”  Gwil had to smile at the memory of Ben’s truly clever code that had thankfully never had to be used.  “It will be difficult to be apart, but the time has come.” 

“Logically, I know and accept this,” Gwil sighed.  “But as with so much, it’s hard to make my heart understand.” 

Rami pulled his tall little brother into another hug.  “I feel exactly the same way,” he admitted.  “But we are not alone, and we can do this.”  Gwil nodded, taking a determined breath.  He knew they had to be strong for the young pair.

Rami took a final look around.  This had been his room for eight years, and he had come to love it.  There were so many good memories, laughing and learning with his brothers, writing and reading letters from family.  And planning glorious pranks on Sir James.  He would truly miss this home. 

Ben and Joe were waiting for them in the main room, and there was a moment of awkward silence.  They had all stayed up late the night before, even shoving Rami and Gwil’s beds together so they could sleep in the same room and bed, just like when they were young.  Everyone was nervous about this first marriage and it was hard for the younger pair to see their eldest brother leave. 

“Come here,” Rami said, holding out his arms for hugs when he saw Ben’s wet eyes and Joe nervously trying to bite his lip.  “Brother hug.” 

It had started during their journey to Queen when they were children, all sharing a hug.  Gwil had dubbed it ‘brother hug’ and it was mandatory in many circumstances.  Everyone quietly stood, just saving the closeness and hugs, their heads together. 

“I will be back soon,” Rami promised them.  “Likely in a few months for a visit.  I’ve been gone longer than that while training.” 

“Yes, but this is different,” Ben sniffed.  “You are getting married.” 

“It is not a bad thing,” Rami said gently, trying to also reassuring himself.  “I am still your brother.”

Ben looked up, his blue eyes a little red from crying.  “But you will be a Queen lord,” he said.

Rami nodded.  “We all will be,” he pointed out.  “I am just the first.” 

“It will be alright,” Gwil said firmly to the younger pair, obviously putting his worries aside to be strong.  “Come now, look at us, crying about Rami getting married.  You would think he was being sent away forever or something!”  It got the pair to smile a little, and Rami chuckled. 

“We have always been safe and well,” Rami agreed.  “It is not going to change now.  You will see me so much you might get a bit sick of it.” 

“Never!” Joe said loyally.  He hugged his brother.  “We will see Rami a lot, Ben; don’t worry,” he said with confidence.  Rami didn’t need to see Joe’s face and eyes to know he was speaking from a vision. 

They had become familiar over the years with the certain look that would enter Joe’s eyes when he viewed something.  Gwil said his voice even changed a bit, though Rami himself had not noticed that much.  Still, it was entirely possible.  Their little brother was growing up, and as he did, his powers grew as well. 

Lord John visited them at least once a month, always taking Rami, Gwil, and Ben aside to tell them more of what to expect from the youngest.  Sadly, John had been accurate in that Joe’s powers seemed to draw energy itself from his small body.  Joe was small for his age of 13 years, and while he was careful and watched by many, no one could prevent his disease from striking at times.  It was fortunately not terribly often, and he always recovered, but it was still dangerous for the youth.  He had once bled from his nose for three days, and while he had not been in any pain from the bleed itself, he had grown weak from the loss of blood and it took him weeks to recover.  Lord John had hastened to his bedside, and Rami had no doubts that magic had been used to stop the bleeding.

Out of habit, Rami looked at Joe carefully, making sure he was wearing his padded clothing that offered a bit of extra protection.  “How is your foot?” he asked seriously, looking down at Joe’s feet.  He had twisted his ankle three weeks ago, and it was slowly healing.  The injury had caused a great deal of swelling and pain for days. 

Joe obediently stuck out his foot as if for inspection.  “It’s better,” he insisted.  Indeed, Rami had to admit that Joe’s foot – even when wrapped in bandages with only the toes sticking out – looked less swollen today.  “I’m riding in the carriage with Hadar, and I will keep my foot up the entire time,” he promised.  “It hardly hurts to walk on it at all, and you know Fada will help me.” 

Fada was one of Hadar’s daughters, now Joe’s primary guardian.  Hadar was nine years old and elderly for his breed, and he had entered semi-retirement, mostly napping in the bedroom or in the warm sun.  Still, he went on all trips with Joe, and a carriage had been arranged even before Joe had hurt his ankle so that the hound could travel in comfort.  Joe would have likely ridden with Hadar even if he had been cleared to ride his horse. 

“Alright, but remember, you have to be careful.  Let Fada help you,” Rami reminded his youngest brother.  Just like her sire, Fada was trained to walk beside Joe, letting her master lean on her for support.  She was as tall and strong as her father, and well able to take much of Joe’s slight weight.

“I will,” Joe promised, nodding and smiling at his dog who was rarely more than a few feet away from him.  

Rami took a last look around the room, and then nodded firmly.  “Well, we should get going,” he said determinedly.  He didn’t really want to leave, knowing he was leaving his childhood behind.  But it was time to take the next step in his destiny.  “Come now,” he said briskly to his brothers, making himself sound cheerful.  “If we are late, I think Lord Freddie will start the party without me.” 

“That would be hard to do,” Ben grinned and it seemed their blond brother was back to his usual sunny self.  “I hear you have a pretty big part in the festivities.” 

Rami rolled his eyes.  “Don’t remind me,” he muttered, but still smiled at the young pair.  “Now, get going, come on.”  He herded Ben and Gwil to the door, and then walked slowly beside Joe as the youngest maneuvered on his crutches.  Fada didn’t really approve of the strange sticks and more than once had been caught dragging one away to hide it, obviously thinking that Joe would be better off leaning on her.  It had taken several ‘talks’ from Lord John to convince the hound to let Joe use the crutches when necessary. 

The made it slowly down the steps and out into the main courtyard where their horses were waiting with the guard and members of Sir James’s household that were accompanying them.  Other staff were lined up to bid farewell to Rami, and it took him sometime to say his goodbyes even though he would often be coming back.  Everyone bowed and curtsied to the young lord and there were calls of congratulations on his marriage. Rami finally finished his goodbyes and got on his horse after seeing Joe settled comfortably in the open carriage with Hadar.  With a final wave, the procession set out for Freddie’s estate. 

They made good time and the party was met by revilers as soon as they crossed into Lord Freddie’s lands.  No matter how small, it seemed that every village was celebrating the upcoming nuptials, and Rami was honestly touched by all the well wishes and greetings.  He knew that Freddie was loved by all his tenants, but it never failed to make him smile to see that love displayed.  A young girl, no more than five years old, raced out to give Rami and his brothers carefully crafted tiny crowns of flowers at the first village they passed through, and the brothers good naturedly donned them happily, Rami, Ben, and Gwil dismounting from their horses to accept the tokens.

“I wissh you much happinesss, my lord,” the little girl lisped proudly as she put the flowers on Rami’s head. 

“Thank you, my lady,” Rami said gravely, and the child giggled in delight.  Gwil picked her up and took her to the carriage where she crowned Joe, and then she scampered back to her embarrassed but delighted parents.  Rami smiled and bowed to them before getting back on his horse.  Ben blew the young lass a kiss, and everyone sighed in delight. 

Brian, Roger, and John had met them at the border to Freddie’s lands, and a short time later Freddie himself appeared.  He inclined his head to Rami, and Rami returned the gesture, aware of all the eyes upon them.  Freddie guided his warhorse to be beside his betrothed, and they rode side by side for the last miles, accepting the cheers and waves from the people lining much of the road. 

“They love you,” Freddie whispered at one point, smiling with pride at his intended.  Rami felt his face grow warm. 

“I wish them to love us both,” Rami rebutted, and Freddie smiled in agreement.  He gallantly took Rami’s hand and kissed it, eliciting more cheers from the people. 

It was nearly dusk when they reached Freddie’s home, and it seemed that everyone one of his household was lined up on the paths, torches lighting the way for the party. They dismounted and were joined by the other lords and Rami’s brothers and they all waved to the crowds, standing on the steps.  Lords Roger and John helped Joe exit the carriage and get up the stairs, Fada and Hadar close beside their master.   After a few minutes of accepting the cheers, Freddie led them all inside, and Rami took a relieved breath as the doors closed, finally giving them a bit of privacy.

“It is crazy out there,” Gwil said in awe, shaking his head a little.

“Freddie has been planning this party for years,” Roger laughed.  “As have most of the tenants.  It is definitely going to be a celebration to remember.”

“It’s like something from the capital when the king is on procession,” Ben marveled, peeking out a window. 

Rami met Freddie’s eyes, and the lord smiled a little.  “I am very fortunate to have the support and love of so many,” Freddie said, looking at Rami carefully.  Rami looked down nervously, grateful for the welcome, but a bit overwhelmed at the crowds.  “They are glad to see Rami arrive.”

“And there are still three days until the wedding,” Brian said smiling.  “We have many festivities planned, but don’t push yourselves too hard.”

“Nonsense,” Roger beamed.  “It is time to celebrate! I just hope we don’t run out of wine.”  He looked at Brian worriedly. 

Brian frowned at his brother.  “Roger, for the last time, I’ve told you that we have more than enough.” 

“But are you positive?” 

“Oh, for pity’s sake—” 

John shook his head as his two brothers started bickering.  “They have been fussing for days,” John told Rami.  “Roger keeps recounting the wine barrels despite Brian’s meticulous inventory.” 

“We can go check…and sample, of course,” Ben offered cheekily.  

Roger stopped in his arguing.  “You are fifteen,” he pointed out sternly to his future spouse.  “Watered wine only, and just a few glasses at that.” 

“Butttt-----” Ben whined.

“No buts.” 

“Perhaps we should escape while we can,” Freddie said, coming up and gently taking Rami’s arm.  “If you all can stop arguing, take your travel packs to your room, and we will join you shortly for supper.”  The boys and other lords grinned and nodded as Freddie guided Rami out of the hall and to Freddie’s study. 

Once behind the solid doors, Freddie shook his head and fetched them tea.  “Thank goodness you are here,” Freddie said.  “I am counting on Gwil and Ben to stop Brian and Roger from fighting.  Last night, I found them brawling in the kitchens.  Something about the inventory showing 23 cakes, while there were 24 cakes sitting on the board.  Thankfully your baker Mira threw them both out before they knocked something over.”

Rami chuckled at the image.  “That must have been quite a sight.”

“It was indeed.  It got even worse when John offered to eat the extra cake, and then Brian got mad at him for some unknown reason.  I left the three of them arguing in the hall and went to bed with a good book.”  Freddie sighed dramatically as he sat in the chair beside Rami.  “They are making me crazy.”  He paused, and smiled fondly at the young man. “So, my dear; welcome home.” 

Rami smiled.  It really was his home now.  “Thank you,” he said finally, not sure what else to say.  Fortunately, Freddie seemed to understand. 

“It is rather overwhelming, isn’t it?” he said gently. 

Rami sighed and nodded.  “It is,” he agreed.  “I mean, I’ve known for years this day was coming, but it still does not seem real.”  He looked down at his tea, a little uncomfortable suddenly being with Freddie.  He had not felt that way since he had first come to Queen, but now they were just days from being married and that that would entail. 

“That is very reasonable,” Freddie said gently, a soft smile on his face.  “We have a light supper waiting, and then I think we should all get some rest.  I am afraid that the next days will be busy as we are required to be at some of the festivities, but don’t hesitate to take a break when you need.  Everything will be fine.” 

“Alright,” Rami agreed.  He finished his tea and determinedly lifted his chin, mentally gathering strength for the next few days. 

True to Freddie’s word, dinner was light and casual with just the four lords and the four teens, although with some unintended entertainment.  Lords Brian and Roger continued to bicker about wine and cakes and other preparations, and Lord John joined the boys in watching them with amusement while Lord Freddie just scowled. 

“What are the current wagers?” John whispered to Gwil and Ben. 

“Ten marks says Lord Roger will rip up Lord Brian’s ledgers,” Ben answered.  “Eight marks says Lord Brian will drag us all to the kitchens and cellar to count barrels.”  He looked at John a bit suspiciously.  “No offense, my lord mage, but no cheating.” 

John put a hand over his heart in mock dramatic pain.  “Benjamin, I am wounded.  A gentleman does not cheat when betting stakes are involved, even if they are a mage.” 

“Joe does,” Rami piped in.  

Joe made an indigent sound.  “Once!” he protested.  “I did it once, and I swear it was an accident!  I was seven years old, for gods sake.” 

Ben waved off his claims, intently watching the argument between the two lords.  “And a lying cheater.  Oh, new bet: five marks says they both stomp away,” he said as Brian stood up, icily snipping something about how Roger could go drown himself in a wine barrel. 

“I’m in for that,” Gwil said.  “And seven marks says Lord Freddie tries to intervene and they turn on him.”

John tossed an entire purse of coins on the table.  “I am not taking that bet, but I say Roger throws his wine just to prove a point.”

“I’ll put eight marks for that,” Rami agreed.   Gwil refilled their drinks, and they settled back to watch, continuing to make bets as a running commentary on the argument. 

Twenty minutes later, Brian threw his wine, Roger told Brian to go lock himself in a cupboard, and Freddie threatened to knock both their heads together.  It took some time to sort out all the bets, but Gwil was eventually declared the major winner, gleefully counting his coins with an air of satisfaction.

The boys retired to their usual shared bedroom, all tried after the day’s journey.  The doctor checked on Joe, and gave approval for him to put the crutches aside for a few hours the next day, provided he was careful as always.  After the physician left, Gwil and Ben shoved the large beds together and all four piled in just as they had for years. 

“It is going to be funny not sharing a bedroom with you,” Ben said a bit sadly, looking at his eldest brother. 

“I feel the same,” Rami admitted.  “But I will still stay with you when Lord Freddie is not around.” 

Gwil quickly jumped in.  ‘Yes, of course,” he said brightly.  “Naturally you will stay in our bedroom if Lord Freddie is not with you.”

Ben looked at Rami carefully.  “Are you happy to be getting married?” he asked astutely.  Some underestimated Ben at times because he was so handsome, but in truth he was perhaps the most observant of the brothers.  Even Joe could often miss things that Ben picked up on.  Lord John had once remarked that perhaps Joe could thoughts, but Ben could read people. 

“Well, of course,” Rami said automatically.  He saw Ben raise a blond eyebrow, and also skeptical looks from Joe and Gwil, and sighed.  “I am a bit nervous,” he admitted, knowing he could trust his brothers.  “So much is depending on this.  I wish it could be a smaller ceremony, but we know the need for all the dignitaries.  I will be glad when it’s all over.” 

“And as for marrying Lord Freddie?” Ben pressed.  Once he had a hold of something, he rarely let it go.  “Are you happy about that?” 

“Ben,” Gwil warned, frowning. 

“No, it’s alright,” Rami said, sighing.  He shifted his weight, making himself more comfortable and ensuring that Joe’s foot was safely elevated on pillows.  “I have been promised to him since I was three so I am content with the idea.  It is just hard to believe that the time is finally here.”  He smiled at his brothers.  “We will all be alright,” he said firmly, knowing he needed to reassure them as their marriages would come soon enough.  “It is our duty, but it is hardly a difficult one to carry out.” 

“We will be happy,” Joe said.  “I promise.”  Even Ben couldn’t argue with Joe’s word, and he shrugged a little. 

“I know, but I am going to miss you so much.” 

Rami had to roll his eyes.  “You all act as if I am going away forever!” he said again with a groan.  “What do I have to do to convince you otherwise?” 

“Come visit us, of course!” Joe pipped up. 

“Just not on his honeymoon, silly!” Ben said to Joe brightly, and the young pair snickered.

“Good gods, both of you!” Gwil fussed, slapping Ben’s head and giving Joe a stern look.  “You both need to wash your minds out with soap.  Seriously, that is all you can think about?” 

“Oh, come on,” Ben protested.  “As if you don’t think about that as well.” 

“I am not having this conversation with you,” Rami muttered.  He knew his upcoming wedding night had been the matter of much speculation between the young pair.

To be fair, it had been much on Rami’s mind as well.  All things considered, he thought he was a fairly normal 18-year-old, and he spent a great deal of time thinking about sex.  He had done a fair bit of kissing, but nothing further with a partner beyond some light touching, and now he wondered if that had been wise.  He’d had many invitations to do more, of course, but had always declined, although he wasn’t really sure why.  Maybe it was his damn sense of duty, which right now, he was rather pissed about.  Maybe he should have taken advantage of his freedom when he had the chance. 

But every time he’d had the opportunity for more, he had pictured Lord Freddie, and something stopped him.  He was old enough and mature enough now to acknowledge that he did find the Queen lord attractive.  He found Freddie desirable, and he’d indulged in a number of fantasies, although he would rather die than admit it to anyone.  He had spoken the truth when he had told the lord that no one had caught his fancy enough to go beyond kissing; he hadn’t added that the only one who did have his full attention was Freddie. 

He needed to stop thinking about that right now.  For gods’s sake, his baby brother was sleeping next to him.  Not a good time to start reflecting on fantasies involving his lord.

Gwil had sat up and was giving Ben and Joe looks that should have had them bursting into flames.  “I told them it was rude,” Gwil hissed, looking ready to strangle Ben and send Joe to the corner.

“Oh come on,” Ben whined.  “Will you at least tell us—“ 

“No!” Rami practically shouted, putting his hand over Ben’s mouth.  “Don’t make me smoother you with a pillow!” 

Joe just laid calmly, looking rather smug as he watched his brothers argue.  He was frightfully old for his age at times, a matter that Rami firmly blamed Lord John for.  It wasn’t that he thought the lord mage ever did anything inappropriate; quite the contrary, Lord John was the worst when it came to smothering Joe and treating him as if he was still five years old.  But Joe had let it slip occasionally that he could see and even hear things from Lord John’s mind at times, and Rami well understood that not all thoughts in a grown man’s mind would be innocent and pure – as much as it made him nauseous to think that his baby brother was learning anything in that area. 

Rami knew he had to take control of the situation before it got worse.  “We are not having this discussion,” he repeated firmly in his sternest big brother tone.  “Ben, be quiet.  Joe, stop thinking.  Gwil,” he looked at the tallest brother.  “Don’t let them get to you; it is what they live for, and you know it.”  He glared at all three of the monsters he called brothers.  “Any more words out of any of you, and I will send you to sleep in the stable.  Is that clear?”  There were sheepish nods.  “Now, everyone, go to sleep.”  He flopped back on the bed and muttered to himself as he checked Joe’s foot again and made sure it was surrounded by pillows for protection.  “Good night.”

“Good night,” the other coursed.  There was blessed silence for a moment, and then another round of giggles from Ben and Joe. 

“Quiet!” Rami roared, as Gwil moaned and shoved a pillow over Ben’s face. 

The next morning, events began to celebrate the upcoming wedding, and Rami relaxed enough to enjoy himself a bit.  There was singing, dancing, and all sorts of games and other entertainment set up in tents around the estate, and the brothers wandered happily for a time.  Joe was allowed to go without his crutches in the morning, but obediently changed back to using them after lunch.

“I was worried,” Joe admitted as he and Rami sat on a bench after lunch, watching a dancer.  “I worried if I would have to stay home and not come to the wedding if I was hurt.”  He looked around, making sure they had privacy.  “I couldn’t see anything,” he explained in a hushed tone. 

Rami raised an eyebrow.  It was true that Joe could not see everything, but he was usually good about knowing things at least concerning the brothers.  It was clear this lapse in his vision had bothered him.  “We would have postponed the wedding,” Rami said firmly.  “I would have insisted on it no matter what, and I know Lord Freddie would have agreed.  There is no way I am getting married without all of you here.” 

Joe looked at him gratefully.  “I hoped so,” he said.  He blushed a little.  “I’m sorry about teasing you last night, Rami; I know that wasn’t polite.” 

“You let Ben talk you into things,” Rami scolded him lightly, still hugging him so Joe knew all was forgiven.  “He is a terrible influence.”

Joe giggled.  “Yes, he is,” he said, sounding quite happy about that fact.  Rami groaned.

“Behave yourself,” he warned.  “You are not too old for me to get the soap and wash out your mind and mouth.”  Joe stuck out his tongue in response, which Rami though rather proved his point. 

“Ah, there you are!”  It was Lord Brian, smiling as he found the boys.  “We are looking for you four.  You are needed up at the house.” 

“Is everything alright?” Rami asked as he helped Joe to stand. 

The lord nodded.  “Yes, all is fine,” he assured them.  “But we have a surprise for all of you.”  The usually calm lord seemed rather excited and was smiling broadly. 

Rami glanced at Joe, but the youngest brother shrugged as he steadied himself on his crutches.  Whatever it was, Joe had no idea.  They went up to the house, meeting up with Gwil and Ben along the way.  Soon all four boys and the four lords were gathered on the steps of the main courtyard. 

“Who is arriving?” Joe asked.  Lord John smiled at him.  

“A surprise,” the lord said mysteriously.  The brothers raised their eyebrows, quite curious now. 

A short time later, several guards galloped into the yard, and with them was a young man, racing his horse as fast as possible.  He paused only to throw himself off the horse and looked around frantically. 

Rami’s breath caught in his throat as he looked at the man, hardly able to believe his eyes.  “Sami?” he gasped, already running forward. 

“Who else?” His twin ran at him and the brothers met at the bottom of the steps, throwing themselves into each other’s arms.

“Gods!” Rami exclaimed, hugging his twin.  He knew from portraits that they were still identical, but it was so different seeing Sami in person.  “I—I can’t believe this!”

“Neither can I!’ Sami gasped.  “Oh gods, how I have missed you, my twin.” 

“I had no idea you were coming!”  Rami looked over his shoulder, and saw Freddie smiling broadly. 

Sami laughed.  “It’s not just me,” he said.  Before Rami could ask, more guards rode in accompanying riders and carriages, and Rami recognized the insignia's and uniforms as from Rhye.  The lead carriage stopped and the door was flung open before the wheels had even come to a complete halt.  Rami starred in shock at the faces that appeared.

“Mama!  Papa!”  He raced to his parents and fell into their embrace

“My boy, my darling boy,” his mother sobbed and his father had tears as well as the family shared a hug.

A cry made Rami look up, and he saw Gwil, Ben, and Joe running toward the other carriages.  He had not seen the adults in eight years, but there was no mistaking his brother’s parents as they were reunited as well. 

“All of you?” Rami gasped through his tears, looking at his parents. 

His father nodded.  “All your families.  We were asked to keep it a secret,” he said, hugging his eldest son fiercely.  “One we were happy to do, in order to see you.” 

“I---I,” Rami honestly was at a loss for words.  He looked at Freddie, and saw all the Queen lords smiling happily.  ‘Thank you’, Rami mouthed to Freddie, and the lord smiled and bowed.  Quietly, the Queen lords returned to the house, letting the families have time together. 

There was so much crying and laughter from all four families that things blurred for a bit.  They were ushered into a private dining hall where an elaborate feast was waiting for them, and they spent hours hugging and visiting.  The staff was clearly proud to serve the party, and the families were given time alone to reunite, sharing stories and laughter.  The four sets of parents all cried, as did their sons.  

It was an emotional gathering, but one filled with joy.  Gwil, Ben, and Joe were all only children, so the only other teen was Sami, and it was clear that the other families had taken him as on a surrogate son.  Sami had written over the years that he felt a great responsibility to the other parents, and Rami had always been proud of his twin.  Seeing Sami interact with the parents just made Rami smile and it was a relief to know that in a way, all their parents had still had a son in Rhye. 

The gathering went onto into the early hours of the morning, and then they were escorted to private rooms for each family to stay together.  Rami had forgotten how wonderful it was to be with his twin, and their parents refused to let Rami out of their sight for more than a minute.  Their parents finally fell asleep, and Rami and Sami stayed up most of the night, talking.  

“Do you want to marry him?” Sami finally asked quietly.  Rami thought for moment, knowing he had to be as honest as possible with his twin.  No one had ever asked him that question before. 

“Yes, I do,” he said, and it surprised even himself a little to say those words out loud.  “I think I would be happy to marry him even if it wasn’t for the treaty.” 

Sami looked at him with wise eyes.  Even the years apart had not changed the fact that the twins could tell when one was being evasive.  “Do you love him?” 

Rami blinked a little, but thought about that honestly.  “That I don’t know,” he admitted.  “I like him, I certainly respect and admire him.  Mama has written me many times that she and Papa were not in love, but they did like each other well enough, and they soon fell in love after they were married.  Maybe that is the best way.”  He looked knowingly at his twin.  “Now, your turn, little brother.  What does your heart say?” 

Sami sighed, hearts in his eyes, and Rami smiled.  His brother had been in love for over a year with a young lady who was related to House Mallezzo.  Her name was Illene, and if her portraits were even half accurate, she was beautiful indeed.  Most importantly, Sami wrote, she was kind and intelligent, and admired by all who knew her.  “I love her with all my heart,” he admitted.  “And she feels the same.” 

“What have Mama and Papa said?”  It had taken Rami months to convince his brother to speak to their parents.  Sami flushed a little and looked down, a smile on his lips.  “What?” Rami demanded. 

Sami’s face shown.  “They gave me permission to speak to her parents.”  He was obviously nearly bursting with excitement. 

“And?” Rami hissed, moving closer to his twin, whispering so as to not wake their parents who were asleep in the next room.  He was ready to shake the answers out of Sami if he did not hurry and tell him what had happened. 

“They said yes, provided she was agreeable.  They only asked that we wait a year until she turns 18.”  Sami was giddy with joy.  “Our engagement will be announced next week.” 

“Gods!” Rami barely controlled his urge to shout.  He threw his arms around Sami and the twins hugged each other, nearly vibrating with excitement.  He pulled back and lightly smacked his twin.  “And you didn’t tell me?  You idiot!” 

Sami was so happy he completely ignored the smack.  “I just spoke to them a few weeks ago, and we knew by then that we were coming to Queen.  I wanted to tell you in person.” 

Rami squeezed his brother.  “I am so happy for you!”  He truly was, and now understood why his brother had been so concerned if Rami was in love.  “I have no idea how I can keep that secret,” he complained.  “Do Joe’s parents know?” 

“Yes, Illene’s parents wrote them, but we didn’t want to take anything away from your wedding, so that is why we will wait to make the announcement.”  Sami smiled at his brother.  “I do hope you can meet her.  She is amazing, Rami.  I can’t believe she is willing to take me on!”

“I will write to her after the engagement is announced and warn her about what she is taking on,” Rami teased.   Sami smacked him back. 

“Shut up.” 

“You shut up.” 

After rounds of twin arguing, something they had sorely missed, Rami found some left over wine and they toasted Sami’s secret engagement.  

“I am so happy for your, Sami.  You must take happiness whenever and wherever you can.” 

Sami smiled at him fondly.  “When did you become so wise?” he teased.  

Rami grinned.  “It’s from having little brothers,” he said.  Sami chuckled at the words. 

“I am so happy that I have finally met them; all the letters were wonderful, of course, but to see them in person is best of all.  You were not exaggerating about Ben!  He makes Cousin Tess seem like an angel.”  Their cousin Tess was the sweet natured but definite attracter of mischief in the Malek family.  “I about pulled out my hair at times trying to be responsible for her,” Sami lamented. 

Rami winced, well aware of some of Tess’s exploits.  “I have to admit I’m glad she is not here,” he confessed.  “Much as I would like to see her again, I fear the entire estate would catch fire if she and Ben were placed together.” 

“Having spent just one day with Ben, I have to agree,” Sami said dryly.  “I truly complained to Mama and Papa many times that I would prefer to be an only child rather than have some of our cousins as siblings.”  After Rami had left, Lord and Lady Malek had started fostering numerous nieces and nephews so Sami would not be alone. 

Rami nodded.  “Well, I have been very grateful to our cousins,” he said.  “Gwil, Ben, and Joe became my brothers they day we left Rhye, but I always thought of you being left alone, and I hated it.” 

His twin smiled reassuringly. “I was not alone,” he promised.  “And it wasn’t just our cousins who became my siblings; your bothers have become my brothers as well.”  His eyes grew wistful.  “I hoped so often that one day we could meet.  We all cried when the letter came from Lord Frederick, saying that mama and papa were to be part of the official Rhye delegation to witness your wedding, along with the other parents.” 

“Lord Frederick?” 

Sami nodded.  “It was a direct order.  I heard that the king was rather upset, for some reason I do not exactly know.  Perhaps others had been hoping to court favor by being at the wedding.  But all the warlords insisted on our parents coming, and hardly anyone else from Rhye.  They were very clear about it.  All they asked was to keep it a secret for a surprise.” 

Rami smiled at the news.  “Then I have much to thank him for,” he agreed. 

The next morning the families gathered again to continue their celebrations.  Freddie visited them briefly to formally welcome them all, but tactfully did not stay long, letting the families be together.  There were still two days until the wedding, and there was a wide range of activities and parties for everyone to enjoy.  Freddie had clearly put a great deal of thought into the celebration, and Rami was touched by the consideration and effort that had gone into their families visit. 

“Thank you,” he quietly told Freddie at a luncheon.  “I…we…truly cannot thank you enough.” 

Freddie smiled gently, and clasped Rami’s hand.  “It is the least we can do,” he said.  “We all wanted it to be the best surprise possible.”

“It is indeed,” Rami said.  He watched as Joe’s parents held their son tightly, not letting him out of their sight.  “It means so much to us.” 

“We promised that one day you would see your parents again.  We could think of no better occasion than your marriages.” 

“Marriages?” Rami asked, his ears alert. 

Freddie smiled.  “Your parents will be at all your weddings,” he assured Rami.  He raised Rami’s hand and kissed it lightly.  “Now, I will take my leave, and let you return to your family.  I will see you soon.”  He bowed, and left. 

It was odd, but in the afternoon, Rami found him and his brothers gravitating toward each other.  All their parents were eager to spend every second with them, and the sons wanted to be with their parents, but they needed to see each other as well.  It had been eight long years since they had been with their parents, and in some ways, Rami thought that they were treated as small children; like the sons who had left Rhye that day in the carriage.  Joe’s parents were especially reluctant to even let go of their son and Joe had given his brothers slightly nervous looks at times.  Frankly, they were not used to their parents anymore, and instead relied on each other. 

“It feels a little strange,” Gwil admitted quietly to Rami as they fetched fresh tea for their mothers.  “I know them mostly from letters now, and not as….people.  And they seem to expect me to be nine again.”  He shrugged, and then smiled.  “But I would not change anything to get to see them again,” he said firmly. 

Rami nodded in understand.  He had it easier in that his parents had still had a son at home.  It was clear that it was more difficult for his brother’s parents, although all of them had fostered young relatives over the years. All the brothers had been glad that their parents were not alone.  

The night before the wedding, a formal banquet was held, Rami and Freddie sitting at the head of the dais in the places of honor.  There were toasts and cheers for the couple, and Rami had to look down a few times, blinking at all the excitement.  It certainly was not what he would have expected eight years ago, and in fact, many did seem to ignore that this was an arranged marriage; from the toasts, it appeared many thought it a love match.  It was as if most had forgotten that it had been ordered as part of a peace treaty, Rami thought as he nodded and faked paying attention to one long speech from a Queen diplomat.  Or perhaps everyone was just too polite to mention that.  It was surely a sensitive topic for the four families.  Still, Rami was full of excitement.  He had been waiting years for this day, and now that he was relaxed, it was easy to get caught up in the festivities. 

Freddie was always a gracious host, and he visited easily with everyone from Rhye and Queen alike after the meal and as the dancing began. He came up to Rami while his parents were dancing and sat beside his betrothed.  “Are you having a good time?” he asked quietly, smiling. 

“I am,” Rami said truthfully.  “Thank you, for everything.”  He smiled back at Freddie, knowing he had much to be grateful for. 

Freddie inclined in head.  “You deserve it all,” he said softly, briefly laying his hand over Rami’s.  The younger man looked down, taking a sip of wine, not quite sure how to react outwardly.  Inwardly, Rami’s heart was pounding.  Freddie’s touch had always been calming, but now it caused a slight trembling, which Rami knew was an emotion the exact opposite from calm.  

He found that he was equal parts terrified and excited for the next night. 

They sat together for a time, chatting idly and remarking on the various dancers, and then Freddie lightly cleared his throat.  “May I have this dance?” he asked as a new tune started up.  He stood and extended his hand to Rami. 

“Oh, of—of course,” Rami said, a little flustered.  “I am not very good,” he warned as he accepted Freddie’s hand.  Rami was a skilled horseman, but he tended to be a klutz most of the time.  He had never been completely comfortable dancing even with the best instructor’s guidance. 

“I will make sure eyes are on me,” Freddie said brightly, and Rami laughed. 

“Watch out for your toes, my lord.” 

It was a bit stiff at first, but Freddie was an excellent lead, and Rami slowly relaxed enough to simply follow Freddie.  He could feel eyes on them, and looked nervously at his feet.  

“Look at me,” Freddie said softly.  Rami looked up to see those warm brown eyes smiling and full of encouragement.  “Focus on me, my dear, and all will be well.”  Rami took a deep breath and nodded.  After a minute, Rami managed a smile.  “There, not so bad now, is it?” Freddie asked as he turned them slowly around the room.

The touch of Freddie’s large warm hand on his back made Rami shiver a little, but he nodded.  “I just realized that we have never danced together,” Rami said, trying for conversation.  It was usually so easy to talk to Freddie, but it was different now dancing, with so many people watching them.

“Ah, then we shall have to make up for that,” Freddie said lightly.  “I have been remiss, it seems.” 

“No, not at all,” Rami assured him.  “I like to watch dancing, but it is not one of my strengths.  Ben is much better.”  He nodded to the blond teen who was confidently leading his mother in the dance.  “And Joe loves to dance any chance he can.  He was pouting earlier that he would have to sit out tonight and keep resting his ankle.” 

Freddie smiled as he looked over where Joe was sitting with his parents, his good foot wistfully tapping in time with the music.  “What about Gwilym?” 

Rami shook his head.  “He claims he is dreadful, but he is really quite good.  He is just self-conscious about his height.”  Indeed, Gwil was dancing stiffly with chancellor from Queen, towering over the man.  It did not seem to bother the chancellor at all, but Gwil was self-conscious about the fact that he was still growing.  He hoped he would stop soon. 

“Ah!  Brian was exactly the same way,” Freddie confided.  “He was so embarrassed when a dance tutor made him get up in front of us for practice.  He would slouch and try to claim not feeling well.”  The thought of the tall lord trying to slouch made Rami smile.  Before he knew it, the song was over, but the musicians quickly went into another dance, and Rami and Freddie remained on the floor.  After two more dances, Freddie led Rami back to his parents, and gallantly claimed his mother for a dance.  Rami found himself smiling as he watched Freddie and Lady Malek dance, discussing something in great detail.

“Mama seems to like Lord Frederick well enough,” Sami said, joining Rami as their father went to visit with Sir Reed.

“I’m glad,” Rami said.  “I want her to be happy.” 

Sami regarded Rami carefully.  “Lord Frederick wants you to be happy as well,” he said.  “You deserve that.” 

“I am happy,” Rami answered truthfully.  “Our kingdoms are at peace.  I am proud to serve Rhye as I have done, and will continue to do so.”  There was so much more that he could not tell Sami, and it pained him, but Rami would never forget his promise and vow to Freddie all those years ago.

Freddie was his king, and Rami would follow him.  And tomorrow Freddie would be Rami’s husband.  Rami found that he was rather looking forward to that now.

Chapter Text

The day of the wedding dawned bright and clear, and Rami sighed as he quietly watched the sun come up, wrapped in a light blanket and sitting on the window seat.  Early mornings had always been a time he liked to have to himself, where he prepared for the day ahead, making a mental checklist of tasks.  Today, it was summed up in just two words: his wedding.  The day that two kingdoms had been waiting for, and soon Rami would be the spouse of the warlord that he had pledged his loyalty to.  The man who would be his king.  The man who had defeated his country all those years ago, and taken Rami and three other children from their families.

*****

“Rami, Sami, we need to talk to you,” Papa had said, his voice rough.  Rami looked at his twin nervously, wondering what was happening.  They had just turned five, and were alone with their parents in the family library, both adults looking sad and worn.  

“What is it, Papa?” Sami asked nervously, clutching Rami’s hand as they sat on the leather couch, their short legs dangling.  

Their papa tried to smile a little, but it failed to reach his eyes.  “You are old enough now to know the truth,” he said.  “You know that Rhye has lost the war with Queen.  Because of that, we must pay.  The price that they demand is that the oldest of our House must go to Queen as a hostage.  You will be the ward of one of the warlords, and then later, when you are older, their spouse.”  

The oldest.  Rami sucked in his breath, understanding.  “I have to leave you?” he gasped, terrified at the notion.  

“Not now,” Mama said hurriedly.  “But one day, yes.”

Sami looked as shocked as Rami felt.  “What about me?” he asked, his voice trembling, not knowing what to hope for.  They had always done everything together.  

Mama looked at them sadly.  “You will stay here, Sami.  Only Rami will be going.”

“No!” Sami protested.  “They can’t take him!”  

Papa shook his head.  “They can, and they will.  I am so sorry, my sons, but nothing we have been able to do has changed their minds.  We must begin to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.”

Rami felt that he could not breathe.  He had to leave home?  Leave his twin?  Go live with the monsters who had harmed his country?

“No!  I won’t do it!”  He jumped off the couch and ran from the room, ignoring his parents’ cries and his twin’s scream.

**

He had fought, argued, cried like a baby.  Sami thought they should run away, and even stole travel packs for them to use.  But of course, nothing had changed the treaty.  It had only gotten worse when Rami learned that he was not the only one being forced to leave home.

**

“What?  Why do they want three more children?” he demanded, seething in anger. 

“No one understands why,” Papa said wearily.  “I wish we had an answer, but we do not.  All we can do is accept--.”  

“No, we won’t accept it!” Sami fumed.  “It’s stupid and mean!  You said that one of them was just born!  How can they take a baby from its parents?”

Mama was struggling to keep her tears back.  “You will not leave right away, Rami.  We are doing all we can to delay the day you must leave.  We think it may yet be years.”  

“I don’t care!” Rami yelled.  “It’s not right!”  

“It is war,” Papa said quietly.  

**

He and Sami were seven when they met Gwil, a shy, serious boy a year younger than them who would also be forced to leave his home.  Rami didn’t really care that there were other boys being made to leave; he only cared that he had to leave his twin.

**  

“I wish I had a twin,” Gwil said wistfully.  “It must be nice.”

“It is,” Rami said shortly, perhaps a bit rudely, but he didn’t care.  Mama and Papa had told him that Gwil would be his brother, and Rami was prepared to hate him on sight; Sami was his only brother.  

Gwil looked at the twins nervously, no doubt feeling outnumbered.  Rami had no intention of playing with Gwil, as their parents had suggested, but Sami seemed to feel sorry for the other boy.  “Here,” Sami said, shoving a ball at Gwil.  “Let’s practice our throwing.  We have a target hoop in the yard.”  The look of pure gratefulness on Gwil’s face made Rami feel a little bad.  

“Come on,” he muttered, grabbing Gwil’s hand.  He still refused to say that Gwil was his brother, but he was a guest in their house, and Rami knew he should try to be nice.

**  

“You two are the oldest,” Papa told Rami and Gwil.  “There is great responsibility on you.”  

Rami scowled, not caring about responsibility.  He just wanted to stay with his family.  As far as he was concerned, responsibility wasn’t fair to anyone.  

“Joseph is only three,” Lord Lee said gently.  “And he is sickly.  You need to be big brothers to him.”  Rami silently seethed at that word again: ‘brothers’.  He had a brother and didn’t need more.

“What is he sick with?” Gwil asked softly.  

“It is called the bleeding illness.  When he has a cut, he will keep bleeding unless given special medicine; the blood does not clot on its own,” Papa explained.  “He can also bleed inside; when he gets a bruise, it will hurt him a great deal and can take weeks to heal.”  

“Then it’s stupid that the warlords are making him go,” Rami muttered angrily.  The adult exchanged looks.  

“We wish they would change their minds,” Lord Lee agreed.  “But so far they have not.”  

“Then they are stupid,” Rami decided angrily, his eyes narrowed.  “I hate them.”  Gwil was looking at him wide eyes, and Rami decided that this so-called ‘brother’ was a scaredy-cat.   

**

Papa ordered Rami to the library, and sent Sami away to their room.  The twins were hardly ever separated and both protested; Rami honestly could not remember the last time he had been apart from Sami, but Papa was firm.  Rami had never seen his father so stern in all his eight years, and was a little frightened.  

“Rami, listen to me,” Papa said, his voice sharp.  “Do you think that your mother and I want to send you away?  Do you think any of the parents want to send their sons to Queen?”  

“No!” Rami said, honestly shocked at the question.  “Of course not, Papa.”  

Papa nodded shortly.  “Do you think that we have not tried to change it?  That we have not done all we can to change the lords’ minds?”  

Rami squirmed a little in his seat.  “I know that you have tried to change the treaty,” he agreed.  He had heard his parents arguing, crying, meeting with their counselors and desperately voicing plans and ideas.  The twins had spent many nights listening in secret when the adults thought they were asleep, and both knew their parents were devastated at the fact that Rami had been named.

His father crossed his arms and looked sternly at his son.  “Do you not think that all in Rhye have tried to change the treaty?  Do you think anyone is happy that we are ordered to send you away?”  

The words made Rami wince a little as he thought about the question honestly.  “No, Papa,” he said meekly.  He thought about Lady Lee crying, about how worried Lord Lee had been during their visits.  Maybe that explained why Gwilyn looked so serious all the time.  

Lord Malek kept his gaze firmly on his eldest son.  “Rami, we have tried everything.  We have been trying for years.  It is—“ he paused and to Rami’s shock, tears appeared in his father’s eyes.  “It is the shame of my life that I cannot solve this,” Lord Malek admitted, his voice breaking.  “I have done everything I can- we all have- to change this.  We have begged, pleaded, but there is no change.”  

“Papa—“ Rami shook his head, not knowing what to say or do.  Lord Malek sat down and Rami instinctively went to hug him.  His father drew him in tightly, crying into his shoulder.  For a long time Rami just hugged his father, stunned to see him cry.  

“Rami, we cannot think of anything else to do,” Papa finally said.  “Even Lord and Lady Mazzello have had their appeal denied, and their son may not even live to the age to be married.  Yet they must turn him over at any time.”  His father drew back to look at his son, and put his hands on his shoulders.  “If I could take this burden, I would.  As would your mother, and all of your older cousins.  But to our shame, nothing has swayed their minds, or the words of the treaty.  We have seriously considered refusing; to break the treaty.”

Rami’s eyes were wide in surprise.  “But we can’t break the treaty!  It would be war!”

Papa nodded slowly.  “And treason to our king.  But we four families have discussed it.”

No, it could not be.  Rami’s family were the most loyal people he knew of, proud of their family ties to the throne.  A Malek had served in the Rhye royal cabinet for over a thousand years.  Yet they were willing to break with all they had and refuse to give up their eldest child.  

And war…Rami could only shake his head.  He was old enough to remember some of the war, the injuries of the wounded, the deaths.  He was only eight years old, but he knew enough to understand the toll that war took on an entire land.  

“We can’t risk war,” he whispered finally.

Papa sighed, looking down at the ground.  “We would risk it gladly, it if would save you,” he said quietly.  

Rami looked at his father carefully.  “We would not win, would we?”  His father hesitated, and then shook his head.  “It would only make them more angry,” Rami guessed, and knew his answer when his father closed his eyes.  

“I am sorry, my son,” Papa said, holding him tightly.  “But do not give up hope.  We may yet think of something.  We will never stop trying.”  

That night, Rami stayed awake long after Sami finally fell asleep, clutching his twin, thinking hard about what their father had said. Their families would give anything – even their lands and fortunes – if it meant saving them.  They had tried for years to find a solution, and the only option seemed to be treason and war.  Yet they would risk it, if they thought it would save the children.  

Rami looked at Sami, sleeping peacefully, and thought of his twin and their mother in prison.  It made Rami sick, but he forced himself to consider that horrible possibility.  Of Lady Lee and gentle Gwil in jail.  And Joe, still just a toddler and already ill, and Ben, the other child, only a little older than Joe.  How could they all risk imprisonment or even death?  If the families tried to rebel and leave Rhye, where would they even go?  

And what would happen if they were caught trying to leave?  Rami understood enough of the treaty to know that there were promises that the four boys would be treated well; Lady Lee had been careful to ensure that Rami and Gwil understood that.  But if their families rebelled, what would happen then?  Surely everyone would be punished. 

And he knew that Rhye would not survive another war, even if every soldier in the land raised arms to protect the four boys. 

There was only solution.  

Rami carefully made his way out of bed without waking Sami, and crept out of their nursery, keeping a wary eye out for their governess.  Fortunately, Lady Helen was old and rather hard of hearing, and the twins had been successfully sneaking out for years.  Rami knew the timing of the patrols in the halls – and how to avoid them – and soon he was outside his parent’s suite.  The guards on duty raised eyebrows as Rami approached, and Rami was relieved that he knew them both well.  

“My lord?” one of them asked politely, clearly surprised to see the child alone in the hallways at night.  

“I need to speak with my parents,” Rami said firmly.  Then he added “Please.”  The guards exchanged looks, but one of them opened the door and went in to speak with the servant on duty in the rooms.  A minute later, one of his mother’s maids came out and escorted Rami to his mother’s parlor.  

“I have sent one of your mother’s ladies to wake your parents,” she said gently.  

“Thank you,” Rami said.  The lady gave Rami a blanket and he gladly bundled up in it.   

His parents entered, still pulling on dressing gowns.  “Rami, are you alright, my dear?” Mama asked, quickly coming to him.

“Yes, Mama,” Rami answered, and for the first time in years, Rami truly was alright.  He knew this was right.  He faced his parents and stood tall.  “We four boys shall go to Queen,” he said calmly.  

Both parents startled, looking at each other in confusion.  “Rami—” Papa began, but Rami interrupted.  

“Papa, it is the only way.”  Rami felt his confidence grow with each word.  “We will not risk war or treason or anything else.  Gwilym, Benjamin, Joseph, and I will go as demanded.  We will do everything we are asked and expected to do, and we will cause no trouble.”  

“My son,” Lady Malek was in tears.  “It is a horrible price, made even more horrible in that we do not know why this has been enforced.”  

“It does not matter,” Rami shrugged, his mind firmly set.  “Reason or not, we must do as ordered.”  He looked at his parents.  “Tomorrow, with your permission, I will write the other parents, and tell them that I will be responsible for their sons.  We will make Rhye proud.”  

His parents could only hug him tightly, knowing that their fated rested on the four boys.

*****

Now, a soft sound made Rami look back at the beds, and he smiled at the sight.  Rami and all his brothers had persuaded their parents to let the boys spend the night before the wedding together, and all five teens plus Joe’s two canine guardians had stayed in the usual bedroom the boys stayed in when visiting Freddie, an extra cot brought in to make the bed large enough.  Rami had been honestly relieved to be with all his brothers this last night.  Things would be very different from now on.

They would make Rhye proud.

He had been happy to see Sami welcomed into the brother’s family that they had formed.  So often Rami had worried about his twin being alone, even though cousins came to live with Rami’s parents to be companions for the brother left behind in Rhye.  But he was glad that Sami had thrived and now he had more brothers to call his family.  Rami needed to know that his twin would never be alone.

The dancing had gone on late into the night, and Rami had been glad when his twin and three brothers pulled him away from the crowd and they snuck upstairs.  This was his last chance to spend time with them before the wedding, and he knew they all needed this time together.  Sami did not know what the others knew, of course, but still, he was Rami’s twin, and deserved to be with them.

Sami, too, has a part to play,’ Rami remembered Freddie saying.  He only hoped that it would be less strict for his twin than it had been for himself.  The fact that Sami was marrying for love made Rami sincerely happy. 

As if hearing his twin’s thoughts, Sami opened his eyes and carefully got up from the bed, yawning as he joined Rami on the window bench.  “Still an annoying early riser?” he asked softly.

Rami chucked quietly.  “Afraid so,” he admitted.

Sami groaned, shaking his head.  “You are awful,” Sami grumbled. He leaned back against the wall, studying his brother.  “I have missed you so much.  For some reason, I thought you would be exactly the same,” he said thoughtfully.  “You have changed, Rami.  I know we all have, but you….you seem so much older.”

“We had to grow up quickly,” Rami said, his tone even.  “We accepted it, Sami; you know we all had to.”  He smiled a little.  “It was all for the good,” he added firmly.  “We would do it again, if necessary.”

“You will always do as needed,” Sami agreed.  “Your whole life is to serve Rhye – and I understand that part – but it’s been in a manner that I cannot understand.”  He looked sad, an expression that Rami did not want to see on his face.

Rami looked at his twin sternly.  “And I am grateful for that,” he said.  “We have not lied, Sami; we have good lives and there is much joy.  But yes, my – our - brothers serve in a way that I don’t think you can understand.  And that is good; I was glad to be the tribute from our House, and will never regret it.  And I am glad that you can marry your Lady Illene,” he added with a true smile. 

Sami sighed but smiled.  “Do you think you can come to the wedding?” he asked hopefully.

Rami considered, and slowly shook his head.  “I will ask, of course, but I do not think I will be allowed to return to Rhye just yet,” he said a bit vaguely.  Freddie had mentioned that after a honeymoon, he and Rami were expected to be in the capital for some time.  Rami knew that it would be intense secret training for both of them.  “I am sorry, Sami.”

His twin reached out and hugged him.  “I understand,” he said quietly.  “We shall both write to you, and tell you all about it.  And we will send portraits.”

“I would like that,” Rami smiled.  “I need to see what she looks like!  Your descriptions just say ‘perfect in every way’”, he teased, seeing Sami blush.

“She is,” Sami said with a stubborn look.  “You will see.”

A knock sounded on the outer door and Rami took a deep breath, pulling on his dressing gown.  As expected it was a servant, politely waking the boys.  There was much to be done, and Rami steered himself for the day ahead.

They dressed quickly and casually, and joined their parents for breakfast in the upper hall, dining in private.  Everyone was subdued, but trying to smile and be happy to lighten the mood.  Rami made himself smile and act relaxed, knowing that it would only worry his parents and brothers even more if he was sad or upset.  He had to set the example and be brave, just when they had left Rhye.

And truly, Rami admitted, this was much easier than that day had been.  He was an adult now, albeit a young one, and their parents were with them.  Although it was true that in some ways their parents were almost strangers to them now, it was still comforting to have them present this day.

Rami watched as Joe sat between his parents, talking quietly with them.  Just had Gwil had mentioned with his parents, it seemed that Lord and Lady Mazzello could not picture their son as anything other than the five-year-old child who had been taken away.  He was so much more, Rami reflected, more than they could imagine.  Joe had had to explain over and over again that he was well, introducing his parents to Hadar and Fada, who had regarded the strange adults with some initial suspicion. 

“We had always wanted to give Joseph a pet,” Lady Mazzello said to Rami.  “But even a rabbit could scratch him.  We were very nervous when Lord John asked to gift him with a wolfhound.”

“Hadar and Fada are well trained especially for Joe,” Rami assured them.  “They would die protecting Joe, and never hurt him.

Lady Mazzello nodded.  “We cannot thank you enough, Rami, for all that you and your brothers have done for Joe.  It has been a great comfort to know that you have kept him safe.”

Rami had to look down at his drink for a moment.  One day, he knew he would have to send Joe into danger; to let him be the mage that he was.  He still did not know how he would face that time.  “We love him very much,” he finally said.

After breakfast, everyone returned to their rooms to get ready for the late morning ceremony.  Rami and his brothers had been given private use of a small bathhouse, and they bathed quickly and returned to their rooms to dress.  As they brought out their clothes, Rami had a small smile of satisfaction.

Sir James had overseen their outfits for the day, and had suggested the yellow and red colors of House Mercury for Rami.  But, in one of his first true orders as a young adult, soon to be married and in fact now Sir James’s lord, Rami had refused.   ‘I will wear that soon enough.  But at the wedding, I am still from House Malek’ he had said firmly.  It was the one act of subtle defiance that he could do, and his wedding clothes were in the blue and silver of his house.

He studied himself in the mirror as Gwil and Sami helped with the fastenings of his cloak.  His trousers and under tunic were in bright silver, his formal jacket a dark blue with silver and grey trim and buttons.  The cloak was silver on the underside and then blue on the outside, and his boots black leather with silver embroidery.  Ben and Joe stood quietly to the side until Gwil motioned them forward, and then came up each holding a box.

When the boys had left Rhye, there had been eight special boxes in the baggage; jewels and insignia from each of their houses that were carefully stored away until each of the wedding days.  Rami had never had any interest in seeing what his family had sent those eight years ago, and he watched curiously as Gwil and Sami opened the boxes.

“It is good you are wearing our colors,” Sami said proudly.

The stones were in shades of blue, the settings all in silver grey.  Solemnly, Gwil took out each piece of jewelry, and gave it to Sami to put on his brother.  Two large rings, one the family crest, and the other a single shinning blue gem.  A long ornate necklace that Sami carefully arranged over Rami’s jacket.  A wide bracelet also emblazoned with the family crest.  Silver clasps with blue stones to decorate his cloak fastenings.  And, in the smaller box, a cornet of sparkling blue jewels and silver.  Sami took a deep breath as he arranged it on Rami’s head.

“You look very handsome,” he said quietly.  Rami’s instinct was to quip that Sami was complementing himself, but then he looked in the mirror and he had to agree.  It was like wearing a suit of armor that gave him confidence and security.  The weight of the jewels was great, but it gave Rami strength.

Ben bucked on Rami’s new scabbard and sword which each also bore the Malek crest in silver and blue, a wedding gift from Lord Roger and Ben.  Lord Brian and Gwil had designed a pure yellow diamond ring in a red setting that Gwil slipped on Rami’s right hand.  Joe insisted on pinning on Rami the elaborate red and yellow jeweled broach from himself and Lord John, Rami bending down a little so Joe could reach.

“It will protect you,” Joe whispered, and Rami smiled, knowing it had spells woven into its making.

“Thank you,” he whispered back.  “I will wear it gladly.”  He admired the ring and broach for a moment, and decided he was happy to have a touch of the colors of House Mercury.  Then he turned and smiled at all his brothers.

All of them were handsome in the colors of their houses, Gwil tall and impressive in the bright grey and orange of House Lee.  Ben looked even more handsome than usual in the green and black of his house, and Joe suddenly looked mature beyond his years in his purple and white clothing.  And of course, Sami, also clad in the blue and silver of their family.  Each of the boys wore small cornets and Sami, Gwil, and Ben buckled on ceremonial swords.  Rami had to smile as Fada nosed at her master; even she had a new harness dyed purple for the occasion. 

There was another knock at the door, and Rami nodded to Gwil who went to open it.  Their mothers came in, and all the ladies paused for a moment, seeing their sons.  Lady Malek looked ready to cry, and Rami went to hug her.

“Mama,” he said, giving her a hug.  Then he formally lifted her hand and kissed it, acting as an adult.  “Having you and Papa here makes everything more than worth it.”

“My son.”  Lady Malek valiantly fought back tears.  “All I wish is for you to be happy.”

Rami nodded, still holding his mother’s hand.  “I am,” he said calmly.  Inside, he was nervous as hells, but he knew he had to be steady for all his family.  He would not have his parents, his twin, or those gathered to know his uncertainty.  He would make Rhye proud, showing what true strength and dignity was.  Today Rami formally became the lord of two countries, and he would impress on both that he was worthy and set the example for his brothers.

Their fathers appeared, and Rami kissed his father’s hand, accepting his blessing.  “We are very proud of all of you,” Papa said quietly.  Rami looked at his brothers and smiled.

“We are proud to be of Rhye,” he said firmly.

A horn sounded from below, and all could hear the faint strains of music begin from the chapel hall.  Rami smiled and straightened his shoulders, knowing it was time.  “Go on, my lords and ladies,” he said to the adults. “My brothers and I will be down in a moment.”

The parents nodded and left after one last hug and kiss.  Rami turned to face his brothers, who all looked at him at with expressions mixed with excitement, joy, and a bit of worry.  “Sami?” Rami looked at his twin.  “May I have one moment with our brothers, please?”  He hoped Sami would understand that he needed one last moment alone with the other boys.

Fortunately, Sami immediately nodded.  “I will wait outside,” he said kindly.  “Take your time.”  He hugged Rami, and then left, closing the door firmly behind him.

Rami took a deep breath and looked at his brothers.  “Come here,” he said, holding out his arms.  As one, the other three went to him and they hugged fiercely, savoring a few minutes of quiet.  “I love you,” Rami finally said, kissing each of their foreheads.  “I have never been prouder to call you all my brothers.  This will be a happy day for all of us.”

Gwil and Joe smiled, hugging him back.  Ben seized Rami’s hand, and took a deep breath, looking him seriously in the eyes.

“I love you…my king,” he said, and kissed Rami’s hand.

Rami blinked, jerking his head to look at Gwil, who seemed equally shocked.  He knew Gwil would never tell his secret; how had Ben known?  Had Joe seen something and told Ben?

Blue eyes met Rami’s as Ben raised his head, still holding Rami’s hand.  “I guessed a long time ago,” Ben said quietly, suddenly looking much older than his fifteen years, and reminding Rami that Ben could read people just as Lord John and Joe could sometimes read minds.  “I took a chance just now, and see that I am right, as I always suspected,” he said confidently, smiling.  He formally knelt before Rami and looked up at him seriously, Rami watching him with wide eyes.  “I swore my allegiance to your husband, Lord Frederick, years ago, and now I swear it to you, my brother, my king, Lord Rami Malek of Rhye.  I am yours to command for the rest of my life, whether it be long or short.”

There was a pause, and Rami watched silently in a daze as Gwil knelt beside Ben, and then both brothers helped Joe to kneel, Fada close beside her master.  “My king,” Gwil said seriously, taking and kissing Rami’s hand next.  “You are my brother, and I will always stand with you.  My life will be to serve you and your husband as our kings.” 

Joe took his hand from Gwil.  “King Rami, Uniter of Rhye and Queen,” he said firmly, naming him, his voice powerful beyond his years.  Joe kissed the ring that bore Rami’s family crest and then looked up at his eldest brother, his eyes dark with power.  “We are here to serve you and your spouse, the Emperor Frederick the First of Our Lands.”

Rami had to blink back tears that threatened in his eyes, not caring when a few did escape.  Emperor Frederick?  He looked into Joe’s eyes and knew he was still lost in a vision, one of vast power.  “Do you name us so, my Lord Mage Joseph?” he formally asked finally, echoing the words Freddie had spoken years ago.

Joe nodded, his eyes lost in whatever he was seeing.  “If we win, he shall be named the Emperor Frederick, and you shall be Our Uniter, King Rami.”

Rami took a deep breath.  Was this how Freddie had felt those years ago?  Knowing that he was taking on the burden of the throne but with it the strength from his brothers?  He had never wanted this moment, but had reluctantly accepted it would come one day.  All he could do now was accept their loyalty, which he would sorely need.

“Rise, my brothers,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion.  He took Joe’s other hand to help him stand, and Gwil and Ben stood quickly, also supporting Joe to stand back up.  “I may one day be your king, but I am your brother first,” Rami said, looking at each one of them.  “I accept your service, and in turn, I am your servant.  You are my liege lords,” he bowed his head to Gwil and Ben, “and my lord mage,” he continued, bowing his head to Joe.

“We will win,” Ben said, his voice thick.  Gwil couldn’t trust himself to speak, but nodded and kissed Joe’s head, comforting their youngest, who swayed a bit as his vision faded.  Fada whined, and came closer so Joe could lean against her.

Rami hugged them all again tightly.  “Let us do great things.”

**********

**********

Rami walked down the halls, his head high and confident, his twin and his brothers close behind him.  He felt that he had been headed to this moment all his life; that he had lived 18 years for this time that would last perhaps 18 minutes from the start to end of the official wedding ceremony.  When all the platitudes and festivals were said and done, the ceremony itself was brief.  It was fitting, Rami decided as he waited for the doors to the chapel to open.  They had much to do, and it was time to begin.

The heavy doors of the chapel swung wide, and Rami moved forward to the top of the stairs, pausing as his brothers gathered at his side.  He was going forward with them, and not alone.  He glanced at them with pride; Sami and Gwil to his right, and Ben and Joe on his left, Fada right beside her master.  His mage, Rami thought with pride.  The mage of Rhye, and his lord brothers.

He heard the sound of the musicians, and started down the steps gracefully and slowly, he and Ben each holding Joe’s arms until they were on the walkway.  Fada took over Rami’s part then, Joe leaning on her for some support, Ben still holding one arm, and Rami raised his head high, looking down the aisle.  The crowed parted respectfully….and there was Freddie.

He was incredible, Rami thought.

For some years now, Rami had freely admitted that he found Lord Freddie physically attractive.  At some point, Rami had matured, and just as Freddie had once predicated, the thought of marriage was no longer silly.  Instead, it was serious, and powerful, and Rami knew all that was involved.  He knew it was duty, but a desired duty for him.  He had waited, and now, seeing Freddie, he had no doubts that it had been the right decision.

Freddie was clad in the yellow and red of his house, blazing with power.  His brothers were behind him in the colors of their houses, and Rami smiled.  Lord Mage John had seen that it would take all eight of them to defeat the still unknown evil and in that moment, Rami knew they would win.  The warlords of Queen were magnificent and powerful, and Rami knew he and his brothers matched them in every way.

It was meant to be.

He walked down the aisle confidently, certain in his steps, his eyes only on Lord Freddie as he grew closer.  They may have been hundreds of people in the hall, but Rami did not care.  It was only his brothers, their families, and the lords in his eyes.

And most of all, there was Freddie.

Freddie was resplendent in a yellow suit with a red cloak, boots, and gloves.  Rami had always felt a bit pale next to Gwil’s handsome height and Ben’s blond beauty, but the way Freddie looked at him gave Rami confidence.  There was no mistaking the look of joy and hunger in Freddie’s eyes.

I can love him, Rami realized.

Freddie met him at the bottom of the steps to the altar, and they joined hands.  Rami felt his face warm a little, but he also smiled, feeling more joy than anything else.  He was happy this day had come.  Lord Brian, Roger, and John took up spots beside Gwil, Ben, and Joe at the foot of the altar, while Sami remained on Rami’s left side, proudly in place as his supporter.  With a nod to the twins, Freddie led Rami and Sami up the steps and they knelt.

Rami hardly noticed the words of the short ceremony, focusing happily instead on Freddie’s left hand that was clinging tightly to Rami’s right hand, refusing to let it go for a second.  Even when Freddie placed a large ring on Rami’s left hand, their other hands stayed joined, and Rami was pleased, gladly accepting the gesture.  Uniter, Rami thought, thinking of Joe’s words.  Perhaps in more than just one way, he suddenly thought, glancing at his twin.  Any children of his line would come from Sami and his future bride; if they won the war yet to come, and Freddie was crowned emperor, their closest blood heirs would be Sami’s family.

Sami has a role to play, he remembered.  Rami felt nearly dizzy at the realization. 

The words of the officiant finally got Rami’s attention, and he was brought back to the present as he and Freddie stood and faced each other to recite the vows.  To shelter.  To treasure.  To keep in their hearts.  Rami knew he was ready to honor those vows.

Then he and Freddie were kissing, and Rami hungrily pressed his lips against the lord’s.  Freddie blinked, and Rami smiled confidently, savoring the brief moment of power he had, surprising the lord. They turned to face the people, and walked hand in hand, leading everyone to the banquet hall.

There were loud shouts of congratulations as they walked down the aisle, and Rami smiled in honest pleasure, flattered at the attention.  It took long minutes to make their way to the hall, guests and servants crowding the halls to cry out blessings.  Rami had to laugh a little at all the commotion, and finally he and Freddie were on the raised dais of the head table.  Freddie dramatically raised Rami’s hand and kissed it to even louder cheers and Rami knew that he blushed, but also smiled broadly, accepting it with grace.

They took their chairs and the wedding feast began with wine and food flowing freely.  Rami saw all his favorite foods set out, and he thanked the chefs who bustled out to serve the head tables.

“It our pleasure, my lord,” a chef said, bowing low to Rami and Freddie as he placed the roast chicken and fish before them.  There were at least a dozen main dishes and Rami started to lose track of all the options.  Even Freddie grinned a little at the assortment, just taking a sample of everything.  After the main courses there was a long parade of desserts that finally had even Ben and Joe shaking their heads and declining more servings.

“I didn’t think they ever stopped eating,” Freddie remarked to Rami, watching the younger boys with amusement.  “Sir James claims you nearly eat him out of house and home each month.”

Rami smirked.  “We try,” he said modestly.

After a suitable time, people began making their way to the head table to offer personal congratulations, and Rami sat beside Freddie, graciously welcoming everyone.  He was glad for the aide who announced each person since so many were strangers to him, and he knew he would have to work hard to memorize faces and names.  Freddie offered whispered assistance for some people that often made Rami smile with more than just greetings.

“My third cousin, Markus, and his dreadful wife Sara,” Freddie muttered to Rami as the aide formally announced Lord and Lady Tzend.  “Cousin!” Freddie said loudly, switching immediately to his role as a happy host.  “We are so glad you could make it.”

“We would not miss it, my lord,” the man said cheerfully.  He bowed his head to Rami.  “My lord,” he said respectfully.

“Cousin,” Rami greeted him.  “It is good to meet you and your lovely lady wife.”  He inclined his own head to the lady, who regarded Rami with narrowed eyes and an unpleasant expression on her face.

“So,” she muttered, her tone icy.  “This is your child spouse from Rhye that you waited 16 years for, cousin.”  There was a most definite sneer as she said ‘Rhye’, and Rami just smiled broader, refusing to take the bait.

“I am indeed, Cousin Sara,” he said smoothly, taking a sip of wine.  “Welcome to our home.”  Freddie’s expression didn’t change a bit as he bid the couple to enjoy the day, but as soon as they left he grinned at Rami, his dark eyes sparkling.

“Well done,” he said quietly.  “She is a complete arse to everyone.”  Everyone no doubt assumed that the lord was whispering something sweet to his new spouse and Rami’s near giggle was interpreted as confirmation.

“Oh, no,” Rami whispered a few minutes later as he spotted a couple headed for the dais.  “My turn; Uncles Philip and Karl.”  He had been glad to see them in the Rhye contingent, but they came with a small warning.  “They are nice, but Sami said they are as boring as ever.  Their letters are guaranteed to make me fall asleep.”  Freddie seemed to mentally gird himself and was charming as ever as he chatted with the couple.  When they left after nearly ten minutes of a profoundly dull commentary on fishing, Freddie made a discreet snoring sound and pretended to lay his head on Rami’s shoulder as he leaned over the refill Rami’s cup.

Rami laughed a little.  They did make quite a good team, he thought.

Musicians provided music while the guests visited, and after several hours the first round of formal entertainment began.  Rami enjoyed watching all the performances though he loyally felt that Freddie was far better than most of the singers.  Freddie graciously waved away a few attempts to have him sing, and he stayed by Rami’s side, praising the entertainers.  He seemed to have spared no expense in hiring the best performers from Queen and Rhye and everyone was impressed at the display.

After a break, the musicians returned to begin the dance music, and Rami inwardly sighed, but accepted Freddie’s hand for the first dance, keeping a smile on his face.  He was rather nervous about dancing in front of everyone.

“Just remember to relax, and follow my lead.  All will be well,” Freddie whispered as he guided Rami out.

“I’m ready,” Rami managed to smile, taking a deep breath.  They waited for the crowd to calm down after welcoming applause, and then Rami bowed deeply to his lord, hearing the murmurs and sighs of approval.  Freddie returned the bow, and then took their positions for the music to begin.

It was much easier, Rami thought as they began, to just focus on Freddie and let the older man lead them.  He was positive he stumbled a little at the beginning, but soon he was enjoying the music, and just let his feet move where they were guided.

“You look wonderful,” Freddie said softly as he pulled Rami back from a turn.  Rami smiled, looking down for a moment.

“Thank you.  You look wonderful as well.”  Freddie smiled, inclining his head.

“Your colors suit you,” he added after a long look, and Rami grinned.

“I had to argue with a bit with Sir James,” he admitted.  “We had something of a debate about the matter.”

Freddie nodded.  “I am glad that you won,” he said, his hand now slightly low on Rami’s back again.  Rami raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.  “Miami can get ideas into his head and refuse to budge.”

“And I know of no one else who is like that at all,” Rami teased.  Freddie snorted, acknowledging the jab.

“Well, I always have perfectly good reasons,” he defended himself.

“Of course, my lord,” Rami nodded sweetly.  Freddie chuckled and focused on making sure they covered the entire ball room floor.

After five minutes the music ended and Rami bowed again to his lord as the crowd applauded.  Freddie gallantry and dramatically kissed Rami’s hand again to cheers, and they opened the round of dancing for everyone, Rami escorting his mother and Freddie claiming a Rhye diplomat for a dance.

The next few hours were busy with Rami and Freddie taking new partners for every dance.  Rami danced with all their parents first, and then began partnering for a long line of guests.  He lost track of how many dances he lasted, but finally Lord Brian appeared to claim him, and to his relief guided Rami back to the dais to sit.  “You look like you need a break,” the lord said, smiling.

“Thank you,” Rami said fervently, silently praising Sir James for insisting that Rami break in his new boots for the day.  Lord Brian fetched them both glasses of watered wine and they were able to relax a bit.  “Just how long can Lord Freddie keep dancing?” Rami marveled as his new spouse showed no signs of tiring.

“Hours and hours,” Brian chuckled.  “But no one expects you to have that bizarre stamina of Freddie’s; Roger, John, and I have seen to it that your dance card is filled for at least half an hour, and we shall keep you company here.”

“Bless you,” Rami breathed, taking a long sip of wine.  He was grateful to just sit and watch for a time, enjoying all the sights.

There was another pair of twins at the festivities; four-year-old cousins of Lord Brian.  The minute they had set their eyes on Ben, they had claimed him as their very own, and now dragged him forward.

“He is going to marry us,” one of them firmly told Brian, holding onto Ben’s right hand and refusing to let go as they came up to talk to the head of their family.  Ben was doing his best to not look scared.

Lord Brian looked amused.  “He is already taken, my dear,” he said.  “He is betrothed to Lord Roger.”  Neither girl was at all impressed.

“Make Lord Roger go away,” the other twin ordered, keeping her own death grip on Ben’s left hand.  The teen had to dance with both of them for six dances before they agreed to let him go.

“I think Lord Roger is jealous,” Rami teased as Ben limped back to them to plead with Lord Brian to intervene.

“Shut up,” Ben muttered.  He looked so exhausted that Lord Brian added an extra dash of wine to Ben’s cup as a treat.

Indeed, Rami watched in amusement as his brothers did their best throughout the day to sneak in extra drinks.  Even Joe made an attempt at some subterfuge, and Lord John was immediately beside him, frowning.  Joe sheepishly handed his pilfered glass of wine to the lord who drank it and instead gave Joe a glass of plain lemonade, glaring at the young teen.

“Joseph looks well,” Freddie said quietly to Rami as they watched John lecture Joe, who just smiled.  Freddie had finally left the dance floor for a time and was keeping Rami company as they watched the dancers. 

Rami nodded.  “He is,” he said.  “A bit frustrated perhaps about not being able to walk or dance much today, but as always he never complains.”

“He is a lesson to us all,” Freddie agreed.  He smiled at his new spouse.  “As are you, my husband.”

Rami felt his cheeks blush slightly again and smiled.  “It is odd to hear that,” he admitted.  “Husband.”

“Then I shall call you that often to remind you,” Freddie promised. 

Rami smiled, and then laughed as he saw Ben being claimed by the young twins again.  Freddie joined in laughing, shaking his head. 

“I almost feel sorry for Benjamin,” he said.

“Almost, my lord?” Rami asked in amusement.

“Well,” Freddie pondered that for a moment.  “I suppose it would be kind to say that I do feel for him, but given all the mischief he gets into, I think he and Roger most definitely deserve each other.  But we may want to avoid them when possible.”

The thought of the blonds teaming up was a bit frightening.  “Has Lord Roger always been so full of adventure?” Rami asked.

“Yes indeed.”  Freddie shuddered dramatically.  “Why do you think Sir James had grey hair at his age?  It is a miracle Brian and I have any hair left after all his antics.”

Rami laughed at the image of Lord Brian without any hair.  “Then it must have been truly terrifying when you learned that Ben is like a copy of Lord Roger,” he teased.

“You have no idea, my dear,” Freddie lamented. 

Lord Brian came to sit with Rami and Gwil while Freddie went off to speak to some of the dignitaries, and the tall lord smiled at the boys.  “We are very happy this day has come,” he said quietly.

“I am glad as well, my lord,” Rami answered truthfully.  He grinned at Gwil.  “The next wedding will be yours,” he teased, and Gwil blushed a little while Lord Brian smiled.

“It will indeed,” Brian said, lightly taking Gwil’s hand for a moment.  Rami noted the shy but pleased look on Gwil’s face, and knew that his brother would welcome his marriage.  Gwil was very quiet when it came to the matter of his marriage with Lord Brian, but Rami no doubts that Gwil looked forward to the day.  “Rami,” Brian looked at him, still gently holding Gwil’s hand.  “I have a favor to ask of you.”

Rami glanced at Gwil.  “Yes, of course, my lord, anything I can do.”
Brian looked at Freddie for a moment, and then back to Rami.  “Freddie has always born a special burden as the eldest, even before John’s vision,” he said quietly.  “He has been responsible for us since he was four years old.  He holds much within himself; he sees it as a way to protect us.  You will now be the closest to Freddie, Rami.  I ask you to be there for him, to support him.  He appears invincible, but even he has weaknesses which he will try to hide from you.”  Brian reached out and took Rami’s hand.  “I know that you too have a burden as the eldest and what is seen for you.  You and Freddie must support each other, as you two have a special path to walk together.”

Rami had to swallow hard past the lump of emotions in his throat, feeling both a weight and a lightening.  It was one burden that he was glad to take on. “I know we all need each other,” he said quietly, “perhaps none more so than Lord Freddie and I.”  He looked at Brian seriously, speaking to him as an adult for the first time.  “I swear I will support our lord in all ways, as I know he will support me.”

A smile lit up Brian’s face, and he clasped Rami’s arm in a warrior’s grip, as one adult to another.  “I have never doubted this; I just needed to hear the words for my own sake.  He does love you, Rami.”

“I know,” Rami said.  “And I love him as well.”  Perhaps it wasn’t deep love, but Rami did care for him, and felt certain that it would grow into true love.

Brian hugged him tightly.  “Then all shall indeed be well.”  He looked at Rami with pride.  “My brother,” he said, and Rami flushed a little at the praise.

Freddie joined Rami again and they smiled at each other, sipping wine and chatting with those who came to visit with them.  The dinner was served as night fell and again Rami thought the cooks had outdone themselves with the preparations.  Several partiers had gotten rather into their cups by this point, and Freddie frowned, discreetly motioning to aides to remove them.  The lord was a generous host, but scrupulous about people needing to behave themselves around children. 

There was another round of dancing after the evening meal, and Rami and Freddie led again, dancing together for three pieces before pairing off with more guests.  Rami smiled to later see Joe slowly but proudly leading his mother for a short dance while a confused Fada watched nervously, obviously not liking her master moving without her.

“Fada is a marvel, my lord,” Rami said to Lord John as they danced.  “I thought no one could be better than Hadar.”

The lord smiled, shaking his head a little.  “I cannot take too much credit,” he said modestly.  “As with Hadar, Fada showed me that she wanted the job as Joe’s protector.”

Showed you?”  Rami had always been curious about the lord’s powers but knew it was considered very impolite to ask any mage questions about their craft.

“It is the best word for it,” John said quietly, making sure they were not overheard.  “It is not true words, but rather a strong feeling; sometimes images.  She has loved Joseph since she was a puppy.”

“I remember,” Rami chuckled.  “Ben was so hoping that she would like him!  He wanted another puppy after Frankie died.”

John snorted a little.  “Ben wants all females – and males – to like him.  Just like Roger.”

Rami laughed, almost losing his footing and sending them into another couple. 

The second round of entertainment began as the night grew late.  Guests were now content to sit and watch the performers and Rami and Freddie had some time in peace on the dais, visiting quietly, finally left alone for the first time the entire day.

“Have you enjoyed the day?” Freddie asked as they listened to a lovely soprano sing a dramatic love song.  Rami saw Ben and Roger both smirk broadly at the couple on the dais, and he frowned at Ben, making a note to speak to him later.

“I have indeed,” Rami said firmly, smiling at his lord.  “Thank you, for everything.”

Freddie took his hand and kissed it yet again.  “You are worth everything,” he said simply.

They sat for some time, finally beginning to relax after the long day.  Rami had to bite back a sudden yawn, and Freddie smiled a little. 

“Roger has arranged for fire dancers,” he said casually. 

“Really?” Rami was excited to see the rare and talented performers.

“Yes.  They will create a …distraction…as Roger put it.”

Rami looked questionably at Freddie.  “A distraction?”  Freddie smiled and took a sip of his wine.

“For us to slip away unnoticed,” he said.

Oh.  “Ah, yes, I understand,” Rami said, his voice suddenly a little nervous. 

Dark eyes studied Rami carefully.  “Is that alright with you?”

“Yes, of course,” Rami said.  He took a deep drink of his own wine, but nodded.  “That will be good,” he agreed.  “I would definitely prefer to….slip away.”  Bedding ceremonies were not common, but were not unheard of either, and Rami had no desire to be forced to take part in such an event.  Freddie squeezed his hand in silent agreement, and they sat for a while longer, enjoying the artists.

As planned, the dramatic entrance of the Fire Dancers caught everyone’s attention.  The crowd gasped in delight and all eyes were on the performers at the center of the hall.  No one was looking at the raised dais at the front, and Rami himself was watching the dancers until a hand covered his again.  He looked over and saw Freddie raise an eyebrow in question, a warm smile on his face.  Rami nodded and stood, letting Freddie quietly guide them from the hall through a hidden back panel covered with a tapestry directly behind their table with no one seeing them leave.

They went up a small interior staircase, Rami impressed at the secret corridor that he had failed to find even with all the searching he and his brothers had done over the years.  Freddie confidently guided him around several corners, down a hallway, and then pushed against a smooth piece of stone.  They emerged into Freddie’s bedroom and Rami had to blink a little.  He had only been in the room a few times; most recently to steal some of Freddie’s favorite bath oil, which Rami rather liked himself.  The chamber had been clearly prepared for them, a small fire burning in the hearth and lanterns lit to provide just enough light.  Freddie reassuringly squeezed Rami’s hand, and then let it go.

“Your chamber is through that door,” Freddie explained, leading Rami over to the doorway.  Inside the adjoining room was a comfortable bedroom, and Rami recognized many of his things already in place in the room, making it feel more like home.  He had seen the consort’s bedroom before, but had never paid much attention to it, and it looked better with things from home in it.  “Your things from Miami’s home have been moved in, and most of your things from the suite you were sharing with Sami and your parents.” 

“Thank you.”  Rami felt a little nervous, and tried to tell himself to be sensible.  It was perfectly normal and expected to stay in Freddie’s chambers now, and after all, he had been looking forward to this night for quite some time now.  It was not the time to get nervous.

Freddie smiled at him kindly.  “Let us sit for a time, away from all those prying eyes.  Would you like a bit more wine?”

“Yes, please,” Rami said, hoping it would settle some of his nerves.  He followed Freddie over to the fireplace and they settled down in comfortable chairs, both sighing a little at the peace and quiet.

“To us,” Freddie said, raising his glass in a toast.  Rami chuckled and clinked their glasses together.

“It does not seem quite real yet,” he admitted.

“Nor to me,” Freddie chuckled softly.  “John saw almost 20 years ago that we needed to marry, and yet I hardly believe we are finally here together.  I am glad this time has arrived.”  Rami nodded, but couldn’t help feeling his cheeks grow warm, and knew he was blushing.  “What are you thinking?” Freddie asked gently, a look of soft amusement on his face.

He thought about being evasive, but Rami had never been good at falsehoods except when absolutely necessary.  Freddie was not just his lord but also his husband now, and Rami knew he should be honest with him.  “I am a little…nervous…” he admitted.  “About…um…” he glanced at the huge bed, and gave a small shrug.

To his relief, Freddie just smiled.  “Would you believe that I am as well?” he asked.  Rami looked at the older man skeptically.

“I find that hard to believe,” he decided.

“It is true,” Freddie insisted.  “Think on it, my dear.  You are young and beautiful, and have been stuck with an old man to marry since you were a child.  And I have not forgotten your decision of several years ago; that you would wait for this night. While I am most gratified, it is rather a bit of pressure, you understand.”

Rami had to concede that point, but only just barely.  “You are not old, despite what I thought a few years ago,” he said loyally, smiling as Freddie laid a hand across his heart in a mock pain.  “And I have never known you to be less than completely confident in any situation.”

“Oh, how I have you fooled,” Freddie sighed, smiling at himself. 

“And as for the other…um…issue,” Rami cleared his throat.  “It seemed right at the time, and I would still not change it,” he said firmly.  “To be honest, my only concern is that I do feel rather….intimidated.  I know next to nothing, and you, well, you—“

“Are your husband,” Freddie gently interjected.  He lifted his hand to cup Rami’s face, his eyes tender.  “You are first in my life now, and always shall be, have no doubts of this.  We will not fail at anything we attempt together.”

Rami smiled, and leaned into the touch, pressing his face against Freddie’s hand.  “I agree, my lord.”

“Freddie,” the other man gently corrected.  At Rami’s raised eyebrow, he smiled.  “I am your husband.  You should call me by my name now.”

Feeling emboldened, Rami turned his head so that he could kiss Freddie’s palm, and heard the lord hiss a little at the gesture.  “Freddie,” he agreed.

Freddie’s hands took Rami’s and gently pulled the young man toward him.  Rami was curious, but didn’t object as he was guided to sit on Freddie’s lap.  He laughed a little at the rather awkward position at first, but found it rather comfortable once Freddie wrapped his arms around him, holding him close.  One large hand ran through Rami’s short curls, and then he was kissing him.

Rami had done a fair bit of kissing, and thought he knew how to do this.  Still, there was quite a difference in sharing kisses with fellow shy teens and being kissed by Lord Mercury.  Within about one minute, Rami knew that he had much to learn.  Fortunately, Freddie was a patient teacher.

They lazily kissed for some time, Rami feeling warm and comfortable.  Freddie finally broke off the kisses, and ran his hands down Rami’s back, the younger man arching up in pleasure at the touch.  “It seems like a dream that we are finally here,” Freddie murmured softly.  Rami smiled at him.

“I am glad that we are here,” he said, one hand cupping Freddie’s face as he boldly kissed his husband.  Freddie responded, pulling Rami against him.

After long minutes, Freddie pulled back a little, smiling at his new husband.  He guided Rami off his lap, and led him to the side of the bed, his eyes questioning for permission.  Rami nodded, and let Freddie begin to undress him.  Freddie started slowly, removing their cornets and jewelry carefully and placing it on a wide nearby table, and then unfastened Rami’s cloak.      

“You truly are beautiful,” Freddie said softly, his eyes dark.  Rami looked down, pleased, but a bit embarrassed at the open admiration. 

“I have always felt rather…drab…compared to Gwil and Ben,” he replied modestly.

“You are wrong,” Freddie said firmly.  “And I look forward to curing you of that silly notion.”  He guided Rami to sit down and gently pulled off their boots and jackets, smiling at the time, keeping Rami grounded.

Freddie moved slowly, all his touches signaled, giving Rami time to relax.  It actually got a little annoying, and Rami pulled the older man in for a kiss, wanting to show that he at least knew some kissing.  Freddie made a pleased sound, and soon they were lying on the enormous bed.

Freddie was careful as he continued, loosening buttons and fastenings and Rami did not hesitate to pull off his shirt and assist Freddie in removing his.  It was not the first time Rami had seen Freddie bare-chested; there had been many years of swimming and physical training, but it was the first time he could touch and he did not hesitate to run his hands down Freddie’s powerful arms.  There was one long scar on Freddie’s left arm that Rami had always been curious about, and his fingers traced it lightly.

“The Battle of River End,” Freddie said quietly, sensing Rami’s question.  It had been a turning point in the war with Rhye, fought just before Rami was born.

“It must have been very bad,” Rami said simply, seeing how even 18 years later the scar was visible.  He pressed kisses the length of it, and Freddie sucked in his breath at the sensation.

Rami smiled at the sound, feeling ridiculously pleased.  They would soon enter a territory where he had absolutely no experience and he doubted his confidence, but his curiosity and imagination seemed ready to help compensate.  Freddie chuckled a little and kissed him back.

“You look very smug,” the lord observed fondly.

“Not for much longer, I suspect,” Rami admitted, but he smiled at his husband, confident that Freddie would take care of him.

Freddie rolled them over so Rami was on top and helped him get comfortable, Rami awkwardly fitting his legs on either side of Freddie’s legs and torso.  He ended up sitting across Freddie’s stomach and Rami felt his face grow warm with some embarrassment but also excitement.  “You are exquisite,” Freddie murmured, looking at him, his dark eyes wide in admiration.  Rami ducked his head a little again, feeling pleased at the words.

“I am yours,” he said simply.  Freddie nodded, and drew him down. 

After long minutes of further kissing and exploring hands, Freddie rolled them slowly over again so Rami was on his back, Freddie carefully posed above him.  Rami felt comfortable and relaxed and drew Freddie down to continue the kissing, relieved that so far he knew how to do this.  He lifted his hips at Freddie’s urging and didn’t object at all when the last of their clothing was removed, his hands assisting Freddie in pulling off trousers.

When he let himself picture it, Rami had always expected that he would be embarrassed at being naked in front of Freddie, at least at first.  It seemed only natural.  But after only a brief moment, he was glad that there was no longer a barrier of clothing between them, finding that it was much better to feel skin on skin.  It was pleasantly warm in the room but Rami still shivered a little, knowing it was from excitement.

Freddie’s powerful hands travelled down his body, teasing at his nipples and hips, and Rami arched up into the touch, excited at the sensations, his own hands tight on Freddie’s shoulders. The lord chuckled fondly, claiming Rami’s lips for a long deep kiss.

“Eager, are we?” he murmured when he pulled back for air.

Freddie,” Rami warned a little.  Just what did the lord expect? Rami thought crossly in the small remaining part of his brain doing any thinking.  Most of his mind was busy just noting how good everything felt.

Fortunately, Freddie seemed to understand, and one hand gently took hold of Rami’s cock, making the younger man hiss and buck up into the touch.  He had seen to himself many, many, times before as most healthy young people would, but it was nothing compared to the touch of another’s hand.

“Yes?” Freddie asked, making sure it was alright for him to proceed.  He was also smiling a bit smugly, confident in what the answer would be.

“Please,” Rami managed to gasp.  He gasped again when Freddie began to stroke him, and Rami was certain that his eyes rolled back in his head.  “Gods,” he said in a strangled tone.

Freddie chuckled against his lips.  “Just breathe, my love,” he whispered.  “Let me take care of you.”  Rami nodded frantically against his neck.

His lord was horribly, horribly cruel, Rami vaguely decided after long minutes of sweet torture.  Freddie seemed to know Rami’s limits better than himself, teasing but always backing off before it got too intense.  Warm lips traced Rami’s collarbones and his nipples, adding to the overload of sensations as Rami shook, hardly knowing which direction to pull Freddie’s head for kisses.  He was becoming rather frantic, panting for air, and an honest whine left his lips when Freddie did something particularly lovely with his hand and lips at the same time.

Freddie just glanced at Rami from under his dark lashes, his expression a loving smirk.  “You’re being mean,” Rami managed to protest.

“We can’t have that now, can we?” Freddie murmured.  Rami shook his head in urgent agreement, moaning a little as Freddie squeezed him again, starving off his climax for one last moment.  “Alright now, my love, no more teasing, I promise; don’t hold back.”

Rami was going to say something, but it completely left what remained of his mind when Freddie teased the tip in exactly the right spot, and a second later Rami felt himself fall apart.  He moaned loudly even as Freddie claimed his lips, shaking all over uncontrollably, his body arching off the bed as Freddie put comforting weight on to hold him down. His fingers dug into Freddie’s shoulders, likely leaving bruises, and Rami didn’t even notice or care.  All he knew was amazing pleasure and he almost forgot how to breathe, shaking for long minutes, quite overwhelmed.  Vaguely, he was aware of Freddie still stroking him gently, now helping him to ease down from his climax, and murmuring words of reassurance in his ear and pressing kisses along his neck.  It was warm and comfortable, and Rami stretched blissfully, pulling Freddie in for a kiss.  Freddie smiled, and wrapped his arms around Rami, moving them slightly so they were lying on their sides.

It took a while, but finally Rami caught his breath and was able to pull a few words together.  “That was…” he paused, thinking.  “Incredible,” he finally decided.  There was an amused sound from his husband and Rami lifted his head so he could look at him.

“I am glad.”  Freddie’s dark eyes were sparking, clearly pleased with himself.  Rami thought about being mildly cross at how smug Freddie was, but decided to forgive him.  Besides, he could feel that Freddie was still very much in need of attention.

Rami knew his face was flushed, but said “May I...” and tentatively ran a hand down Freddie’s hip.  He wasn’t completely positive what to do, but figured that what felt good on him would very likely work.

He was a bit puzzled when Freddie took his hand and lifted it up so the lord could kiss it.  “Another time,” Freddie said, his voice soft, his eyes never leaving Rami’s face.  “With your agreement, I would very much like to make love properly to my husband.”

“Oh,” Rami knew his face was tinged with red now, but he nodded without hesitation, eager and curious.  “I would like that,” he agreed quietly.  “Though I don’t know…er… what all to do.”  He knew the act, of course, but few real details. 

Freddie just kissed his hand again.  “May I show you?” he asked formally.

Rami felt his heart fill with what was surely love.  “Yes, please,” he whispered.

The lord smiled and his hands pulled Rami in for long, powerful, kisses that nearly took Rami’s breath away.  After some minutes, he was aware of Freddie twisting one arm up to pull something out from under a pillow and he flushed as he saw that it was a small vial of oil, obviously put there earlier in the day; he just hoped it had been Freddie and not a servant.  Freddie smiled at him reassuringly, and kissed him again.

“You must tell me if anything does not feel good,” Freddie said softly, running a hand through Rami’s hair again in a soothing gesture.  “I will stop at any time you need.  We will do this together, yes?”

“Yes,” Rami nodded, taking a deep breath.  Freddie helped him get comfortable, gently lifting one of his legs to hitch it up over Freddie’s hip.  He rubbed Rami’s back, easing tense muscles and causing shivers at the same time, and Rami let himself relax.  He put his arms around Freddie’s shoulders at the man’s urging and concentrated on kissing his husband.

It was comfortable, Rami decided, though he was very much aware of Freddie’s hardness near his own rapidly recovering cock.  He made himself focus on kissing and enjoying the little pleased sounds that he could draw from his lord.  After a few minutes he felt a single finger, warm and slick with oil, gently trailing along his hip, and he clenched his fists a bit nervously, waiting to see what would happen next.

“I will go slowly,” Freddie assured him, and Rami nodded again, suddenly glad that he could hide his face a bit in the crook of Freddie’s neck.

Rami honestly didn’t realize that he was holding his breath until Freddie kissed his neck.  “Breathe, my love,” the lord said kindly.  Rami sucked in air, faintly embarrassed, but Freddie just kissed him again, soothing his anxiety.

Now that he was paying some attention, Rami could tell from the movements behind him – from the stretch of Freddie’s arms - when Freddie apparently dipped his finger in the oil again.  “Just touching right now, my love,” Freddie murmured against his neck.  “Nothing intrusive.”  Rami nodded in understanding, and took a deep breath, making himself relax.

Freddie slowly began tracing a path again from his hip to his most secret place, the finger calming even as Rami felt its path.  It was a light, pleasant, touch, and Rami just breathed deeply when it touched his center lightly.  Just a feather brush, and then Freddie was circling carefully, letting Rami know and be able to trace its path.  After a few minutes, the finger went to his center and Rami clenched his fists again, but relaxed immediately as it just soothingly circled, pressing with only the lightest touch.

It felt good, Rami decided.

There was a pause to add more oil, and Rami relaxed, starting to enjoy the quite erotic sensations.  Freddie was careful to keep his touch light and gentle, and with not even a hint of intrusion.  He also kept kissing Rami, and the younger man could not stop of sigh of pleasure.

Rami knew very well the mechanics, but he had always had some lingering doubt, wondering just how good it could feel.  He had spent many, many, nights – and just as many times during the day – pondering the matter, and had finally decided that he needed to trust in the hushed and usually giggled confessions from fellow teens about the delights promised.  Freddie seemed to have no doubt that it would be pleasant, and Rami relaxed, curious what would happen next.

After some time, Freddie began pressing his finger a bit more forcibly against Rami’s entrance, and the younger man bit his lip.  It was still careful, and not at all painful or frightening, but Rami understood it was the next step.  “Are you alright?” Freddie whispered, kissing his neck.

“Y-yes,” Rami decided.  “Go on,” he urged, curious as to what would happen next.

There was a faint chuckle, and the finger became definitely firmer in its touches.  A pause to add more oil, and Rami sucked in his breath as the finger breached him.

“Breathe, my dear,” Freddie repeated.  Rami just closed his eyes and nodded a bit frantically against Freddie’s neck, now clinging to his lord.

Freddie took his time, pressing the finger in slowly, working back out to add more oil and then press in again.  Rami held his breath again at first, uncertain, but soon relaxed again, enjoying the sensation.

“Talk to me, my love,” Freddie demanded after a few minutes.  Rami blinked a little.

“Al-alright?” he ventured.  There was a soft chuckle.

“Is this alright?”

Rami bit his lip.  “Y-yes,” he decided.  He paused as Freddie pressed his finger in deeper, and sighed a little.  “Yes,” he said again, now much more confident.  It felt full and unusual, but not at all painful.  It just didn’t feel exactly good, and Rami was beginning to frankly wonder what the fuss was all about.  There was a pause and Freddie added another finger; again, it felt full, but not painful.

Then Freddie’s fingers touched something that made Rami jolt.

“Ah,” Freddie said, definitely smug.  His fingers moved over the spot again, and Rami dug his own fingers into Freddie’s shoulders.

“What?” he gasped, completely startled but in a very good way.

“This is part of what makes sex so delightful,” Freddie whispered. 

Rami struggled to form words.  “Part of it?” he managed.

There was a kiss to his forehead.  “Love is most of it,” Freddie said.  He continued, adding a third finger, and Rami whined again as more jolts went through his body.

After long minutes, Freddie’s arms wrapped tighter around Rami and rolled them a bit so Rami was on his back again.  He withdrew his fingers and his hands parted Rami’s legs, settling between them.  Rami felt a little self-conscious, but obediently followed the gentle instruction and wrapped his legs around Freddie’s waist.

Freddie kissed him, and ran a soothing hand through Rami’s hair.  “I will stop anytime,” he reminded the younger man.  “We will go slowly, and you must tell me if something hurts.”  Rami nodded nervously, and closed his eyes as Freddie began pressing against his entrance.

It felt very odd, but there was no real discomfort until Freddie pushed past the tight ring of muscles.  Rami couldn’t hold back a slight hiss and his hands tightened on Freddie’s shoulders, shaking a little.  True to his word, Freddie stopped immediately, whispering reassurances, his hands petting Rami’s face.  After a moment Rami nodded, and the Queen lord pushed further in, stopping after a tiny distance to let Rami adjust.

Rami winced at the sensation, sucking in his breath each time Freddie moved.  Thankfully, Freddie moved slowly, stopping often, easing back a bit before pushing forward again.  “Talk to me, love,” Freddie whispered again, his lips caressing Rami’s shoulder.  “How are you?”

“I’m alright,” Rami insisted, a bit shakily.  It hurt, but not horribly; it was just very strange and intimate.

“Deep breaths,” Freddie guided him.  “There is no rush, my dear.”  He stopped for a moment, and Rami was able to catch his breath.  Freddie didn’t move again until Rami nodded, indicating that he was ready.

Finally, Freddie stopped, and Rami knew that he was fully pressed inside.  “There, the worst is all over,” Freddie murmured reassuringly, pressing more kisses to help distract Rami from the discomfort.  “Relax for a moment, and then it will be all pleasure now.”  Rami felt vulnerable, literally impaled on Lord Freddie, but the soothing kisses and hands helped him begin to relax as Freddie stayed still.  He ran through the things he knew, and took a shaky breath.

“You- you can move,” he whispered, knowing that was no doubt what the lord desired.

Freddie just kissed him again.  “In a moment,” he said, his voice deep but surprisingly steady.  Rami nodded thankfully, his eyes squeezed shut.

Finally, Rami felt his muscles relax a fraction, and he could breathe normally.  Freddie sensed his ease, and kissed him firmly before very slowly drawing his hips back a tiny bit, and then pressing in again.

It didn’t hurt nearly as bad now, and Rami relaxed a little more with each careful thrust, realizing that it was indeed less and less painful.  After a few minutes, Freddie thrust a little more firmly and Rami felt another jab of pleasure, even more than what he had felt earlier.

“Oh,” he gasped, completely unable to say anything else.  Freddie chuckled, his own breathing now more ragged.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice throaty.

“Yes,” Rami said immediately, his hands clenching Freddie’s shoulders now to make certain he couldn’t move away.  There was a faint breath of laughter, and then Freddie was concentrating on his thrusts.

It was…amazing, Rami decided vaguely.  He gasped as that spot was brushed again and again, and he clenched his legs tightly around Freddie, trying to draw him in further.  Freddie dared to stop for a moment, and Rami opened his eyes and glared.  “Freddie,” he whined.  His lord grinned, and quickly resumed his movements.

“Rami,” Freddie moaned against his neck.  “My husband.”

“Your—husband,” Rami agreed between gasps, pulling Freddie down for a kiss.

He didn’t know or care how long it went, but Rami kept needing more and more.  Finally his eyes rolled back and his toes clenched as every muscle in his body tightened and then he was spilling again, his nails digging into his lord’s skin.  Vaguely, he was aware of Freddie also stiffening and then shuddering, both of them shaking and gasping.

Freddie slumped on him, and Rami welcomed the weight, feeling as if he might float away without it.  Quickly though, Freddie rolled to his side, his arms tight around Rami, keeping him tucked firmly against his body.  Rami realized that they were still joined, and Freddie kissed his temple.  “Hold my hands,” he whispered.  Rami did as told, and hissed a little as Freddie carefully pulled out.  “I am sorry, my love,” Freddie said, his thumbs rubbing soothing motions over Rami’s hands.

“No, it is alright,” Rami murmured.  It was true, he felt a bit shaky and sore, but it was not really pain, and even if it had been, he would have judged it well worth it.

Freddie sighed and kissed Rami again, nuzzling his lips and neck.  “Are you well?” he asked, his voice still husky.

“Yes, I am,” Rami answered, returning the kisses as best he could.  He felt completely relaxed and barely stiffed a yawn, which made Freddie chuckle and pull him close and then drag up a soft blanket to wrap around them.

“Rest,” Freddie urged, settling them down, sighing himself.  “We will talk later.”

“Um,” Rami yawned openly now.  He relaxed against his husband, and let sleep take him.

Chapter Text

Rami was glad he woke up first in the morning.  Laying in the bed next to his husband, he enjoyed the quiet time to just think about everything.  He truly could say he was happy with his marriage, he realized, reflecting on the day before.  Maybe he wasn’t completely in love with Lord Freddie, but he did love him, and Rami knew there was every reason to believe that love would grow stronger.  Knowing that made him smile, and he was confident there was much to look forward to in their lives.

He raised up a bit on one elbow so he could study his husband.  Freddie looked younger, almost vulnerable in his sleep, his dark hair in tangled waves.  So often as a child, Rami had pictured the warlord as an evil being, completely prepared to hate him.  He’d slightly revised his opinion when he and his brothers arrived in Queen, having to admit fairly soon that the lords were not cruel, other than their mysterious and dreadful demand of the boys.  And when the truth was revealed, Rami had accepted that there was good reason for what had been done. 

He had never forgotten that Lord John had cried when he had told his brothers to demand the children, and it still made Rami sad to think of that.  Lord John was so kind and gentle, he knew it had broken his heart in a way that perhaps had never healed.  Over the previous days, he had noticed how quiet and shy the mage was, even with his brothers nearby and surrounded by friends.  It had finally dawned on Rami that Lord John felt guilt every time he looked at the parents.  Even with Joe nearby, smiling and cheerful, John had been pale and obviously worried, careful to not touch Joe or even be near him when Lord and Lady Mazzello were around.  John was obviously trying to give them time with their only child, and keep himself distant.

It’s known that Lord John dictated most of the peace treaty terms, Rami reflected.  What do our parents think when they see him?  Do they blame him?

“You are thinking far too hard, my love,” Freddie suddenly said.

Rami jumped a little, thoroughly startled, as Freddie opened his eyes and smiled at him, very amused.  “My lord,” Rami said stiffly, trying to get his wits back.

“Freddie,” the lord corrected, smiling at his spouse.  “When we are alone, I am Freddie.”

“Yes, well, Freddie,” Rami cleared his throat, rather embarrassed.  “I had no idea you were so….sneaky.”

The lord chuckled as he sat up, propping pillows against the head of the bed so they could sit up a bit.  Rami self-consciously made sure the blanket was covering him, and then allowed himself to be pulled into Freddie’s embrace for a kiss.

“I am sorry, my love,” Freddie apologized, though he was still smiling.  “But you were far too pensive for the morning after our wedding.” He ran a hand down Rami’s arm, causing small shivers. 

Rami blushed, but had to concede a point.  “It is nothing,” he tried to assure his husband.  “Simply thinking.”

“Ah, most horrible indeed.  This must be corrected,” Freddie teased.

“Oh really?”  Rami tilted his head, looking at the older man through his lashes, suddenly feeling rather bold.  “And what could possibly stop me from thinking, Freddie?”

A minute later, Rami was indeed no longer thinking about anything except his new husband.

**

A covered tray of breakfast foods and beverages had been discretely left for them in the outer parlor, and Rami just smiled as Freddie fetched it for them.  They had finally left the bed and were wrapped in dressing gowns, sitting at a small table on a quiet side balcony off Freddie’s bedroom.  He toyed with the idea of making Freddie get him breakfast every day, and decided that was something he would rather enjoy.

“You look extremely confident, my dear,” Freddie said cheerfully as he poured them tea.

“Well, I think I am allowed that,” Rami countered.  “I was quite a nervous wreck much of yesterday.”

Freddie chuckled but shook his head.  “If you indeed were, then no one knew it,” he assured his husband.  “I am so proud of you.”  He picked up Rami’s hand to kiss it again, something that Freddie seemed to quite like to do.

Rami smiled in pleasure at the gesture.  “Crowds are not my favorite thing,” he admitted.  “Though I must say that yesterday was wonderful.  Thank you again for everything.”

“You are very welcome,” Freddie nodded.  “I hope it wasn’t too stressful for anyone.  Some pageantry was required given, well….my position.”  Rami nodded in understanding.

In the seven years since Rami had learned of Freddie’s position to the Queen throne, two of Freddie’s cousins had passed away, making the lord now second in line.  The current heiress presumptive was a spinster cousin of Freddie’s who Rami had met several times.  She was sweet, shy, and not at all interested in the crown.  The most common story about her was that she had always longed to take religious vows, but had not been allowed by her family.  She was a very reluctant heiress who much preferred to hide in her castle and chapels and focus on her charity works.

“How is the king?” Rami asked quietly.  It was not a question one would ask in public, but Rami knew it was safe to speak with Freddie about that matter.

Freddie sighed, and then shook his head.  “He is well enough, thankfully, but still…” he shrugged, and Rami nodded in understanding.  The lord reached out and took Rami’s hand, rubbing it soothingly.  “We likely still have some years, my prince, but our time will come.  John sees it very clearly now.”

The words reminded Rami of something that he knew he had to speak of.  “My lord,” Rami looked at Freddie seriously, feeling that the title was necessary in this circumstance.  “I must tell you.  Joe had a vision yesterday, just before the ceremony.” He bit his lip, and Freddie raised an eyebrow, listening carefully.  “He named you emperor.  He said that if we win against The Dark – and I know we will - you will be named emperor of our lands.”

The Dark was how John and Joe referred to the unknown foe that they would one day face.  Neither mage could see anything but darkness and evil when they tried to peel back the veil and detect clues.  At some point, all of them had begun to use that name for their future enemy.

Freddie looked shocked, and then his face took on a grave, serious, expression as he thought the words over.  He was quiet for a long moment, and then he sighed and nodded reluctantly.  “It would…make sense,” he finally said, his voice heavy.  “John has hinted at as much.”  He looked at Rami sadly, his dark eyes wide.  “When your throne comes to you, all will expect our countries to be united at least in name, and as Queen was the victor of the final war, I would be named before you.  I am sorry, my proud Rhye born spouse.”

Rami shook his head.  “I understand,” he said calmly.  He had studied government for years and knew the complicated details of the final treaty regarding succession and possible unification.  “Joe named me The Uniter.”  It felt odd saying that aloud.  “If I can do that for the better of both our countries, it will be easy and natural to call you my emperor.”

The Queen lord looked at him with love, and took his hand again.  “I do love you, my prince,” Freddie said, his voice soft and deep with emotion.  Rami smiled and this time he kissed Freddie’s hand.

“And I love you, my lord.”

**

Freddie made certain that they appeared in different places when they finally emerged from their bedroom, diffusing a little bit of the attention that would have been caused by them coming out hand in hand, which Rami knew many had been looking forward to.  He was glad to use the secret corridors to suddenly appear calmly in the hall, taking a seat with his brothers at lunch as if it was any other day.  Sami and Roger both coughed on their food when they looked up and saw him, and Rami snorted in laughter.

“Gods, can you turn invisible?” Sami demanded.  Rami took a sip of water, looking perfectly calm.

“Maybe,” he said vaguely.  Gwil and Joe were looking very curious, and Rami grinned, mouthing I will show you later to his two brothers that could actually be trusted with something.

Freddie of course found him a moment later and they made the expected rounds of more greetings and accepting congratulations.  There were a few rather lewd expressions sent Rami’s way, and he smiled to see Lords Brian and Roger happily snarling at anyone who got out of line.

There was more entertainment for the afternoon and evening, and Rami was glad to be able to relax and enjoy himself.  He and Freddie stayed together, as was expected, and it was easy to just spend time with his husband.  They made the rounds of performers entertaining the guests in elaborate tents set up for the event, and visited with all the guests.

That night there was another feast following by a ball, and Rami was able to spend a bit of time with his twin while Freddie chatted with yet more dignitaries after the meal.  The Rhye families were leaving soon, and Freddie had arranged for a private barge trip the next day for them.  Everyone was looking forward to a bit of quiet time together, especially Ben, who was still being pursued by the curly-haired May twins.  Lord Roger was no help at all, just snickering at the spectacle and loudly lamenting that he could not possibly compete with the beautiful ladies.

“Last night went…well?” Sami ventured when they were finally alone for a few minutes.  Rami raised an eyebrow, but smiled.

“Yes,” he said firmly.  He clasped Sami’s hand.  “I am happy, Sami.  Please do not worry.”

Sami shook his head, smiling sadly.  “I have been worrying since we were five years old and Papa and Mama told us that you had to leave.  It is second nature to me now.”

Rami sighed, and took his twin’s hand.  “And I have worried for you,” he said.  “It is clear that we will never stop worrying, but I think we need to try to focus on other things now; such as your marriage,” he smiled.  Sami flushed a little.

“Speak for yourself,” Sami said, gesturing a little as Freddie made his way over to claim Rami for a dance.  They soon made a discrete escape thanks to Roger arranging another distraction, and Rami made a note to thank the lord later.

The next morning, the families rode down to the wide river where two elaborate barges were waiting for a day of boating.  It was a small group compared to the previous days, consisting of the Queen lords, the boys, and their parents with a few servants.  Rami and Gwil took their parents on one vessel, while Ben and Joe and their parents took another and the four lords rode ahead to meet the boats at the picnic area, giving the families some time together.  Rami felt a bit odd suddenly at being separated from Freddie enough though it was only for a few hours.

“They call you the big pair?” Sami questioned, his eyes light in amusement as he poured them all fresh lemonade.  It was a beautiful summer day, and Rami was looking forward to the boating and picnic.

“They do indeed,” Gwil chuckled.  “That and the ‘small pair’ for the other two have stuck as our nicknames.  At least it does help everyone keep us straight.”

“And we have never had to wear matching outfits,” Rami offered, laughing.  “Unlike the lords who suffered for two years under a sadistic guardian.”

Gwil shook his head.  “Mind you, Lord Roger claims it was four years.  And that he still has nightmares about the neck ruffle.”

“He exaggerates,” Rami waved away the story. 

“He seems fairly nice,’ Lady Malek ventured.  All the parents had been polite, though understandably cool toward the Queen lords.  No one expected them to get along with the men who had taken away their sons, but for diplomatic sake, everyone was being reasonably cordial in public, thought it was occasionally strained.

“They all are,” Rami said firmly, looking steadily at the parents.  He knew it was a delicate matter, and all he could do was try to emphasize that he and his brothers were content.

Lady Lee looked over to the other barge where the Hardy’s and Mazzello’s were visiting quietly.  “We can see that you are well, even young Joseph.  But there is one matter, Rami, that I promised I would raise with you.” Lady Lee was known as a formidable negotiator, and Rami glanced at Gwil, and saw his brother’s look of surprise; whatever it was, Gwil had no knowledge of it.

‘Yes, of course, my lady,” Rami said calmly.  “What matter is that?”

The lady looked at the other parents, and Rami and Gwil noticed the subtle nods.  “Obviously, it is in the past but it would still ease our minds if we could know why you were demanded so young, especially Joseph.  Have you every learned of any hint to this question?”

Ah.  Rami knew it was a fair question; after all, it had tormented him for years until they had learned of the vision of Lord Mage John.   Sir Reed, the Rhye ambassador, had constantly asked over the years and Rami was now rather glad for the persistent question as it had given him practice in lying.

“No,” he said smoothly.  “We have all wondered, of course, and asked the lords directly.  But there has never been an answer.”

Hazel eyes just like Gwil’s studied the oldest Rhye son.  “No hint in eight years?” she asked, her voice a bit suspicious.

Rami shook his head.  “Just as there was never any answer to that question before we left Rhye,” he said.  He nearly added that he wondered how children could have found the answer when Rhye’s best diplomats had failed, but knew better than to bring that up.

“Why do you ask, Mother?” Gwil inquired.  “I mean, of course it is a natural question, and always has been, but is there some reason to address it now again?”

The adults all looked at the other barge, and Rami saw all their gazes on the youngest boys.   “We have all agreed that now that you are married, Rami, and that Gwil’s marriage is soon, to beg that Ben and Joseph be allowed to visit home, and perhaps even stay,” Lord Malek finally said.  “We and the king himself submitted a petition to the Queen monarch.”

Rami looked at his parents intently, very surprised.  “I have not heard of this,” he said carefully, wondering at the news.  All the parents had done nothing but instill in their sons the need for duty and obedience to the treaty when they were young, and it was a bit of a shock to hear them speak of now breaking agreement.

“No, the petition was presented to the king before we left,” Lord Lee said.  “We received word yesterday that the king approved and we ordered that it be delivered to Lord Mercury as soon as our boats departed.  We expect to discuss it with him at lunch while you boys go elsewhere.  This is the first opportunity we have had to be truly away from the lords, and speak to you in complete privacy.”

Not so private, Rami thought, thinking of the Queen servants and boat crews, but it was true that none of the lords were around.  They were separated from the lords for at least the next hour or so, depending on the current. Gwil looked at Rami, biting his lip, and Rami narrowed his eyes, sensing there was more to come. 

“We wish, Rami, that you speak on behalf of the petition, and ask that it be granted as a wedding present to you,” his mother added.

Rami had to blink at little as he thought that over.  “And yet you wish to discuss it with the lords while we boys go elsewhere,” he repeated.  He subtly emphasized boys, hoping they would understand that neither he nor Gwil felt they were children after all they had gone through.  Rami was eighteen years old, a married man, and by all legal and social morays was an adult.  Unfortunately, neither set of parents seemed to think so.

“This is for adults,” Lord Lee said, waving his hand, and making it perfectly clear what the parents thought.

Gwil looked over at the other barge.  “Are Ben and Joe being informed of this now as well?” he asked shrewdly.

“Yes,” Lord Malek said evenly.  “We agreed that this would be a perfect opportunity.”

Rami looked down at the glass of lemonade in his hand, thinking.  The first year they were in Queen, he would had gladly begged for the young pair to see their parents.  But the discovery of Joe’s mage powers, and the truth behind the treaty made that infeasible, something that Rami had reluctantly but firmly come to accept. 

And frankly, he doubted Joe’s safety with anyone other than the lords, especially Lord John.  It was not that Rami doubted their parents would try to protect Joe; but he knew enough of The Dark’s powers that he knew their families could not protect Joe as was needed.  Over the years, The Dark had featured in Joe’s night terrors, and he had soon been old enough to realize the danger he was in.

**

“It is taking magic users,” Joe whispered, his voice rough with tears.  There was a pause as Lord John held a cup of tea for Joe to drink, the younger mage huddled in his bed, still shaking from his vision.

“Yes,” Lord John finally said quietly.  He sat on one side of the bed and Rami on the other, keeping Joe between them.  Rami and Joe were visiting Lord John’s estate and Joe had suffered a terrifying vision that was taking him hours to recover from.  Still asleep, trapped in the vision, he had bolted from his bed and Hadar for the first time ever had jumped on Joe, gently pushing his master to the floor and then sat on him, preventing him from running further away.  Rami had come racing from his own room at the first cry, but still the child had made it to the hallway before Hadar had caught him.   It had taken both Rami and John to calm the eight-year-old down and return him to his bed.

“We need to hide,” Joe sobbed, looking at John with eyes filled with terror.  “We have to run—”  

“No, no, we are safe here, my prince,” John assured him, running a hand through Joe’s short curls.  “There is no place safer, I promise.”

“But—” Joe looked at Rami, desperate.  “It wants to kill us!”  

Rami had to bit his lip to keep calm.  “Joe, Lord John is right, we are safe here.  Nothing is going to happen,” he cooed to his brother.  “You know we are always safe with our lords.”  

Joe just shook his head, sobbing.  “No, it can get us anywhere,” he protested, trying to grab hold of Lord John’s dressing gown.  The movement made him sob a little, and hold his left elbow protectively.  He had apparently smacked his elbow against a door frame or wall in his sleepwalking terror.  

“We are safe,” John repeated, and even Rami could feel the magic behind those words.  “Look at me, Joseph, we are safe.”  Joe still sobbed but he looked up at the lord, his eyes starting to blink a little.  “That’s right, my prince, we are safe here.  It was a dream; it is not happening.  Close your eyes, Joseph, and dream of more pleasant things.”  He held Joe’s face gently between his large hands, whispering assurances until Joe’s eyes were more closed than opened.  John then nodded at Rami, and the oldest brother gestured for the doctor and nurse to come in, standing up to make room for the physicians to tend to Joe’s arm.  

An hour later, Joe was sound asleep from medicine, with secret magical intervention, his elbow elevated and wrapped with ice packs to try and slow down internal bleeding.  A vivid bruise had already formed, and Rami knew from experience that Joe would be spending the next days in bed.  He respectfully waited until Lord John finally left Joe’s bedside, quietly turning Joe over to the physicians, and then Rami joined the lord in the hallway.    

“He will be alright,” Rami said firmly.  He was no mage, but he knew this.  He would not allow any other possibility.  Lord John just looked sad.

“I could not stop the vision,” he said, his voice harsh and bitter, clearly angry at himself.  “I could not protect him.”

“You did, my lord,” Rami argued, his mind set. “You calmed him down, and he will not remember much, will he?”  At the lords’ shake of him head, Rami smiled a little.  “You protected him, then,” he pointed out.  “Thank you, my lord.”  

John just looked even sadder.  “I wish I could do more.”  

“We all do,” Rami said reasonably.  “And you are right, my lord; there is no place safer for Joe than Queen.”  

John just shook his head and he looked at the small figure in the bed.  “Joseph said that The Dark wants to kill us; that is not true, Rami,” he said finally looking Rami steadily in the eyes.  “It wants to possess us.”

**

“We expect you to speak to Lord Mercury, Rami, and encourage this.”  The voice of Rami’s mother drew him back to the present.  Rami had to blink a few times to regain his balance as he thought of the dangers to Joe.

What could he do?  He certainly could not tell the parents anything of the truth, and yet he could not let Ben or Joe leave either.  He could not let either of them leave the protection of Lord John and Queen.  Gwil looked equally uncomfortable, his eyes watching Rami carefully for any sign of how to react.  “I will…speak to him, yes,” Rami finally said vaguely.

“You must ask for this,” Papa insisted.  “It is only fair.  You are married, and Gwilym will be married in less than a year.  We did as they asked; what harm is there is letting the youngest return to their parents now?”

They planned this, Rami thought, struggling with a feeling of bitterness.  Waited for his wedding, and the formal planning of Gwil’s wedding, as the perfect time to make a request.  Half of the Rhye tribute would be safely married off; it was a good time to ask for something in return for the sacrifice.

Rami looked at Sami sharply, and saw only confusion in his twin’s eyes.  He was not positive, but something told him that Sami had not known of the plan.  He hoped it was so.

“The signed petition was presented to Lord Mercury as soon as we left,” Lord Lee said, his voice sounding confident.  “We were told this morning that the Queen monarch said it was up to the lords.  You must persuade them.”

“Father,” Gwil said carefully, and Rami looked at his brother, startled.  He had never heard Gwil refer to his parent as anything other than an affectionate ‘Dad’.  “Was that…wise?  Lord Mercury and the others have been nothing but kind—”

“They took you from us,” Lord Lee snapped, his eyes dark.  “There was nothing we could do at the time, but now you and Rami are of an age and position where you can perhaps influence them.”

Gwil’s eyebrows drew together.  “Influence?” he said, his voice puzzled.  “What do you mean?”

“We mean that with Rami married, and your marriage so soon, perhaps you can both ask this as joint wedding present,” Lady Lee said hurriedly, placing a hand on her son’s arm.  “It would be such a sign of goodwill.  We have done all they have asked.  Surely they are satisfied, and will now concede something to us.  But you and Gwil must insist on it.  Use your influence with your husbands.”

That was true, Rami knew; the parents had turned over their sons that day, and he had no doubts that it had shattered all four couples.  But what was that his own father had said when he was a child?  It is war.  Rhye had lost, and tribute had been demanded.  He wondered if their parents considered the tribute now half paid. 

“Lord Brian and I are not yet married, Mother,” Gwil pointed out.  Lord Lee just shrugged.

“Surely you have some influence,” he said.  “Do whatever you have to in order to persuade him.”  Gwil stared at his father for a moment, and then turned pink, realizing the extent that the parents thought they would do.

“When we land, we will demand to speak to the lords and present our petitions,” Lord Malek decided.  “You boys let us talk, but then we will call for you oldest two.”

Gwil frowned, clearly not happy, and Rami had to agree with whatever his brother was thinking.  “If I had known, I could have spoken to my husband in private,” Rami said a bit stiffly.  “I know Lord Mercury; it would have been better to present the request it in private, and not as a confrontation.”

“We are prepared to argue,” Lady Lee said, and Rami didn’t doubt her abilities, but he knew it was nothing compared to the lords.  “Let us speak to them.”

Until you need us to beg for our wedding presents, Rami thought.  He was about to say something, but then he was aware of the boat crew making a sudden shift and their barge slowed down so the other vessel could pull alongside.  He stood, and as the other barge neared, he could hear yelling.

“No!  What if we don’t want to go?”  It was Ben, also standing and waving his arms at his parents.  “You can’t make us!”  Rami strode over to the starboard side of the barge, closest to the other vessel, and could see Joe also get up, pulling away from his parents.  Fada was right beside her master as Joe practically ran to the boat’s side. 

“Rami! Gwil!” he cried.

“I know,” Rami said shortly.  He gestured to both crews, and within a minute the barges were close enough for him to jump to the vessel carrying the other parents and their sons.  Gwil was beside him, and the tallest brother took Joe into his arms. 

“I---I don’t want—I mean—” Joe was stumbling over his words, so confused that he looked frightened.  “It’s not safe---I—”

“We know, Joe, it’s alright,” Gwil assured him quietly, drawing Joe protectively beside him.  Gwil and Ben fully knew of Joe’s visions and worries about being separated from them and the Queen lords; they were the only things that made Joe feel safe when The Dark invaded his dreams and reality.  “Hush, don’t worry.  We will figure this out,” Gwil continued, looking at Rami.  The oldest brother nodded his head as Gwil took Joe to sit on a corner of the barge by the Queen crew who were now eyeing the Rhye parents in suspicion.

“Ben,” Rami took Ben aside for a moment.  “What did they say?  What do we need to know?”

Ben’s eyes were nearly as wide as Joe’s.  “They say the Queen monarch has signed the petition to have Joe and I return to Rhye.  That you and Gwil must demand it as your wedding gifts.”  Ben’s blue eyes narrowed in thought.  “It’s blackmail, isn’t it?” he hissed.  “They expect you and Gwil to let us go!” 

“We can’t go.”  It was Joe, his eyes closed, but his voice steady.  Rami and Ben quickly went to be beside him and Gwil.

“Tell us what you see, Joe,” Gwil said gently, holding his youngest brother, rubbing his back reassuringly.  It helped to calm Joe when he was lost in a vision or knowledge.

Joe frowned, concentrating.  “All I know is that it would be dangerous for us to go,” he whispered.  He opened his eyes and looked at them sadly.  “I love my parents, and I would love to see Rhye again, but it’s not safe for us to leave.”  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.  “Lord John says we cannot leave.”

“Then you will not go,” Rami said.  He patted Joe’s back and squeezed Ben’s shoulder.  “We will refuse to let you go.  Let us take any blame for it. We will just say that you cannot go.”

“They may demand a reason,” Gwil pointed out quietly, still holding Joe.

Rami nodded, hating that they would have to continue to lie to their parents.  “We will talk with our lords.  But you and I must refuse to agree to let them go.”  He started to say more, but then the Hardy and Mazzello families had come forward and on the other barge Rami and Gwils’ parents were by the closest side so they could all talk as the barges docked with each other.

“Benjamin!  Joseph! Come here,” Lord Hardy ordered impatiently.  Both boys ignored him, Ben just glaring at his father.  “This is ridiculous, boys.  We have a chance to have you return home!”

“What about Rami and Gwil?” Ben said, puzzled.  “Don’t you want them to come home?”

Rami’s father flushed.  “Of course we do,” he snapped.  “But it is too late.  Our best option is to fight for you and Joseph.”

“But what if we don’t want it?” Ben continued, his chin raised high. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lady Mazzello cried.  “How could you not want it?”

“Because all my life I was told it was my duty to go to Queen, and I will not go back on my duty,” Ben retorted. “It would violate the treaty!”  Rami had to smile a little at his brave brother’s firm declaration and quick thinking. It was correct that their leaving would violate treaty.

“You would keep my child from me?”  The lady’s cry made Joe huddle against Gwil, clearly not sure what to do.

“My lady,” Rami said quickly, knowing the situation had to be calmed.  “I beg you all; this is very confusing and startling.  As I told my parents, I wish we had known of this…plan….as then I could have spoken to Lord Mercury in private about it.  But we must also consider the treaty; would it not be breaking the agreement to ask that Ben and Joe return?”

Lord Mazzello shook his head.  “This is a serious matter, and our only chance in nearly twenty years to have some negotiation power with you and Gwil demanding this as wedding gifts.  You must let us handle it.”

Rami wanted to scream.  It was clear to him that all four couples thought of them as children, and expected them to do as they were told; and Rami and Gwil were being told to demand of their new husband and fiancé that their brothers be sent home.  Rami would have gladly agreed if he didn’t know the dangers and what was at the heart of the matter.

And as he thought on it, he knew that he and Gwil were being cast aside; they were clearly still loved, but thought of as lost now; good only to beg their husbands. 

“My lord?”  Rami looked up, and saw the captain in charge of both vessels standing a respectful but still close distance from him, the crew of both barges clearly on alert, their eyes watchful.  “May I ask your orders?” 

“We will stop here until this is sorted out,” Lord Hardy said, his tone a bit pompous.  The captain didn’t even look at him.

“My young lord Mercury,” the woman clarified firmly, looking directly at Rami, her message clear to all.  “What do you wish us to do?”  She refused to acknowledge the parents’ presence; her eyes steady on Rami.  Both crews stood behind their captain, ready to carry out Rami’s orders.

Thank the gods, Rami thought.

“We continue at haste,” Rami decided.  “My brothers and I must speak to our lords.” 

The entire crew bowed as one.  “Immediately, my young lord Mercury,” the captain repeated.  They were underway again in less than a minute as fast as possible, both barges now tied securely together. 

Rami stepped closer to the captain, ignoring the angry words from his parents.  “Can we send a message to our lords?” he asked her quietly.  The woman nodded, her eyes sharp.

“We can signal a limited message to riders on the shores,” she said.  “I just received word that our lords arrived at the picnic area.”

Rami nodded, considering their options.  “If you can, signal that we coming as fast as we can.”

“We shall.”  The captain looked at the parents carefully.  “Forgive me, my lord, but you should know that we are of course armed.”  Her hand rested on her sword, a subtle reassurance to Rami that her crews were ready to protect the brothers.

“I have no doubts,” Rami said, nodding.  “We will not raise arms against my parents, though.  It is best we reach our lords as quickly as possible.”

The lady bowed.  “Yes, my lord Mercury,” she said firmly, and turned to her crews, barking orders.

“Rami!” It was Lord Malek, looking at his son impatiently.  “We need to discuss this more.  Order them to stop.”

“No, Father,” Rami said evenly, and he was glad to see Ben come to stand by him, Gwil still staying back with Joe.  “We must speak to our lords.”

Lady Hardy was glaring at her son.  “Benjamin, come here, and sit down.”

“No, Mother,” Ben retorted, his voice calm, but firm.  “I must stand with my brothers.”

There was a hissed indrawn breath from Lord Mazzello, who until then had been fairly quiet.  “You will stand with your parents, and do as told.”

“With respect, my lord,” Ben said, “We will stand together until this matter is sorted.”

How had it come to this, Rami wondered, looking around.  He and his brothers were together, the captain and members of her crew subtly and not-so subtly close by.  This was their parents that they had not seen in eight long years; how could they be nearly fighting with them?  But how could they now be insisting that Ben and Joe go home?  It would break the treaty.

It will take all eight of us to defeat this evil, Rami remembered Freddie saying.  And it would not be safe for Joe to be away from Lord John.  As much as it pained him, Rami knew he could not support their parents on the matter. 

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Ben muttered, eying the parents.  “Why insist on this now?”

“They think Gwil and I would have bargaining power, to persuade our lords,” Rami admitted. 

Gwil looked at Rami steadily.  “I trust in Lord John’s judgement, and that of Joe.  We cannot let them leave, no matter what their parents ask.”  Rami nodded in agreement.

“I trust Lord John and Joe as well.  We will have to stand firm, as painful as it may be to defy our parents.  But we cannot let them go.”

It was a very uneasy standoff until the barges reached the designated area.  To his relief, Rami saw all four lords gathered on the dock, and even at a distance they looked formable.  As they drew closer, Rami could see Freddie standing with his arms crossed, his brothers at his side.  It reminded Rami of the day they had arrived in Queen, seeing the power of the four brothers united.  It had been intimidating back then, but now he thought of it as comforting.  He did not wish to anger his parents, but he knew he would not ask for what they wanted; he would not let Ben and Joe be taken away.

“Let us handle this,” Lord Hardy ordered, speaking sharply to the brothers.  Rami just straightened his back.

“I will speak to my husband,” he said evenly, committing to no more than that. 

“Rami,” it was his mother, approaching him.  “My son, there is no reason for anger.  We are just trying to save the younger boys.”

"Save them?” Rami looked at his mother, not knowing what to say.  There had been some awkward moments over the past days to be sure, everyone understanding that the parents still bore anger for what had been done, but nothing had suggested this.  “We are safe, Mother.  We always have been.”

His mother just shook her head.  “My son, you are of Rhye; you cannot forget this.”

This made no sense at all.  Being of Rhye was what had sent the boys to Queen in the first place, but Rami bit his tongue, knowing his words would likely only cause more anger.  He knew that tempers were on edge, and upon seeing the Queen lords, he knew it was not just his parents who were upset.

The barges finally docked, and Rami was the first to disembark, going immediately to Freddie.  “My lord,” he said, his voice tight.  “We had no idea.”

Freddie’s face was impassive as he looked at the parents, but his eyes softened as he glanced at his new husband.  “I know,” he said quietly, reassuringly.  He then looked back at the parents, and raised his chin.  “My lords and ladies,” he said, his tone icy but reasonably still civil.  “I was handed a most interesting petition as soon as your barges departed.”

Lady Lee stepped forward.  “As we planned,” she said calmly.  Gwil looked distraught at her words, and he was unable to meet Lord Brian’s gaze.  Rami could only image how his gentle brother was feeling now.

“Come, this dock is no place for this discussion,” Freddie said, his voice still somehow neutral.  “Let us go to where we have tables and chairs set up.”  He turned, and he and Roger strode swiftly up the small hill to the meadow.  Lord John and Lord Brian stayed, standing now off to one side.  Rami did not miss the barge’s crew disembarking as well, forming a firm line.  The parents would have no choice but to follow Freddie and Roger.  He stayed still, and didn’t miss how Joe and Gwil moved toward their lords, and how Ben stayed beside him.  They were not letting themselves be separated.  Rami nodded to Ben, and they went to stand with Lord John and Brian and their other brothers.  All the parents ignored them as they marched up the dock and hill to the tent.

“We didn’t know,” Ben said firmly, and Joe nodded, now standing close to Lord John. 

“We believe you,” Lord Brian assured him gently.  “No one had any idea, not even John.”  The older mage shook his head, his face pale.  “Come now, all of us will stand together.”

They went up to the large tent that was hastily being changed from a casual picnic area to a meeting place.  Servants were quickly removing most of the food, leaving just drinks, and pulling tables closer together.  Freddie and Roger sat at the head table and it took Rami a moment to register the empty chair next to Freddie.  The lord looked at Rami, raising an eyebrow, and Rami immediately went to sit beside his husband, knowing it was now his place, and that he was making a statement to their parents.  Brian and John also went to the head table, pulling chairs over.  Without a word, Gwil, Ben, and Joe went to sit beside their lords.  The parents lined up to face the table, and Rami saw his twin nervously stop and stand to the side somewhere in between the two groups.

“Gwilym, Benjamin, Joseph, you may leave,” Lord Hardy said stiffly.  He seemed to reluctantly acknowledge that Rami would be staying.

“No thank you, Sir,” Ben said at the same moment Lord Roger said “They will remain here.”

Lady Lee was still standing, glaring at the lords.  “We will call for the children later.”

“They are not leaving,” Freddie countered, his voice still even.  “My husband and his brothers deserve to hear all you have to say.”  The three brothers all pointedly sat down beside their lords.

“Very well,” Lord Malek said, his voice a huff.  He cleared his throat, preparing his argument.  “As you have read, both monarchs have directed that the youngest children be returned to Rhye.  It is only fair as you have the older two.  It is quite a simple matter.”

Freddie looked at the man intently.  “Neither monarch has directed,” he pointed out, his voice still even and pleasant.  “Neither is even able to do that, according to the terms of the original peace treaty, which has never been challenged or broken.  All the terms are dictated by my brothers and myself, and are still in force.”

“You have the older boys,” Lady Lee observed.  “And all four were turned over to you eight years ago as ordered.  There is certainly no harm is letting the younger ones return now.”

“There is no clause that any of them return to Rhye at any time,” Lord Brian pointed out.

“Perhaps not,” Lady Mazzello admitted.  “But you have gotten what you want; what harm is there in the boys coming home for at least a long visit?  How can you deny that after eight years of them being away?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable request, Rami had to agree.  If he didn’t know the truth, he would perhaps argue for it himself.  But they did know what was happening, and the dangers to both Joe and Lord John if they left Queen.  Rami knew that the mages protected each other, and could not be apart for long.

Freddie still looked relaxed, but Rami could see the irritation in his eyes.  “We will consider it,” he said, obviously trying for a polite diplomatic answer.  “Your request may have gone over better if you had directly approached myself and not our monarchs, my lords and ladies.”

“How can you deny what your monarch has approved?” Lady Lee demanded.

There was a hard look now in Freddie’s eyes that Rami didn’t like.  “I can when it comes to the peace treaty and all its terms.  I do not require my king’s approval in matters regarding Rhye and the treaty, as you well know, my lady.”

“This is absurd,” Lord Malek fumed.  “Rami, tell them what you want!”

Rami had to blink; what he wanted?  He wanted to know what had suddenly brought this on, why their parents were now demanding that they try to break the peace treaty.

“Should not the question be what Joe and I want?” Ben demanded, speaking up.

“Be quiet,” Lord Hardy snapped at his son.  Roger’s eyes narrowed at the tone and everyone tensed.

“No, Father,” Ben said, his jaw set in his famous stubborn determination.  “You told me from the day that I was born that my duty was to go to Queen, and I have done all you asked and more.  But on this matter, I cannot agree.  My duty is to the treaty, and to stay here.”

Joe looked up from where he had been nervously studying his hands in his lap.  “I wish to stay here as well,” he said softly. 

“How can you say such a thing?” Lord Mazzello nearly shouted.  “You will do as you are told.”

“Very well,” Freddie said standing up.  “Then I am telling everyone here that none of them will return to Rhye.”

Lord Mazzello was turning red with anger.  “Joseph!  You will come with me now!”  He got up and started toward the end of the table where Joe and Lord John were seated.

There was a growl, and Fada got up from where she had been lying down, temporarily forgotten by the parents.  Rami and his brothers knew that she was always beside Joe, but the parents had ignored her, and it was at their peril.  The hound snarled fiercely, her teeth bared as she stepped up between her master and his father.

The lord stopped just a few feet away, blinking as if noticing Fada for the first time.  “Call off your dog,” he ordered his son.

“No.”  It was Lord John.  He didn’t move an inch, and it only made his calm words more powerful.  “Joseph will stay.”

“As will Benjamin,” Roger said.  “Our decision is final.  All will stay with us.  There is no change to the original treaty.”

“How can you do this?” cried Lady Malek.  “It is a simple request!”

Lord Brian looked at her.  “My lady,” he said, his tone respectful but firm.  “It was agreed by the treaty nearly two decades ago.  As my brother pointed out, it is still the law of both countries.  Your sons will remain here.”

“Gwilym!”  It was Lord Lee, glaring at his son.  “Tell them that you want the younger two to return with us.”

“But I do not want that, Father,” Gwil said, and Rami could see the hurt in his brother’s eyes, but Gwil was far stronger than most gave him credit for.  “I am sorry, but I do not agree with your stance or petition; we must continue to do as the treaty dictates.  And I would not want my brothers to return regardless.”

“You do not want them to return to their families?”

Gwil lifted his head.  “We were told by you to make a family here; and that we have done.  I love and respect you always, but on this, I cannot agree.”

“We want to stay here,” Ben said stubbornly.

“How dare you!”  It was Lord Hardy, his eyes blazing with anger.  “You will shut your mouth and do as we say!”  He stepped forward, and for one second Rami thought he was going to raise his hand to Ben.

With a snarl, Fada put her paws on the table, showing to all that she considered Ben under her protection as well.  Roger also stood up, and no one missed his hand going to the hilt of his sword. The Rhye lord hastily backed off.

Everyone was standing now, emotions running high. Rami saw Lord John put a hand on each of Joe and Ben’s shoulders, and quietly guided them to stand beside him as he stepped back a bit, letting the other lords’ move forward.  Fada was still snarling and stood in front of Ben and both mages, on highest alert.  Rami and Gwil also stepped over to be in front of their younger brothers, visibly protecting them.  Meanwhile, Freddie, Brian, and Roger stepped around the table and stood only a foot away from their parents as Queen guards entered the tent at the commotion.

“Stand down,” Freddie ordered, and both the guards and the parents listened to him.  No one would risk disobeying him; he was every inch the powerful warlord who had defeated an entire kingdom.  There were a few moments of silence as Freddie looked at everyone, daring them to speak.

“Please escort the parents back to my estate,” Freddie said, his voice colder than ice.  The guards stepped forward, no one touching the parents, but clearly ready to carry out their lord’s orders.

“My son,” it was Rami’s mother, her face pale.  “Please, you must—“

“Madam,” it was Freddie again, and his tone made Rami almost afraid of his husband for a moment.  “I suggest you do as I ask.  Return to my home and you are welcome to join the final feast tonight.  Tomorrow you shall leave Queen as planned, and your sons will remain here as planned.  I will see you tomorrow morning to bid you a safe journey home.”  He nodded to the guards, and none of the parents protested as they were ushered out.

Sami hesitated, looking between Rami and their parents, momentarily overlooked.  Freddie looked at him, and then turned to Rami, nodding his head a little.  Rami bowed, and hurried to his brother’s side.

“Rami, I—“ Sami was shaking his head, completely confused. 

“I know, Sami,” Rami said, clasping his brother’s hand.  “Go with them; we will talk later.”

“Sami!”  It was their mother, turning around just as she was about to leave the tent.  “Come here!”

Rami nodded at his twin.  “Go,” he said.  Sami took a deep breath and then hurried after their parents.

Chapter Text

“What in all the gods names?” Brian murmured, shaking his head.  He and Roger had followed the parents down to the docks to make sure all were on the barges headed back to Freddie’s estate while Rami and his brothers had remained in the tent, all of them too confused to speak.  Lord John gathered them to sit at a table and had a servant bring beverages for everyone and then thanked her, asking the servants to leave the lords and brothers in privacy.

Rami sat quietly, completely surprised, not knowing what to say.  Gwil had a similar shocked expression on his face, and Ben and Joe just looked confused.  Lord John was talking to them softly while Freddie paced, his dark eyes flashing.  As soon as Brian and Roger returned, they and Freddie sat at the table, joining Lord John and the brothers.

“We did not know, my lords,” Rami said, repeated blankly.  “We had no idea, and I do not believe that Sami did either.”  To his relief, Freddie clasped his hand, squeezing it gently.

“I agree that Sami did not seem to know anything, and even if he did, there was little he could do against all the parents.”  Freddie smiled at him reassuringly, and Rami nodded his thanks.

“No one knew, except the parents,” John murmured.

Roger looked at his younger brother.  “Can you see anything?” he asked curiously.  John just shook his head.

“Nothing.  It is very…annoying.”  He looked at Freddie.  “I can keep trying to see something, but—“

“No, my dear,” Freddie said calmly, reaching over to pat his brother’s shoulder.  “Do not force yourself, John.  It would be good of course to know what has brought this on, but there is certainly no need for you to make yourself ill over it.”

“I can try to see,” Joe offered, looking up at Freddie bravely.  Rami was surprised, and saw Gwil and Ben look equally started at the knowledge that Joe had advanced to being able to perhaps read minds at will.  They knew it was likely, and that Lord John had the power, but none of the three brothers had known Joe was capable of that gift yet.

Freddie, however, shook his head.  “Absolutely not, my young mage,” he said firmly.  “You will not attempt any such thing.  There is no need; we have it under control.”

“Why would they do this now?” Gwil asked, his voice low and worried.  “They had years to continue to argue the treaty.  How could they ask Rami and I—“ he hesitated, looking at Rami.

“They wanted us to ask you to grant it as a favor; a wedding present,” Rami explained to Freddie and Brian.  “They waited until I was married, and Gwil formally betrothed.”

“But to ask just days after your wedding,” Roger grumbled.  “Not a good plan.”

“They said they had to ask while we were alone with them,” Rami said weakly.  “I guess when they knew about the boating trip, they planned for the petitions to be delivered as soon as we left.”

John nodded, his eyes closed, and Rami wondered if he was still trying to see something.  “It was a reasonable plan,” he said meekly.

Freddie just snorted in anger.  “It was foolish.  They knew they risked our anger and possibly breaking the treaty.”

“But the treaty isn’t broken, is it?” Ben asked worriedly.  “I mean, we are staying.  We are keeping our promises.”

Brian nodded at Ben reassuringly.  “The treaty is not broken,” he promised Ben.  “Far from it; it is intact.  What both monarchs actually signed said that it was up to Freddie and us to let you visit or not; neither king can try to make it a demand, as your parents tried to suggest.  And it did say for a visit, and not a permanent return.”

“Even a visit might not be safe,” John said.  Rami smiled at Joe, trying to reassure him, and Ben stayed close to his younger brother.  The youngest was very quiet, one hand held by Lord John and his other hand tight in Fada’s thick fur.

“You will not leave Queen,” Freddie said, nodding and Rami knew the matter was settled.  “I do not believe there was any evil intent; I suspect your parents acted so strongly out of honest love for you.  There is much that can be explained by the power of the heart.”

“It was still risky,” Lord Brian pointed out, and Freddie nodded.

“It was,” he agreed.  “But unless John detects something in the future, we should accept it was the heart speaking, and an honest desire to have their sons again.  We knew we risked emotions running high when we decided to allow them to come.”  Brian and Roger both nodded, and Rami had to agree with them.  “Now,” Freddie said, standing, “I must leave to arrive back home well before they do.  The barges have orders to go slowly, and of course they are going against the current for at least another hour.  It will give us time for any necessary…arrangements.” 

Rami jumped to his feet quickly.  “I would go with you, my lord,” he requested, looking at his husband.  Thankfully, Freddie nodded without any hesitation.

“I would welcome that,” he agreed, taking Rami’s hand and caressing it for a moment.  “We shall ride double on my horse.”

“We each can,” Brian said, also standing.  At his words, Roger and John nodded as did Rami’s brothers.

“We should be together,” John said quietly, and Freddie inclined his head at his mage’s words.

“Then we shall stay together,” he said.  “Come.”

Even with two riders, the warhorses could travel rapidly on the side paths, taking short cuts not available to the river barges.  Rami rode silently behind his lord, hanging onto him, as each of his brothers did with their own lords.  He would never have expected this from his parents, who had done nothing throughout the years but instill duty and honor in him.  He well remembered the time when the parents had thought about defying the treaty, and trying to flee rather than turn over their sons, but that had been long ago, and well in the past.  His parents had been so proud of him and his brothers for bravely going to Queen.

But, Rami had to concede, his memories were those of a child, seeing his parents as nothing but brave and perfect.  No one was perfect, he knew now.  It did seem likely that their parents had acted just out of love and emotion.  Surely there was no need for more anger now.

They arrived back at the estate, and Freddie calmly led the eight of them to his private study.  Servants bustled at the unexpected arrival, quickly offering food and drink.  Brian and Roger spoke with Freddie’s steward, and ensured that various events and celebrations were still on going.  Word would rapidly spread that they had returned without the parents, and the best course was to ensure that most people were kept busy.

“When your parents arrive, I will have them escorted to their rooms.  They are welcome of course to join the feast and celebrations tonight, but I will not speak to them again except in public,” Freddie decided after starring at his wine cup for long minutes, lost in thought.  “I will not forbid you from speaking to your parents, but I do ask that you have one of us with you if you do speak to them.”

Rami nodded with his brothers.  “I will not seek them out, but if they ask to speak to us, I and Gwil will go only, with one you, my lords,” he decided.  It seemed the best course to him, and Gwil inclined his head in agreement.

“I or Roger will accompany you,” Lord Brian agreed.

Freddie sat down, running his hands though his dark hair.  “We also will not speak of what we heard or learned today,” he decided.  “Let us wait and see if the parents speak of their request or the petitions from the monarchs.  We will learn more from just listening to what they may tell people.”

“If anyone asks why we returned early, simply say that I took ill,” Lord John decided.  “It is easily believable.”

“Very well,” Freddie decided.  He looked at Rami, and smiled sadly.  “It is best if we continue as if nothing is amiss, and not cancel any plans.  Can you still host the banquet tonight?  It is not what I would have wanted for your final wedding celebration.”

Rami sat beside Freddie, smiling a little.  “Yes, my lord, I can, and I agree it is best if we continue everything as planned.  There is no need to cause any gossip.”  Freddie took his hand again, and Rami squeezed his fingers.

“We should stay together,” Lord John said suddenly.  He looked pale, and Gwil and Lord Brian went to his side, joining Joe, who hadn’t moved more than a foot away from his lord.  “We should present a united front.”

“Then we shall,” Freddie agreed.  He stood up and looked at them all.  “Change quickly for the feast, and meet back here.”  Everyone nodded, and left for their rooms.

Freddie sighed as he looked at Rami again.  “I am sorry, my husband,” he said quietly.  Rami shook his head.

“There is nothing to apologize for, my husband.  This…” he trailed off.  “This is not like the parents that I knew,” he finally said quietly.  “I do not know why they would attempt such a thing.”

“They have every right to be angry at me,” Freddie said.  “I know this, as do my brothers.  Their anger and even requesting for Benjamin and Joseph to visit is within reason.”

Rami bowed his head a little.  “My parents were the ones who instilled me duty and honor, and to follow the treaty.  We memorized the treaty word-by-word, and all the conditions.  I can think of no reason why they would violate it now or ever.”

Freddie put his arms around Rami to hug him, and Rami welcomed the gesture.  “They love you,” Freddie said softly.  “Logic and reason can fly away when love is at stake, no matter your training.  I am not truly angry with your parents.  They did circumnavigate the terms of the treaty, which some could argue has broken the agreements, but I will not press the matter.  I feel that I left any right to be angry at your parents long ago, the day we presented the treaty to Rhye.”

Rami kissed his husband’s hand.  “We will see this through together,” he promised.

An hour later, they were gathered back in the study, changed and outfitted for the feast and dancing.  Lord John was still pale, and Rami looked curiously at Lord Brian, who was hovering over the mage.  Brian came to talk quietly with Rami and Lord Freddie, a cross expression on his face.

“He is still trying to see,” Brian said, his tone irritated.   “I have threatened him most seriously.”

Freddie sighed.  “Let me speak to him,” he said.  He looked at Rami, and held out his hand.  “Come, my dear, a lesson in managing stubborn mages.” 

Lord John scowled as Freddie and Rami sat beside him.  “I am alright,” he said in a very grumpy tone.

“Of course, darling.  That explains why you look ready to faint,” Freddie said, his eyes assessing.  “You have been strained already, and now you try this?  You will stop it immediately.”

“But there is no logical reason for what happened, Freddie,” John argued.  “I need to—“

“You need to listen to me,” Freddie interrupted firmly.  “There is no reason to worry about this.  I know it is just your pride speaking.”  Lord John actually blushed a little, and Rami raised an eyebrow.  ‘Oh, yes,” Freddie chuckled, smiling at Rami.  “Another lesson on handling mages; they are proud beyond belief.  I suspect John is mad that he didn’t sense any of this earlier.”

“I am not,” John muttered.

“Yes, you are, darling, and we love you for it.”  Freddie patted his hand and winked at Rami who covered his laugh with a cough.

“I am not,” the mage repeated.  “But that does raise a question, Freddie.  I have been reading all sorts of emotions this week, but there was no hint that the parents would ask for the return of their sons.”

“You cannot see everything, John, and no one certainly expects you to.  I suspect that you have had a great deal of emotions all week, haven’t you?”  John looked down, and Freddie sighed a little, his voice going soft. “You have already been struggling, my baby brother.  You cannot continue.”

John glanced at Rami, and Rami suspected the reason for the lord’s struggles. “In Rhye, it is known that you dictated the terms of the treaty, and many …disliked… you for it.  I have worried if my parents have treated you well these past days.  I am sorry that I did not think to say anything, my lord.  I never thought my parents would do anything like this, or speak to you harshly.”

“They have not spoken to me,” Lord John said quietly, and Rami winced in understanding. 

“I am sorry, my Lord Mage,” Rami said sincerely. 

“No, you have nothing to be sorry for,” John said with a sigh.  “There is no logical reason why you should have considered this before.  I expected the thoughts and anger, and they are not unreasonable.  I did order that their children be taken from them.  People are allowed to think what they want.”

“But those thoughts hurt you,” Freddie said.  He held both of John’s hands in his, rubbing them as if to try and warm them.  “You told me that you could block them,” he added, his tone accusatory.  He was clearly upset with his younger brother.

“I did at first, but it became overwhelming.”  John looked over at Joe, who was sitting with Ben and Lord Roger, brushing Fada.  “I have been shielding Joseph,” he finally admitted.  “There is no reason for him to know all the thoughts and opinions.  They are…not appropriate for him.”

Rami stiffened and saw that Freddie also frowning as they both imagined what some of those thoughts could be.  Based on what he knew, Rami didn’t like thinking much about it.  Freddie looked even more upset than John.

“You should have told me, Deacy,” Freddie said sternly, using an old nickname.

“It would not have changed anything,” John argued.  “I cannot stop the thoughts, and I had to shield Joseph from them no matter what.”

Rami looked at his youngest brother.  “Can Joe read all those thoughts?” he asked.  “I was surprised when he earlier offered to try and see; I did not know he could do that so clearly and at will.”

“He shouldn’t be doing it,” John muttered.  “It is draining, and he is still recovering from his latest accident.”

“If its draining, then you should not be doing it either,” Freddie said sharply, glaring at his brother.

“I would not have Joseph hear what many think,” John practically hissed.

It looked like Freddie and John were ready for an argument, and Rami knew he had to try to intervene.  “Can Joe shield himself?  I thought he was learning.”

“He is,” John conceded reluctantly.  “But things have been overwhelming the past days, and I doubt he could shield all of it.”  John closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath.  “I will shield Joseph tonight no matter what,” he said with finality when he reopened his eyes, and Rami knew it was the declaration of a mage that not even a king could overrule. 

Freddie nodded, reaching a decision.  “Then we will take precautions,” he said crisply.  He squeezed John’s hands a final time, and then stood, looking at Rami.  “I will send Gwilym and Benjamin to you; tell them what they need to know,” he directed both Rami and John.  “I will speak to Brian and Roger.  Tonight, I think it best if your brothers stay together in the same chamber,” he added, and the younger lord nodded.

“I will make sure of it,” he promised.  “I think Sami should stay with our parents.”

“Joseph and I should be together,” John said.

“I will take care of it,” Rami agreed.  “We can say you both took ill.  It is common knowledge that Joe is still healing from his last accident, so none should think it odd if he retires early.  If any of our parents wish to speak, Gwil, Ben, and I will deal with them.”

A few minutes later Freddie offered his arm to Rami as they prepared to enter the banquet hall, and the younger lord accepted gladly.  He glanced to his left, and saw Lord Brian gently taking Gwil’s arm, coming to his place on Rami’s other side, and then Lords Roger and John each offering an arm to their future spouses as they lined behind the first four.  They were clearly presenting a united front, each couple with arms linked. 

All eight of us, Rami thought.

They entered the hall to applause and well wishes.  Freddie was in his element, stopping to chat for a moment and shake hands, as was Roger.  They finally made their way to the table, and Rami was relieved to see Sami and all the parents at their tables; a part of him had wondered if they would not appear.  It would be a dreadful insult, but given the past afternoon, Rami had not known what to expect.  None of the parents looked particularly happy, but still, they politely bowed and curtsied as they went by and Rami saw looks of relief on his brother’s faces.

The meal went well, many toasts offered to the wedding couple, and Rami relaxed enough to enjoy the evening.  Their parents stayed together, not approaching the main table, but they did smile at their sons, and Lord Mazzello made a kind toast on behalf of Rhye that was well received.  Even Lord Roger, who glared at Lordy Hardy most of the night, was civil when addressed by anyone from Rhye, although all the parents kept a wide distance from him.  Rami knew that no one was going to forget or forgive that a hand had been nearly raised to Ben.

Dancing began after the meal and as usual Freddie and Rami opened the floor and then made polite rounds to guests.  As planned, Brian, Gwil, Roger, and Ben took turns sitting with John and Joe, both of whom were looking rather pale.  Rami went to join them while Freddie chatted with some cousins, and was glad to see Fada and Hadar on alert, sitting protectively beside the mages.

“How are you doing?” Rami asked Joe quietly, petting Fada as she laid her head on Joe’s lap.

“I’m alright,” Joe said, though he was frowning as he looked at their parents.  They had all been watching their sons carefully, and Rami wondered they were looking for an opportunity when they might catch any of them alone.

“Just stay here,” Rami said.  “If any approach, let Lord Brian or Lord Roger speak to them, and Gwil, Ben, and I will come as quickly as possible.” 

Lord John nodded as he drank some tea; Rami knew that when visions were striking, the lord could not stomach wine.  “We will not move,” he agreed.  He looked at Hadar, and smiled a little.  “It is nice having two wolfhounds,” he remarked, his voice light.  “They do tend to scare off most people.

“A good first line of defense,” Roger agreed with a grin as he sat down.  “Very intimidating.” 

“Can I borrow them?” Ben pleaded as he spotted two small curly heads making a straight line for him.  The May twins were nothing if not persistent, Rami acknowledged.

After an hour, Freddie made a discrete gesture to Rami, and he saw Lord Brian and Gwil talking softly to their two mages.  He made his way over and found Joe exhausted, his eyes nearly closing.  “I think it is time for you to rest,” Rami said, putting his hand on Joe’s head.  His brother felt a little warm, and he frowned, glancing at Lord Brian, who nodded a little toward Lord John.

“Come now, both of you,” Lord Brian said firmly.  “Benjamin and I shall get you to our chamber.”  For the night, Gwil, Ben, and Joe were staying in the bedroom Lord Roger used when at the estate, which adjoined the bedroom for Lord John, where their lords would sleep. 

Lord John and Joe said their goodnights to a few people and then left quietly through the back corridors, Hadar and Fada at their side as they were escorted away.  Freddie came over to join Rami and Gwil, and Lord Roger made his way to them as well.

Rami had been watching his twin sit quietly at the table, speaking to no one; just watching the parents worriedly.  It didn’t seem right, so Rami squeezed Freddie’s hand, and then determinedly made his way to Sami when the parents were busy talking in a huddled group off to one side.  Sami saw him, and quickly hurried over, and Rami pulled them into a small side alcove and hugged his twin.

“Are you alright?” Rami asked.  Sami gave a small laugh.

“I was going to ask the same,” he admitted.  “I have no idea what is happening.”

Rami sighed, and nodded at the news.  “I wish they would have told me before they presented the petitions.  It may have gone over better.”

“It was wrong of them to try to bypass the treaty,” Sami said.  “I had a look at the petition, Rami; it said nothing about Ben and Joe returning to stay.  It said only for a visit.”

“Their parents love them,” Rami said, trying to find some reason in his mind.  “I don’t think anyone would blame them for that.”

Sami looked down at his hands.  “Our parents love you too, Rami, and Gwil’s parents love him.  Why not ask for you two to visit as well?”

“I would not leave my husband, and Gwil will not leave his fiancé so soon before their wedding,” Rami said.   “I suspect they considered that.”

“I am so surprised that they would do something they knew would go against the treaty,” Sami said, narrowing his eyes in thought.  “They tried so much before you left, and I know they have never stopped trying.  But still it is surprising they would not tell you and would try to bypass the treaty.”

Rami sighed, shaking his head.  “It is part of negotiation, to try anything and everything.  But the timing could have been better, and going past Lord Mercury was not very wise.”

Sami looked at his twin carefully.  “You love him,” he said softly.  Rami smiled a little, nodding.

“I do,” he said.  “We all had to make peace with our lives, Sami, to take good wherever we could find it.  I have hoped that Mama and Papa would understand that.”

“I think they do, as do all the parents.  That is why I am surprised that they would not tell either of us of their plans.”  Sami frowned, thinking.  “I just hope that no one is angry.  I cannot believe that any of the parents wished to cause trouble at your wedding.”

“I am not angry, Sami; none of us are.  It is just very unsettling.”

Sami nodded.  “That is understandable.  I will listen carefully, I promise, to everything said on our journey home and write to you.”  Rami clasped his arm.

“I will write as well,” he promised.  “We must trust that it will all soon be forgotten.”  The twins went back out to the main hall, and saw their father approaching with Lord Hardy and Lady Lee.

“Rami,” his father inclined his head a little.  “May we speak with you?”

Before Rami could answer, Lord Roger appeared as if out of nowhere.  “Of course, Lord Malek,” he said, his voice cool, but calm.

Lord Hardy cleared his throat, looking at the blond lord.  “I need to apologize to you, Lord Taylor, and to my son and Lord Mercury; to all of you, in fact.  None of us intended for our … discussion….this afternoon to become so heated.  And I especially must apologize for my actions.  I am truly ashamed of how I behaved.”  Rami saw Lord Freddie coming, and smiled at his husband to let him know all was well.

“We are all sorry,” Lady Lee added.  “We ask only that tomorrow before we leave, that we may speak briefly to our sons, and we wish to formally apologize to you, Lord Mercury, for being ungracious with your hospitality.”

Freddie waved it lightly aside.  “My lords and lady, I understand emotions very well.  I ask only that you understand that in the future, any matters concerning your sons must continue to come through me, as they always have, per the treaty.”

“Yes, we understand,” Lord Hardy said, looking truly sincerely.  “I truly do not know what came over me.  It was inexcusable, and will never happen again.”

“Then all is well,” Freddie said.  “We shall see you all in the morning.”  He dismissed them by taking Rami’s arm and leading him away to rejoin the dancing.  It was a bit abrupt, but Rami knew it calculated as was everything Freddie did.  The parents knew that they were not yet completely back in the lords good graces.

“You handled that well,” Rami said as Freddie guided him through a dance.

Freddie smiled as he glanced over to where the parents were again gathered.  “Remember, never destroy someone unless they are a true enemy.  Your parents are not our enemies, and there is no need to let this fester.  I think calmer heads will prevail in the morning.”

“I hope so as well.”  Rami was relieved that an apology had been made; it boded well for the goodbyes the next day.  He knew it did not want their visit to end on a strained note.

The next morning, an early breakfast was held, and then guests began to depart.  Freddie arranged for the Rhye families to have some private time in a small hall, and Rami nodded to Gwil as the brothers prepared to go in.  Ben was very capable of taking care of himself, but Joe was still tired and weak.  They did not think that his parents would be harsh, but they also had to make sure that he was careful to not strain himself.

To their relief, all their parents were apologetic and kind, hugging their sons tenderly.  Lord and Lady Hardy especially spoke quietly to Ben for a long time, and they hugged firmly, apparently having settled any discomfort.  Joe’s parents held him carefully, pressing kisses to him, and Joe seemed slightly embarrassed, but otherwise well.

After some time alone, the lords entered, and formal apologies were made again.  Freddie accepted them with grace, as did Lord Roger, who clasped arms with Lord Hardy at Ben’s subtle nod.  Rami knew that the blond lord would have cheerfully tossed Ben’s father right out of the estate if he had thought Ben had been threatened again.

It was emotional, but soon the families were in their coaches, waving to their sons.  Rami thought back to the day he and his brothers had left Rhye, and reflected on all that had happened since then.  He would never have expected it all, but now he could not imagine things any other way.

“We will see you in the spring!” Sami called cheerfully as he mounted his warhorse, grinning at Gwil.  “I look forward to your wedding, brother.”

“As do I,” Gwil said, blushing a little again, but smiling.  “Have a good journey, and we shall see you soon.”

Sami looked down at Rami one last time.  “Take care, my twin,” he said.

Rami reached up and squeezed his brother’s hand.  “And you, my twin.  Have a safe journey.”

“We shall.”  Sami waved to them, inclined his head respectfully to Lord Freddie and turned his horse to gallop after the carriages.

“It was strange to have them here,” Gwil murmured to Rami as the coaches left their sight. “But I am so grateful we were able to see them, of course.”

Rami smiled at his brother as they turned to walk back to the house.  “And we will see them again at your wedding, which we must now start planning in earnest.”  He loved to see Gwil’s cheeks turn pink anytime his wedding or Lord Brian was mentioned.

“I am content to let Lord Brian handle the details,” Gwil demurred, waving his hand. 

“Oh, no, little brother,” Rami laughed.  “You saw what happened when I let Lord Freddie plan this past week.  If you don’t want to dance your feet off, you should lay down some rules.”

Gwil just wrinkled his nose.  “I trust Lord Brian’s judgement.”

“And you can trust him,” Rami added softly.  Gwil ducked his head a little, shy again.

“I do trust him,” Gwil said.  “I just…” he hesitated, and Rami stopped them, gesturing for Gwil to sit on a window bench, giving the brothers some privacy.

“What, my brother?  You can tell or ask me anything,” Rami said, gently squeezing Gwil’s hand.

Gwil nodded.  “I know, thank you,” he said.  “I…I have been watching you and Lord Freddie this past week, and it’s clear you love each other.”  He glanced around, making sure they were alone for the moment and could not be overheard.  “It all…has gone well?” he asked in a very low voice.

Rami knew what his brother was referencing, and smiled, putting an arm around his waist in a quick hug.  “All is indeed well.  I will tell you everything I know,” he promised, and Gwil looked relieved.  Like Rami, Gwil had chosen to wait for his wedding, and Rami suspected that Gwil had even less experience in general than he’d had.  Gwil was always nervous about not knowing everything. 

“Lord Freddie loves you,” Gwil repeated softly.  “I do sometimes wonder…I mean, I know it is our duty, and Lord Brian is nothing but kind.  But I wonder if he….can love me…like Lord Freddie loves you.”

Rami thought on that for a moment.  It was true that Lord Brian kept his emotions much quieter and more restrained than either Lord Freddie or Lord Roger did.  He could see how Gwil, shy despite all his achievements, would worry a bit.  “He does love you, Gwil, I am sure of it,” he said firmly.  “I know he is not clear or obvious, but he is calm about everything, and I have noticed him watching you this past week.  Every time you danced with someone else, he was frowning at them.  Freddie said that Lord Brian was intensely jealous of anyone near you.”

Despite everything, Gwil glanced at Rami, his lips in a smile.  “Freddie?” he inquired.

Rami grinned back.  “Yes.  And you will soon call your lord simply Brian.  He will be your husband, after all.  He does love you, Gwil, I know he does.  He is just more private with his feelings.”

Gwil chewed on his lip for a moment, then nodded.  “Alright,” he said, his voice still uncertain, but sounding a bit more confident. 

Rami was about to say something when they heard Freddie’s cheery voice, calling for Rami, and Gwil smiled. “Your husband is calling. Good luck.”  Rami gave him a grin in response and hurried away to rejoin his spouse.

Freddie smiled as Rami came to his side.  “Is everything alright, my dear?” he asked, looking at Gwil.  “Gwilym seems very serious.”

“He is fine,” Rami assured him, taking Freddie’s arm.  “But I may ask you to interfere with something.”  Freddie’s eyes lit up with glee.

“I would be delighted!  Who do I get to pester?”

“Lord Brian.  He needs to pay some attention to his fiancé.”

“Romantic attention?”  Freddie smiled at Rami’s raised eyebrow.  “Darling, we are thinking exactly the same.  I told Brian just yesterday that he was a fool to not be clear with Gwilym about his love.  Come, we can plot how to get Brian to admit his feelings while we express some of our feelings.”  Rami blushed, but nodded.

Gwilym watched Rami and Lord Freddie leave, and smiled at the newlyweds.  Ben had gone to weapons training and Joe was headed to the library, so he decided to go up onto the battlements, one of his favorite places.  Up there he could see for miles and he often went up to relax and read.  More than once, Sir James had had to march up the stairs at his mansion and holler at Gwil to come down and eat something when the young man became so engrossed in a book that he forget mealtimes.  It was a beautiful day and he got soon lost in thoughts, watching the flocks of small birds flying around, trying to steal food which had fallen on the ground during the festivities.

Suddenly he heard the sound of soft steps, and soon, to his surprise, Lord John appeared by his side, pale, and breathing heavily from climbing up the stairs.  Gwil opened his mouth to say something, but John just sighed.

“If you dare to tell me how exactly I look and suggest I should rest, I’ll throw you down these stairs, Gwilym.”  His face was set in a very determined expression.

“I wouldn’t dream to say anything, my Lord Mage,” Gwil demurred.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Lord John mumbled and leaned against the cold wall, looking far away over the landscape. He sighed again, and seemed to relax.  “It is nice up here,” he said.  “I didn’t know that you escaped up here as well.”

Gwil smiled.  “I always have, even when I was young.  It’s peaceful, and quiet.”  Lord John hummed in agreement, his eyes closing for a moment, and stretching his shoulders.

“You must be relieved,” Gwil remarked, “with our parents away there’s no need to shield Joe anymore, you can rest.”

“There’s never enough protection for Joe,” John sighed and rubbed at his temples.  “He is growing stronger, and it’s harder and harder for me to hide him.”

“Hide him?”

Lord John nodded.  “I have shielded Joseph basically since he was born, trying to mask that he is a magic user.  Every time time a mage uses their power, there is a chance that another mage can sense it.  So, I have tried to cast a shield around Joseph, to hide any magic he uses.”

Gwil frowned, thinking on that for a moment.  “Does that not put you at greater risk, my lord?”

“Perhaps,” John admitted.  “But it is important for Joseph to be safe.”  Gwil considered that carefully.

“Does Joe know that you shield him?” he asked quietly.  “He would not like that at all.”  Gwil had learned that his youngest brother was not to be ignored or underestimated. Joe was physically weak, but fiercely stubborn and determined.  He had flatly ignored doctors on numerous occasions and had always gotten his way.

John sighed. “He knows that The Dark wants us,” he said. “And yes, he knows that I shield him, thought he may not know to what extent.  His powers are… erratic.  It is the same for all mages; when healthy, our powers are usually manageable and under our control.  But when ill, we are not really in control of what we see or can or cannot do.  Because Joseph is still recovering from his latest injury, he has not been able to shield himself effectively, thus why I covered him this past week.”

“With our parents gone, you should be able to rest, my lord mage,” Gwil said hopefully.  “We will keep both of you safe.”

Lord John managed to smile weakly before his eyes fluttered shut and he swayed forward without warning. Gwilym darted to him and only barely managed to catch the Lord.

“My Lord Mage! Are you alright?”  John just blinked a little, his eyes unfocused. “What, my lord?  Do you hear me?”  John went limp, and Gwil carefully lowered him down to the ground before yelling for help.

*****

*****

“Damn all the stubborn mages!”  Freddie muttered as he ran down the corridor, Rami close behind him.  They had just returned to their chambers when a page had arrived with the urgent news that Lord John had taken ill.  Rami was just glad that they were still dressed; it had been rather close.

They entered Lord John’s chamber, and found it crowded with all the doctors, Brian, Roger, Gwilym, Ben, Joe, Fada, and Hadar.  Freddie didn’t hesitate to use elbows to get to the bed, which seemed almost too big for the fragile, unconscious man in it. Joe was sitting beside his lord, holding his hand as the doctors worked, and quickly got up to make some space, but Freddie waved his hand.

“How is he?” he asked anxiously.

Roger couldn’t hide his exasperation as he shook his head. “He fainted, again.  It could’ve been much uglier without Gwilym there to catch him. It happened on the battlement.”

Rami shuddered, trying not to imagine a broken body of the youngest Lord down in the moat, and threw a short glance towards Gwil, who seemed visibly shaken, but in the patient care and firm embrace of Lord Brian.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, he was glad to see the lord holding his fiancé.

“He needs quiet and a good rest,” one of the doctors said sternly, looking over the lords with a clear message.

Freddie nodded in agreement. “Brian, Roger, please take Gwilym and Benjamin; enjoy yourselves for a few hours.  We shall take turns sitting with John and Joseph.  Rami and I will stay for now.”  Both lords took their betrothed and quietly left.  The doctors left medicine that Freddie seemed familiar with administering, and soon it was just the newlywed couple and the dogs with Joe.  Freddie sat on the bed beside his youngest brother and laid a cool washcloth on the sweaty brow.  “He will be alright, my dear,” Freddie said to Joe, squeezing his hand.

“Yes, my lord,” Joe said sadly.  “But he is so weak.  He was shielding me.”

Lord Freddie glanced at Joe sharply, and then nodded.  “He was,” he said honestly.  “There was much that he did not want you to hear.”   

“He shouldn’t have done that, though,” Joe argued. “I perhaps couldn’t hear their thoughts, but I could still see it in their eyes, which made the silence even more terrifying. And I’m stronger than he thinks,” he said suddenly.

Rami sighed. “Perhaps, Joe, but you’re still recovering and-”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Joe stopped him, his face serious, “I know this,” he gestured vaguely all over his body and pointed to his crutches in the corner, “this is a wreck, but inside ... inside, I feel... my powers are growing. So much... I feel it... so much, so quickly it scares me.  I don’t even know exactly what I can do.”

Rami looked worriedly at Lord Freddie, and pulled his brother into a tight hug.  “Have you spoken to Lord John about it?” he asked quietly.

Joe shook his head. “No.  I was trying to hide some of it, actually.”

“Why?”

“Because I need needed to figure out myself first, without anyone’s interference. I had to find some order, some sense, some... control. And all the restraints he’s putting on me, it just creates a whole lot of mess, together with The Dark. There’s no going back, not from this, I need to see. I don’t want to, but I need to.”  Joe looked at Lord Freddie, his eyes wet with near tears.  “My lord, I ask you to speak to Lord John.  Remind him that I also am a mage who swore an allegiance to Queen and its future king.  It will do no good to try and keep me caged now.”

Freddie smiled sadly.  “I once told Rami that he had to be ready one day to let his mage be the mage he was born to be.  It seems I must also tell John.”

Joe nodded, looking at his lord.  “I and my powers are at your service, my king, and when the need arises, you must use all the weapons and advantages at your disposal. I know I must be careful, but I have to train my mind and powers just as you train in the field with weapons.  Lord John cannot protect me forever.  He must let me…fly, like a bird.”

Rami kissed the top of his brother’s head.  “We will speak to him,” he said, seeing Freddie’s nod of agreement.  “I know you are meant to soar, my eagle.”  Joe smiled a little at the endearment, nodding.

There was a small dried flower on the nightstand, leftover from one of the celebrations.  Joe picked it up and covered it with his hands, closing his eyes.  A moment later he opened his hands to reveal a fresh flower, looking as alive and fragrant as if it was still on its bush.  Rami caught his breath, looking at Freddie who had stiffened a little, his eyes sharp.  It was the first time they had seen Joe physically work magic.  Joe smiled a little sadly, putting the flower on Lord John’s pillow, and they all watched as the older mage turned his head a fraction in the direction of the blossom.

“It is his favorite flower,” Joe explained softly.  “He loves the scent.”  He looked at the men.  “I am stronger than he thinks,” he repeated, his message clear.

Freddie reached out and clasped Joe’s shoulder gently.  “I shall speak to him, my young lord mage,” he promised.

“There is something else you should know, my lord,” Joe added, biting his lip a little in worry.  “And you, Rami.  I think I know why Lord John collapsed; something has happened in Rhye. I felt some of it; it was like a clap of thunder.  I cannot tell what it was, but it has something to do with The Dark.”

Rami looked at Lord Freddie in alarm, and Freddie nodded gravely.  “I will send extra troops,” he said.  “We shall say they are there for training.  We must be on alert.”

Lord John slept through the remainder of the day and into the next morning, finally awakening.  At Freddie’s order, Rami took Joe for a walk while Freddie spoke to John.  The older mage was clearly cross when they returned, Joe carrying bunches of Lord John’s favorite flower as a peace offering, but Joe set his chin in a familiar stubborn manner and looked pleased when Freddie ordered the older mage to train Joe. 

“I cannot tell exactly what happened,” Lord John admitted about his vision the day before.  “I agree it is The Dark, and something in Rhye.  I do not sense immediately danger to anyone here, but still, we must watch carefully for news.”  He looked at Joe, and sighed a little.  “And yes, my young mage spouse, I will show you not just how to shield, but to summon visions as well.”  He laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder, and the younger mage nodded solemnly.

Four days later, Rami and Freddie were out for a ride when an aide rode up quickly, saying that there was an urgent messenger from Rhye that had just arrived.  They hurried back, and found the man pacing nervously in the hall, the other lords already gathered.

“Lord Mercury,” the man bowed to Freddie. “I bring grave news from the Kingdom of Rhye.  I’m sorry to announce that His Majesty King Harold passed away five days ago, together with his oldest son Prince Philip.”

Freddie managed to keep a calm face, though Rami wasn’t so lucky. His breath hitched at the news.

“What happened?” Freddie asked.  “How is that possible?”

“It was a horrible accident, my lord,” the messenger explained. “The family had mushrooms for dinner and some of them weren’t of the good kind. The doctors gave them emetics and purgatives, but no matter; they passed within a few hours. Thankfully, Her Majesty Queen Eleanor has recovered and their daughter was visiting family – she is now the new Queen Helen, with Dowager Queen Eleanor as regent.

“Thank you for the news,” Freddie turned to the messenger. “Go to the kitchens and tell them I sent you. There’s still a lot to eat from the wedding, after the journey you deserve a refreshment. Our stable boys will look after your horse.”

The rider bowed. “Thank you, my lord.”

When he left, Freddie turned to his brothers immediately, his face pale.  “John?” he asked simply when they were alone.  Lord John closed his eyes and shook his head.

“It was not an accident,” he said tightly.

Rami swallowed. He realized clearer than ever what would have to happen for him to sit on the throne of Rhye. And more than ever, he didn’t like the prospect one bit.  “Helen is only fifteen years old,” he murmured worriedly. 

“We will send extra guards to the capital,” Freddie promised, taking Rami’s hand.  “We will do all possible to protect her.”

That night, Rami laid in Freddie’s arms in their bed, his mind in turmoil.  “King Harold was an only child,” Rami said softly.  “After Helen, the next heir is my father’s oldest cousin, who has one son.  Then another cousin, who is childless.  And then my father.”

“You are now fifth in line,” Freddie said quietly, pressing a kiss to Rami’s forehead.  “Normally not so close, but—”

“But I know what Lord John and Joe have seen,” Rami finished.  He clung to Freddie tighter.  “Ordinarily I would say Queen Helen will have children, and my father’s cousins will have more children, but that won’t happen, will it?”

Freddie hugged him and sighed.  “I do not think so,” he said frankly.  “I am sorry, my love.”

Rami turned his head so he could nuzzle into Freddie’s neck.  “Is there nothing we can do?  Send more guards?”

There was a sigh.  “We can, and will,” he promised.  “But if it’s meant to be, then nothing we do will stop it.”  Freddie’s strong fingers threaded through Rami’s hair.  “It was one of the hardest things we all had to learn,” he admitted softly.  “John was only four when he began to see things.  We all thought at first that if it was something bad, that we could of course change it; isn’t that why he was seeing things?  So we could change them?”  Freddie shook his head.  “It was a very hard lesson for all of us to learn.”

“Not everything they see comes true,” Rami tried to argue, lifting his head to look at his husband.  “When we admitted that Joe was a mage, it was after Lord John contacted him that summer to let him know there was possible danger to us at Sir James’s home.  You rode to the bandits, and stopped it; we were safe.”

Freddie slowly shook his head, his dark eyes solemn.  “John saw what we had to do to stop it – there is a difference, my love.  Sometimes yes, our mages may see a possible future, and we know what to do to prevent it.  But all their visions about The Dark  - and about our taking the thrones - have been firm that it will happen.”

Rami frowned, understanding, but still not liking it.  “It must be so difficult for them,” he murmured.  “Seeing things, and often knowing there is nothing to be done about it.”

“It is indeed,” Freddie said.  “John tried so hard to not see things for a time; he was afraid, and it tore his heart when he saw something he could not change.  It still does,” he added quietly.  Rami kissed his husband.

“We will help them,” he said determinedly. 

Freddie nodded, and pulled his husband close.  “We will do this,” he promised.

Chapter Text

10 months later….

Gwil stood steady, smiling shyly as Lord Brian slipped the heavy white gold ring on his finger.  He returned the action, putting a ring of yellow gold on Brian’s finger and then they brushed their lips together as the crowd behind them cheered.  He stepped back, blushing as Lord Brian lifted his hand to kiss it, and then they turned to face the guests.

“Breathe,” Rami had advised his brother as he helped him get ready that morning.  “Just keep breathing.”  Gwil was so nervous that Rami and Ben had had to readjust his coronet twice already and Joe was frowning as he tried to get the Lee family signet ring on Gwil’s shaking right hand.

“What if I forget what to say?” Gwil fretted.

“Just repeat what the officiant says,” Ben said.  “It’s okay, try not to worry.”

“What if I trip?”

Joe gave a huff of triumph as he got the ring on Gwil’s right hand.  “You won’t,” he said confidently.  “Trust me, I know; everything is going to be fine.”

“It is?” Blue eyes looked at Joe worriedly.

“Yes,” Joe said firmly, in the tone that his brothers knew he had seen something.  “It is going to be a perfect ceremony.”  Rami nodded in agreement.

“Of course it will be.  Sit for a minute and drink some water before you faint.”  Gwil did as told, gulping down a glass of water that Ben held out for him.

Now, Gwil smiled at Lord Brian as they walked down the aisle to lead their guests to the banquet hall.  They had indeed gotten through the ceremony without a single problem, and Gwil felt almost giddy in relief.  He could see Lord Brian had a similar relieved expression on his face, and they grinned at each other.  “You did well,” Lord Brian whispered as they made their way to the dais, squeezing his hand.

Gwil smiled back.  “So did you, my lord,” he said quietly, and the lord kissed his hand to the further cheers of the crowd.

After the meal, there was a long line of guests offering congratulations, and Gwil felt more confident and at ease by his lord’s side now that the ceremony was over, welcoming people.  He glanced down at the blue-green stone in his white gold wedding ring, echoing the teal and white colors of House May, and smiled.  Rami and Lord Freddie had given him a necklace of orange and teal stones, intertwining the colors of his house with Lord May’s, and Ben and Lord Roger had continued their tradition of an elaborate scabbard and sword in joint colors of both houses.  Joe and Lord John had also continued tradition with a beautiful broach that Joe had whispered held protection spells.  Rami was seldom without the pin that he had been gifted on his wedding day, and Giwl knew that he would do the same and wear his constantly.

The first round of entertainment concluded and musicians began tuning for the dancing.  Gwil gulped a little nervously, but felt better when Lord Brian leaned in to whisper to him.  “I am scared to death,” the lord confided.  Gwil found himself smiling, glad that he was not the only one nervous.

“Well then, we shall have to help each other.  Just make mistakes at the same time,” he whispered back, and Brian chuckled.

“Now that, I think I can do.  Ready to try this?”

Gwil took a nervous breath.  “Yes.” He accepted Brian’s hand and they went to the center of the dance floor.  Both of them snorted when they saw Freddie crossing his fingers, and it made them laugh a little and relax.

Gwil felt a little dizzy as they danced, but it was with excitement.  Over the past months, Lord Brian had paid court to him in an extravagant manner (for the lord) that had made it clear that Gwil had his love and affection.  He sent even more presents than he had before, wrote every day they were apart, and made a point of spending time alone with Gwil during his more frequent visits. It had been a relief to the young lord to know that while there was duty, it was a welcomed one by both of them.

“I am not always good at…expressing…my feelings,” Lord Brian had apologized nervously one night.  He was visiting Sir James’s home, and Ben and Joe had made themselves conspicuously absent for the evening meal so Gwil could spend time with his lord.  “I realize now that I have not been as open and clear as you deserve, Gwilym.  I do look forward to our wedding very much, and I hope you can forgive me if there have ever been any doubts.”

Gwil smiled, a little shy, but pleased.  “I am happy, my lord.  I know we will make a good team.”

“Yes, but more importantly, we shall be good husbands,” Brian said firmly.  He took Gwil’s hand and kissed it, and Gwil nearly melted.  He wrote an ecstatic letter to Rami the next day, and quickly received a simple reply of six words: I told you he loved you.

Gwil saw his parents with the other Rhye families as he and Lord Brian led the opening dance, and smiled, relieved that all had gone well during the week.  There had been no hint of hurt feelings on either side, but Gwil was still cautious, and knew Rami and Ben felt the same.  Only Joe seemed calm, saying that while he could not see anything specific, he thought that there would not a repeat of the parents trying to insist on their sons returning.  Gwil decided he needed to listen to his youngest brother more often.

He saw Joe smirk broadly from where he was sitting between Lord John and Ben, and Gwil glared at his brother.  Stop reading my mind, he sent.  Joe just smiled even more, and Gwil nearly lost a step in the dance as he knew his brother had heard him.

Joe’s power had grown in the past months, as if shackles were freed from him.  Gwil knew that Joe would never think of Lord John as any kind of ‘shackle’, but still, it was an apt description.  For the first time, Joe felt comfortable performing small acts of physical magic, and Gwil and Ben were always fascinated.  Joe had started slow with ‘simple’ things such as changing colors of flowers or fabric, and now he could change items entirely.  It wasn’t always a good thing.

**

“You did what?”  Gwil had Ben and Joe lined up in front of him, Lord John, Lord Roger, and Sir James.  Both younger teens looked innocent as could be, but Gwil had caught them in the act of making clandestine purchases at a market they had snuck away to.

“I was just practicing,” Joe protested at the exact same time Ben said: “He was just practicing.”  It was a far too rehearsed sounding excuse.

“Practicing turning pebbles into semi-precious stones?” Lord John said, eyebrow raised.

“And turning cheap coins into gold?” Sir James added, counting again the coins and gems that the youngest two had been caught with.  It was an impressive amount.

“Ummm…” Joe and Ben exchanged glances.  “Yes?” Joe finally ventured.

Ben cleared his throat.  “It’s a good and useful thing,” he argued.  “What if we need money for supplies and equipment?  Or if a bank is damaged and we cannot get coin immediately?”

“Yes, well, thank you for thinking of our budgets,” Lord Roger said dryly, glaring at them.  “But if I am not mistaken, it takes a toll on young Joseph to use his magic, and it should be saved for only emergencies and not for purchasing--“ he looked again at the shopping list the boys had had in their possession when Gwil tracked them down.  “Wine from Fuentes, tobacco, pipes, and beer?”

Gwil groaned, running his hands over his face.  “Well at least now we know where their endless supply of pocket money comes from,” he muttered.  They had always been given a generous allowance by Sir James and their lords, but it did seem that in recent months that Joe and Ben had been quite well off financially.

**

“What are you thinking about?” Lord Brian asked, an amused look on his face.  Gwil smiled, apologetic at being caught in a memory when he should have been concentrating on his lord.

“Just wondering what mischief Joe and Ben have gotten up to lately,” he admitted.  “Sir James was lamenting last week that he does not know how he will survive being alone with those two.”  After the money reveal, Joe had been made to swear that he would never use his powers for ill-gotten monetary profit again, and both he and Ben had to write several essays on the meaning of theft, economics, and abuses of powers.  And about the adverse health effects of excessive drink and tobacco. 

Lord Brian chuckled.  “He said the same when he had just Roger and John at home.  Miami will survive somehow.”  He leaned forward a bit.  “I am very glad to now have you to myself,” he admitted.  Gwil smiled at his new husband.

“And I am pleased to be with you, my lord,” he said.  He decided to let Sir James manage on his own, and firmly concentrated on his husband.

After a few opening dances, Gwil claimed his mother for a dance while Lord Brian began partnering assorted guests.  They were kept busy for a time, but it seemed that Lord Freddie and Rami had made some arrangements and they had enough breaks where they could sit and be together again.  Both had wanted their wedding to be as small and quiet as possible, and it was a much more relaxed setting than Freddie and Rami’s ceremony.

Gwil smiled at the many toasts that were made, laughing at Ben and Lord Roger’s good-natured jokes as they teased the new couple, and enjoyed himself thoroughly.  It seemed that most of his nerves had been focused on the ceremony and now that it was over, he felt more relaxed.  And he was shyly looking forward to the evening.

He had decided long ago to honor his future spouse, although like Rami, he had been given tacit permission to ‘be a young person’ as Lord Brian had nervously stammered.  It had actually taken Gwil a moment to realize what the lord meant, and then he had turned bright red…at least it matched Lord Brian’s face so he didn’t feel too terribly embarrassed.  Rami had kept his promise, and the brothers had had several long talks, and Gwil was a bit anxious to put some of his knowledge to the test.  Provided that Lord Brian was on board with the notion.

Gwil knew that his lord loved him, but also knew that Lord Brian was rather the opposite of the very social Lords Freddie and Roger.  Lord Brian was sweetly romantic and it was wonderful, but there was a formality to his manner that had Gwil very curious about the evening ahead.  But then, of, course, Gwil wasn’t sure what he was ready for.

He tore himself away from those thoughts, and focused on the next round of performers.

“Roger has arranged for fire dancers,” Lord Brian said suddenly.

Ahh, this was a clue that Rami had mentioned.  “They will no doubt have everyone’s attention,” Gwil commented, trying to keep his voice casual.

“Yes, exactly.”  Lord Brian laid a hand over Gwil’s.  “Shall we—er—“

“Yes, please,” Gwil said, and Lord Brian nodded, looking relieved.  When the fire dancers made their dramatic entrance, the couple waited for only a minute, and then slipped away.

They made their way up a hidden staircase and emerged into Lord Brian’s room.  The minute they entered, Lord Brian seemed to relax and Gwil became nervous again, making him mentally curse his luck.  By unspoken agreement, they both quickly removed their cornets, swords, and jewelry, making themselves comfortable.  Lord Brian then gestured to comfortable chairs by the fireplace and they settled.

He knew there was nothing to be afraid of, and he had a pretty good idea of what to do, but still it was nerve wracking.  Gwil was honest enough to admit that one of his biggest flaws was his insecurity about looking foolish at anything, and everything past some initial kissing was going to be new for him.  He had no idea, frankly, if he would be any good.

“What are you thinking, my sweet?” Lord Brian asked, and Gwil smiled at the endearment despite his nerves.

“I am…nervous,” he admitted.  “Not about you, my lord.  But I really don’t know…er…what to do.  I mean, I know what happens, but, um…” he broke off, thoroughly embarrassed.

To his relief, Lord Brian smiled kindly and put a large hand over Gwil’s.  “My dear, it is perfectly normal,” he assured him.  “My first time, well…let’s just say that I…er…well, I nearly fainted,” he admitted with a blush.  “Um….after, I mean.”

“What?” Despite himself, Gwil had to smile at the image.  He knew Lord Brian was actually shyer than he projected to most people, but still he usually had a quiet strength that had always impressed Gwil.

The lord chucked.  “Yes, indeed.  Let’s just say that….well, I have never quite lived it down.”

“You told your brothers,” Gwil guessed, and Lord Brian took a large sip from a glass of wine that had been waiting on the tables.

“Um, yes,” he said, clearing his throat.  He took another strong sip, and shook his head a little, apparently lost in some memory.  “Well, it was not my proudest moment, but nevertheless, I remember it…overall…very fondly.”

Gwil could believe that.  “Were you…in love?” he asked tentatively.  “I do not mean to pry, my lord,” he added quickly.  He knew that of course the lord had had lovers before, and just worried how he would compare.

“No, my dear, it is a perfectly reasonable question for you to ask.  The answer is yes, I was in love, very much.”  Brian looked at Gwil, and squeezed his hand.  “But I am in love with you even more so, I assure you, Gwilym.  I am very happy to be here with you now.”

“I am happy as well,” Gwil said softly.  “I am very proud to be your husband, my lord.  I only hope that I prove worthy of you.”

Lord Brian put down his wine, and took both of Gwil’s hands in his, gently rubbing his fingers.  “It is I who hope to prove worthy of you, my love,” he said gently.  “You are exquisite, dear Gwilym.  I want you to be happy in our marriage.  I have been looking forward to our wedding very much.”

“As have I, my lord,” Gwil blushed.

“Brian.”  The lord smiled.  “You should call me Brian, my dear Gwilym.”

Gwil nodded, ridiculously pleased.  “Brian,” he agreed.  He looked at the bed a little nervously, and the lord caught his gaze.

“Did you have time to study the last book I sent you; on the newly discovered planets?” he asked.  Gwil raised an eyebrow at the question, but nodded eagerly.

“It was amazing,” he said.  “I read it twice actually,” he admitted with a smile.

“As did I,’ Brian agreed.  He stood, still holding Gwil’s hands, and gently pulled him up.  “Come, I have something to show you,” he said, leading Gwil back to the door in the wall that they had entered the room through.  Gwil was curious, and followed obediently as they went up a tiny winding staircase and finally emerged on the top of the mansion.  There was a small flat area on the roof, surrounded by steeples so it was hidden from view from the ground.  To Gwil’s delight, a new telescope was set up, protected by a heavy tarp, and notebooks kept in a small chest.  There were even blankets and a few cushions obviously used to create a comfortable spot for viewing even in cold weather.

“My private observatory,” Brian admitted a bit sheepishly.  “I come up here when I need to get away.  I want you to use it as well now.”

“It’s lovely,” Gwil said, admiring the telescope.  “Thank you.”  Brian smiled, and soon they were sitting on the ground, wrapped in blankets and taking turns viewing the skies.  It was comfortable and relaxing, and Gwil found himself leaning against his husband, both smiling and enjoying the closeness.  When Brian leaned over to point at a star, Gwil looked up at him, and their lips brushed together.

They both pulled back an inch, and then leaned back in without further hesitation.  Gwil let his hands move up, and take hold of his husband shoulders, trying to hold him in place.  Brian just chuckled a little behind the kiss, and returned the gesture.  After a moment, Brian laid down, pulling Gwil on top of him, and Gwil went eagerly.

They simply kissed for a long time, Gwil relaxing as it became apparent that his new husband had no complaints about his kissing, and he gained some confidence. By unspoken agreement, they rolled to their sides and slowly began working off their jackets and shirts.  It was a cool spring evening, but neither had any complaints and Gwil was eager to see his husband.

It seemed that Lord Brian felt the same, and Gwil shivered a little as his shirt was removed, and Brian quickly covered his spouse with his body, pulling one of the blankets up over them.  “Are you cold?” he murmured between kisses, considerate of Gwil’s sensibilities.

“No, not cold,” Gwil assured him, shivering for a very different reason.

“Ah.” Brian smiled, and Gwil rolled his eyes a little at the lord’s smugness.  Brian took a deep breath, and with a visible effort finally ceased his kissing, though he still held Gwil tight.  “We should…um…go back to the bedroom,” he whispered reluctantly, clearly willing to call a halt if Gwil needed it.

“Not yet,” Gwil argued.  Even he knew there was something they could do perfectly well in their current location, and he was suddenly not in the mood to wait.  Nervous yes, but willing to wait?  No.  He tentatively ran a hand down his husband’s chest and Brian shuddered at the innocent touch.  It gave Gwil confidence and he continued lower, biting his lip, looking at his husband from under his lashes.  To his relief, Brian quickly mirrored the movement, moving his right hand to match Gwil’s; understanding that Gwil was looking for guidance.

“Together?” Brian whispered and Gwil nodded. He copied everything the lord did to him; loosening belts, pushing past clothing, boots somehow kicked off.  Gwil cared not one bit as his fancy clothing was added to Lord Brian’s as a makeshift bed and he was more than comfortable as blankets were dragged over them.  Before he quite knew it, they were lying on their sides again, and Gwil eagerly followed his husband’s lead in their touches.  He had worried that it might be awkward – that he might be awkward – but the sighs and moans from his husband gave him confidence.

Gwil wasn’t surprised when it took him only a few minutes of touches from Brian’s hand to start to feel his climax coming on, but he was surprised that Lord Brian was matching him.  He felt ridiculously pleased with himself, and it added to the excitement.  Before he quite knew it, he was shuddering, and Lord Brian followed only a moment later.

They laid there for several long minutes, both just catching their breath.  His husband finally kissed him, and Gwil smiled at the besotted look in his lord’s eyes.  “Now, we really must go back downstairs,” Brian finally said, his lips twitching a little, and Gwil laughed in agreement as they sat up, both glowing.

It was relaxed and teasing, both of them laughing as they grabbed blankets to wrap around them and tried to gather up clothing.  Brian kept dropping his boots and Gwil tripped over his blanket, making them giggle like children.  “Ah, forget it,” Brain finally muttered and gave up trying to clean up and tossed all his clothing back on the ground.  “We can get it in the morning,” he declared.

“Excellent decision, my lord,” Gwil agreed.  He gave Brian what he hoped was a sultry look and started for the stairs.  It must have been successful because his lord was right behind him, and Gwil just hoped neither of them tripped down the steps.  He was glad that he remembered where to stop and press on the stone wall to make the secret door open, and Brian kissed him for his excellent memory.

Back inside the master bedroom, Gwil went to the large bed and Brian stayed right behind him, almost tackling him down once they were close enough.  Gwil laughed as Brian growled in frustration as now they were tangled in the blankets, and managed to shimmy out of his blanket and then assist his lord, who was looking beyond frustrated.

They kissed again for a long time, relaxing after their giggles and soon the mood turned passionate again.  Gwil admired his husband’s body in the candlelight and moonlight streaming in from the windows and felt only love as Brian studied him in return, his shyness now gone.

“May I make love to you?” Brian asked, his voice deep, and Gwil kissed him again, shy, but ready.

“Please,” he urged.

He relaxed back into the soft covers of the bed, glad that they’d had the sense to return to the bedroom for this, especially when he saw the small flask of oil that Brian retrieved from under a pillow.  Gwil blushed a little, knowing what it was for, but smiled and felt only eagerness as his husband prepared him so carefully with long fingers.  It felt a little odd, but didn’t hurt at all, and he was more than happy to continue kissing until something was brushed deep inside, and he nearly bit Brian’s lip as he hissed, his toes curling.

“Oh gods,” he breathed, making Brian chuckle a little again.  The older man bushed it again, and Gwil nearly came undone.  “Brian,” he warned. 

There was a warm kiss to his forehead, and then Brian pulled him gently down, moving them into what he deemed the best position.  Gwil had no objections as he was guided into his back, pulling his husband to him, wrapping his legs around his waist to hold him close.  “Deep breath,” Brian said, and Gwil nodded, doing as told.  He exhaled, and instinctively tensed as Brian pushed into him.

It hurt; not terribly, but still, it was strange and uncomfortable.  Gwil was glad when Brian stopped after only a tiny bit, and patiently waited, his hands soothing, brushing kisses across his lips and jaw, whispering encouragement.  After a few moments, Gwil nodded, and Brian moved in a fraction more, stopping again quickly at Gwil’s renewed shaking. 

“There is no rush, my love,” Brian said, and Gwil noted that his voice was somehow amazingly steady.  “Here, let me—” and he pulled out despite Gwil’s slight whine of protest.  “No, no, it is alright,” Brian assured him.  He kissed his husband and ran comforting hands down his arms.

“I’m sorry,” Gwil gasped, not knowing what else to say.  There was only a firm kiss to his lips, chasing away his words.

“There is nothing to be sorry about,” Brian said firmly.  “Just relax for a minute.”  He kissed Gwil, smiling.  “Remember, I about fainted,” he teased, and Gwil had to smile again.  “I can hardly judge anything.”

Gwil nodded, taking a deep breath.  After a few minutes, he nodded and Brian linked their hands and rolled them over, guiding Gwil on top of him.  “This might be easier,” he whispered.  “You control the pace.”  Gwil bit his lip but nodded in understanding.

It was easier; still a bit awkward, but definitely easier. This time, Gwil felt better for at least being more in control and Brian just kissed him, letting him set the pace.  The lord had infinite patience, and finally Gwil was resting on top, Brian fully inside him.  Still, Brian somehow continued to wait, just smiling in love, letting Gwil decide when he was ready.

Gwil nodded, and Brian’s large warm hands steadied on Gwil’s hips, guiding him gently.  After a few minutes, the spot was brushed inside and Gwil gasped, eager to feel that again.  Brian chuckled a little and helped him ensure how to touch that area again and again.

After a few minutes, Brian wrapped his arms around Gwil and rolled them over again so Gwil was on the bottom and Brian could do the work.  Gwil sighed in pleasure, relaxing again and letting his lord take over.  He wasn’t entirely passive, quickly learning how to press back and make Brian moan in turn.

It wasn’t long before Gwil felt himself come again, completely lost in pleasure.  Brian was right behind him and then they were both shaking, gasping at the sensations.  Gwil managed to open his eyes and saw Brian looked down at him with love and pride.  “My husband,” he gasped fiercely, kissing Gwil possessively.

“Your husband,” Gwil agreed.

**********

**********

The next morning, Rami gave Gwil a slightly questioning look at breakfast, and Gwil just smiled, making Rami beam in approval.  He whispered something to Freddie, and the lord gave Gwil a wink that made him blush a little.  Fortunately, after that display, everyone conducted themselves reasonably.

There were several more days of entertainment planned, and Gwil and Brian made the social rounds, visiting with guests and enjoying the performers.  Everyone made a point of spending time with Joe and Lord John, watching them carefully.  Fortunately, both secret mages were well, and there were no signs of any tension from any sources.

“It is not official yet, but bets say Queen Helen is soon to be formally engaged,” Rami confided quietly as they ate lunch.  It was a beautiful day, and picnic tables and blankets had been set up on the lawns for guests.

Gwil nodded at the news.  “Her distant cousin, Albert?” he guessed.

“The one and only,” Rami agreed.  He looked down at his plate nervously, and Gwil squeezed his hand.  He knew that Rami lived in fear that something would happen to Helen, who was Ben’s age.  “It’s said her mother will give permission for her to marry as soon as she turns seventeen.”

“Young, but I guess the circumstances warrant it,” Gwil admitted.  They all knew the pressure for Helen to quickly have children to ensure the throne line. 

“I feel like we have four years,” Rami said softly, watching Joe and Ben chat with guests.  “I am not the mage, but something tells me we have until Joe and Lord John marry when Joe turns eighteen, and not much more time than that.”

Gwil considered that for a moment, and then sighed.  “I have to agree,” he said.  “I think we have all assumed that, but just never wanted to say it out loud.”

Rami managed a small smile.  “I am sorry to be so negative the day after your wedding.”

“No, it’s alright,” Gwil said firmly.  “We need to know this, and be ready.”

“I think Ben is more than ready,” Rami sighed, shaking his head a little.  Ben had passed all the tests and trials to be made a full knight at an astounding young age, and would soon be joining Lord Roger for an extended training mission.  Their brother was excited and proud, but worried about leaving Joe behind.

“Everything will be fine,” Joe said firmly at dinner that night when the four brothers had some time together.  Brian was dancing with Lady Lee, and Sami and Freddie were paired for a dance.  “I am going to be perfectly safe; I promise.  I think I will have my usual stupid accidents, but nothing bad.”  The brothers knew it was Joe’s way of saying that he had seen himself spending some time in bed from his illness.

“Lord Brian and I are coming for a long visit,” Gwil reminded him.  It had been quietly arranged that Joe would not be left alone.  Gwil and Rami would take turns staying at Sir James’s estate until Ben returned in the fall.

Joe smiled, a little shy.  “It would be funny to not have someone with me,” he admitted sheepishly.  He knew Ben was looking forward to being more in the field and would be away for longer and longer periods of time.  Joe would still be under Sir James’s guardianship for four more years, mostly staying at his estate or visiting Lord John.  While he loved both men, he was glad he would usually have a brother with him as well.  Joe hadn’t been an only child since he was five, and while he often muttered about being smothered, he did admit that it would also be odd to not have any of his brothers around.

“Awwww,” Ben cooed, ruffling Joe’s hair and making the youngest scowl.  “You just need someone else to be a suspect for pranks against Sir James.  You know it’s pointless; he always suspects you first and foremost.”

“He’s biased,” Joe claimed stubbornly.  “And you are deluded if you think he suspects me first; he always points at you.”

“That is true,” Rami nodded sagely.  “Even when you are gone, he blames you, Ben.  He always has.”

Ben smacked his oldest brother.  “Shut up.”

“Just for that, I am telling the twins you are available for all dances for the rest of the evening,” Rami said, snatching Ben’s dance card and ripping it up as he stalked away.

“What?!”

Gwil snorted in laughter as a few minutes later Ben was hauled off by his now five-year-old persistent suitors.  “We could do the nice thing, and ask Lord Roger to intervene,” he offered mildly, talking a drink of wine.  “Or I could ask Lord Brian to speak to his cousins.”

“Why would we do a thing like that?” Joe asked, stealing a drink of wine from Gwil’s cup before going back to his lemonade and looking innocent when Lord John cast a glance in their direction.

“You are so wise,” Gwil agreed.

Lord Brian reclaimed Gwil for a dance and smiled at his new husband.  “Are you enjoying everything?” he asked.

“I am, thank you,” Gwil said sincerely.  “Though I do admit that I could do without some of the stares.”  He had never liked being the center of attention, and he was honestly looking forward to tomorrow when many of the guests would leave.

“It is just because everyone is jealous that I have the most handsome husband in the world,” Brian said gallantly, making Gwil blush.

“I thought I had that honor,” Gwil demurred, and he was pleased to see a bit of pink tinge Lord Brian’s own cheeks.  His confidence remained as they managed to sneak away early and enjoyed the night together.  They discovered that they had both completely forgotten their wedding finery up in the private observatory, and sheepishly were just grateful it had not rained.

The parents and most of the guests left two days later, and Gwil smiled at Ben.  “You are next,” he remarked.  Ben grinned up at his tall brother.

“And looking forward to it,” he said cheekily.  Gwil groaned and shook his head.

Freddie and Rami had had to move to the capital for several months after their wedding, and Gwil was glad that he and Brian had no such obligation.  He was able to settle into his new home, made welcome by the staff that he had come to know well over the previous nine years of visits.  Lord Brian had a larger observatory building that he had often used, but Gwil came to love the small one above their bedroom, both of them happy to spend hours up there together.

Lord Roger and Ben were to set out on their training mission a month after the wedding, giving the new couple a honeymoon period, and Lord Brian and Gwil went to stay at Sir James’s for a time.  Joe was glad to see them, especially since faithful Hadar had passed away just a week earlier, and he had taken the event hard, as all of them had.  Ben took Gwil aside shortly after he and Lord Brian arrived and had time to unpack their things in Lord Brian’s usual room at the estate.  Gwil reflected that it was odd to not be staying in his old room.

“Gwil,” Ben looked at him seriously.  “I need to ask you something.”

“Of course, what it is?” Gwil was a bit concerned, wondering what could be bothering Ben so much.

“I know you are still on your honeymoon,” Ben said frankly, just smirking a little at Gwil’s blink.  “But I leave tomorrow, and Joe has never once spent a night alone.  And with Hadar gone, it’s going to be even stranger.  I don’t mean to interrupt anything, but do you think Lord Brian would mind if you stayed with Joe?  It doesn’t have to be every night,” he added with a wink.  “But maybe at least the first few nights?”

“I don’t mind at all, and neither will Lord Brian,” Gwil said, understanding.  “I will stay with him for as long as necessary, and write to Rami so he knows.  I think Rami would be glad to be back in his old bedroom sometimes when they visit.  He claims that Lord Freddie snores.”

Ben nodded, relieved.  “I worry about Joe, you know,” he said, still very serious.  “He’s been healthy, but he hasn’t slept well since Hadar died.  I promised Lord John that I wouldn’t let him be alone at night, and I know Joe would prefer it be you or Rami with him rather than a servant when I’m gone.”  Joe had once cut himself badly on the hand when he knocked over a glass of water on his nightstand during a nightmare and Ben had pulled his brother to safety and held a towel to the cut until Fada and Hadar’s barking had summoned help.  He had still been lost in his dream even as the doctors worked to stop the bleeding.  Ever since then, it had been ensured that Joe had not slept without one of his brothers or his governess nearby.

Gwil hugged his brother.  “We all worry about him,” he sighed.  “I promise he won’t be alone.” 

The next morning, Lord Roger and Ben left, and Gwil didn’t miss how Joe stayed smiling and excited for his brother, but then visibly deflated as soon as they were gone.  Lord Brian had fortunately been very understanding when Gwil had spoken to him the night before, and Gwil was grateful for the support.

“We didn’t let John sleep alone in a room until he was at least seventeen.  Maybe eighteen, and only then with a servant within call,” Brian admitted.  “We still insist that he always have a servant nearby; Freddie pays them extra since John is so cross about it at times.  When he was eleven, he sleepwalked out onto a third-floor balcony during a vision and a guard found him balancing on the railing.  Roger honestly tied a rope around John’s ankle for at least the next few weeks – the other end tied to Roger’s bedpost - and we put bells on all the doors and windows we couldn’t lock at night so we would hear them if they were opened.”

Gwil had to smile at the image of the proud young mage tied to a bed.  “And he let you do that?” he asked, surprised that Lord John would have tolerated that dramatic protection.

“He will never admit it, but John dislikes heights,” Brian confided.  “He was honestly shaken when he saw where he had been lying.  I think he was rather relieved that he wouldn’t wander out on the rails again in his sleep.”

“But still,” Gwil marveled.  “Joe would kill me if I tried to put a leash on him.  Although mind you, we have thought about it.”

Brian cleared his throat.  “Yes, well, it didn’t last for long.  Do you remember how Benjamin used to ask if mages could turn people into animals?  And we said to never bring that question up around Roger?”

“Yes?” Gwil raised an eyebrow, intently curious.  It was something the brothers had debated for years.  Joe was irked that he still didn’t know the true answer.

“Still don’t ever bring it up around Roger,” Brian advised.  Gwil narrowed his eyes.

“One day, we will figure out what happened,” he vowed.  His husband sighed.

“That is what I am afraid of,” he admitted.

Joe frowned when Gwil came to stay with him the night Ben left.  “This is embarrassing; I’m fourteen,” he complained.

“And you need someone at least in the suite with you,” Gwil said firmly.  He would sleep back in his old room, the doors opened so he could hear if Joe called out or Fada barked.  “Someone needs to be nearby in case you have an accident.”  Joe scowled, but looked at the scar on his hand and sighed.

“I’m not a baby.” 

“No one thinks that,” Gwil answered.  “But I’ve talked to Lord Brian and Sir James, and here is the decision; ready?”  Joe grumbled but nodded reluctantly.  “Either Rami, Ben, or I stay in the suite, or a servant stays in Lady Catherine’s old room; it can be a male servant,” he added, sensing that Joe would die if anyone suggested that he still needed a governess.  Joe looked ready to protest and Gwil raised an eyebrow. “I think you know perfectly well that Lord John always has a servant nearby, especially at night,” he countered.

“He bribes them to leave him alone sometimes.”

Gwil blinked.  “Lord Freddie pays them extra to watch over him.”

“And Lord John pays them double the extra to try to get them to leave him in peace,” Joe muttered. 

“Really?” Gwil said, rather unimpressed, and making a note to speak to his husband.

“Don’t be mad,” Joe sighed.  “They actually don’t leave him alone; he just thinks that they do.  They are still always watching him.  And they give the money to charity.”

“Um, yes, well,” Gwil smiled.  “Lord John’s attempted bribery aside, do not think we will let you get away with that.”  He sat down beside Joe, who had thrown himself dramatically on his bed, pouting, and ruffled his hair.  “You know why we insist on this, Joe.  You are mature, and smart, and I know you can do things that I can’t even imagine at times.  But when you sleep, or have a vision, you are vulnerable.  You have hurt yourself too many times.”  Only a year earlier, Joe had fallen out of a chair during a vision, badly bruising his left shoulder.

Joe sighed, but nodded.  “I know,” he finally admitted.  “And I know Fada can’t stay with me and get help at the same time, and someone should be nearby in case I do something stupid.  But it’s still embarrassing.”

Gwil smiled, stretching out beside his brother.  “I can understand why you feel that way,” he said gently.  He and Joe had always had a special connection, both of them quiet and serious by nature.  Rami was a natural leader, and Ben happily plunged into anything head first, while the other two brothers preferred staying in the background.  “But no one thinks less of you, Joe.”

Light eyes looked at Gwil.  “Some do,” he said quietly.

“What?” Now it was Gwil’s turn to frown, wondering what Joe had heard or seen.

Joe grimaced, but reluctantly spoke.  “At Rami’s wedding, and then your wedding, some of the guests were thinking that I am so weak.  And I know I am physically, but still, they also thought I was feeble minded as well.  And there were a couple who thought—“ he broke off, trying to chew his lip, a nervous habit he had never been able to break.

Gwil automatically tapped Joe’s chin to remind him to not bite his lip.  “A couple who thought what?” he said, his eyes narrowed.

The youngest brother hesitated and then finally sighed.  “Don’t be mad,” he said worriedly.  “But some were thinking that maybe I won’t…live…to marry Lord John.  And some said it was good that I was betrothed to Lord John before I was even born, since no one else would want their child to marry me.”

“What?!”  Gwil was the most even-tempered of the brothers, usually slow to anger, but he was ready to demand names and rain down havoc.  He didn’t even want to imagine what Ben would have done if he had known. 

“You heard me,” Joe said dejectedly.  “I can’t really blame them, Gwil.  I am sick, and there is no point in trying to deny it.”

“But to say…” Gwil could not bring himself to repeat those hateful thoughts.  “Joe, look at me, please.” He held his brother’s shoulders.  “You know there are hateful people in the world, but you can’t let yourself listen to them.  How many more people think you are perfect the way you are, and love you?”

Joe smiled a little.  “More people than those who thought I’m weak,” he admitted.

“Exactly,” Gwil nodded.  “People will think what they want, unfortunately.  All you can do is prove them wrong.”  He smiled, rubbing Joe’s back.  “Who is the toughest mage in the world?” he teased.

The smile on Joe’s face grew a little.  “Me,” he said.  He rolled his eyes.  “Now if I didn’t still have governesses, and dog nannies, and annoying big brothers, and a nervous guardian, and doctors hovering around me, I might actually believe it.”

“I believe it,” Gwil said firmly.  “You are strong, Joe, and people who know you understand how strong you are.  I’m sorry that you have to put up with people who don’t know or understand.”

Joe looked up at his brother, his eyes narrowed a little.  “One day, they will know,” he vowed.

**********

**********

Ben had always enjoyed the outdoors, but the training he was undergoing now was the toughest he had ever faced.  Weeks without end camping in fields and forests, hiking through mountain passes.  Surviving only off the land, full wilderness training.  Never more than a foot away from his horse and his weapons, constantly on alert for exercises and mock attacks.

He loved it.

He’d always known that he would have to work harder to prove himself to his fellow soldiers; to show that he deserved his rank due to his worth, and not lucky birth and wealth.  Ben didn’t mind, he just wanted a fair trial, and felt he was getting one.

The unit he was assigned to put him through his paces, and Ben understood entirely.  Lord Roger had warned him that there would be no privilege granted, and Ben had been irritated at the mere suggestion, leading to a rare argument between him and his lord.  By the time they met up with the camp, Ben had been glad to grab his pack and storm off to join his group and Lord Roger had muttered good riddance.   Fortunately, they both got over their snits quickly and when they met up again a week later, both were covered in mud, exhausted, and cheerful.

Ben was proving to be a natural scout, and was quickly sent out with Lord Roger’s top scouts, learning all that he could from them.  Aside from a good fight, he liked nothing better than crawling through the bushes, climbing trees, and looking for signs and information.  He worked hard with the drills and practices, and after a few months he had the honest admiration and respect of his unit.

Of course, having a knack for finding isolated taverns didn’t hurt.

Messages and letters arrived sporadically, but enough that Ben was kept abreast of things at home.  Rami and Gwil were taking turns keeping Joe company, who – as he had predicted – was going through a period of illness.  He was good natured about it as usual, writing Ben that he had taken over their bedroom and since Ben was so happy in the field, he could move into the barns when he returned.

‘I am going to drag you into the barn, and leave you there,’ Ben wrote back.  ‘If you touch any of my things, I will kill you.’

‘You should have thought of that before you left your dirty books under the bed.’ Joe wrote back.  ‘Sir James wants to have a long talk with you when you get back.’

Lord Roger understood that Ben needed to make his own mark in the military, and let Ben have his freedom.  Thus, Ben knew it had to be something serious when he returned from a scouting mission and had an urgent message to go to headquarters and see Lord Roger.  He didn’t even bother to change clothes and headed straight for Lord Roger’s tent, quickly granted access by the private guards that he had known for years.

“Lord Benjamin, my lord,” a guard announced Ben as he arrived.

“Thank you, Carole,” Lord Roger said.  He managed a smile for Ben as the younger lord entered the tent, and waited only for the flap to be closed and they had privacy.  “Your brothers are well,” Roger said immediately, knowing it would be Ben’s first concern.

Ben sighed in relief.  “And your brothers?” he asked just as quickly.

“Well,” Lord Roger assured him.  “But we have had word from Rhye; Queen Helen was injured in a riding accident; thrown into a fence when her horse startled at something. Doctors say she will recover, but—” the lord sighed, running his hands through his long blond hair.  “It is doubtful if she will be able to have children.”

Ben blinked at the news.  “She is only sixteen,” he objected, not knowing what else to say.

“They had to perform surgery because of internal injuries,” Roger explained gently.  “She is expected to recover, but again, it is doubtful now that she can ever conceive.  Freddie says that rumors are that the Rhye council wants her to step aside, and let the next in line – her cousins - take the throne.”

Ben drew in a sharp breath.  “The Malek line; Rami’s family,” he said.  Roger sighed and nodded.

“There are three cousins, and then Rami’s father, making Rami fourth in line if Helen does indeed abdicate and the crown goes to the first cousin in line.  There are those who wish her to wait and hope the doctors are proved wrong.  Her fiancé is said to still want to marry her regardless.”

Ben thought that over.  “Ordinarily I would say most would agree with her marrying and hoping for the best,” he said.  “The Rhye throne has always gone from parent to child directly for a thousand years.  The side branches such as Rami’s family are almost ignored since no one expects them to ever inherit.”

“But these are not ordinary times,” Roger said quietly.  He gestured for Ben to sit and poured him a small cup of watered wine that Ben accepted with a nod of thanks.

“The Dark?” he asked quietly.  “Are they responsible for this accident?”

Roger shrugged.  “I have not heard directly from John – or Joe – but I would think so.  It is unusual that anyone would say that she should abdicate; there is something going on.”

Ben shook his head.  “We know so little about The Dark,” he said worriedly.  Even years of scouting and being on alert with now two powerful mages had still yielded few firm clues.

**

“They have mages,” John explained, running his hands over his face, exhaustion clear.  “This evil is using them to mask their identifies and their location.  I can sometimes sense the magic being used, but not where it originates from.  All I can sense is ‘north’, and I know that does not help much.”

“It is better than nothing,” Roger assured him, looking over maps spread across the table in his command tent.

“But—”

Roger glared at his teenage brother.  “John, no one expects you to know everything.  We have to do this one step at a time, and we have years to plan, thanks to you.”  

“You are the reason we are even here,” Brian added, handing John a glass of water.

“Yes, here,” John muttered, looking down at the ground.  “About to walk into the tent and demand the harshest terms ever in the peace treaty.”  Rhye had been defeated, and it was time for the final term of the treaty to be announced.  Today, four families would learn that they had to turn over their children.  

“You should stay here,” Freddie decided as he put on his cloak, preparing to meet with the Rhye diplomats.  “There is no sense in you putting yourself in front of them.”  

John shook his head.  “No, Freddie.  I am the one who is telling you that we must insist on this.  The least I can do is be there.  I will feel their shock and anger no matter if I am present or not.”  

Brian frowned, automatically putting a hand on John’s forehead.  “You are still feverish,” he pointed out.  “You should lay down.  If you can’t – or won’t- shield yourself and you will be bombarded with their emotions, it best if you are lying down.”  

“I am taking children not even yet born from their families,” John hissed.  “I owe it to them to be there.”

“You are eighteen years old, and sick,” Freddie said, hands on hips, looking over his brother.  “I know you want to be there, and I can understand why.  But you will stay for only a few minutes.” John started to protest, and Freddie held up a hand that stopped the youngest, his expression not allowing for any argument.  “Roger, be ready to escort John out after I make the announcement and hand over the terms.  Brian, you and I will deal with them, but remember that it is not open for any discussion or explanation.”

Brian nodded.  “They will be angry, and that is normal, but we cannot say anything.  Does the king even know of this condition?”  

Freddie shrugged.  “I sent a message this morning,” he said, waving his hand.  “There is nothing anyone can do.”

“I hate this,” John said softly, tears in his eyes.  “I can’t see anything about this evil; all I know is that it will take all eight of us to defeat it.  But now we are involving children in its battle.”  

“For a reason,” Roger said firmly.  “We know this.”  

**

“It has always made John so angry that he cannot see everything about The Dark,” Roger said softly, looking at Ben.  “I know he so desperately wants to know more, especially when he saw that defeating it would involve you and your brothers.”  He took a long sip of wine, shaking his head at the memory.  “It nearly broke him when we presented the treaty to Rhye all those years ago.  He begged the gods to explain why he could see the need to take unborn children from their families, but could not see the enemy.”

“Joe says similar things at times,” Ben nodded, his eyes stormy.  “He wants so badly to fight, to see everything he can to help Lord John.  But he’s blocked from so much by the mages The Dark has under their control.”

Roger shook his head.  “It would be so helpful if we could find one of those mages,” he mused.  “But all we can do is prepare, and know it is coming.”  He looked at the message from Freddie.  “It has begun, actually.  I think it will not be long before Rami or his father will be on the Rhye throne, and even a shorter amount of time before Freddie takes the crown.”

Ben drained the rest of the wine in his cup.  “Then we should get back to work,” he said gruffly. 

“Soon,” Roger agreed.  He smiled at his fiancé.   “Tell me about this latest tavern you found while scouting.”

**********

**********

Gwil was at Sir James’s when Ben returned from his training.  He and Joe rode out to meet Ben on the main road, and the brothers all jumped off their horses to hug and laugh.  Ben held Joe’s shoulders and rolled his eyes as he took in his younger brother.

“Good gods!” he exclaimed, looking Joe up and down.  “You’ve grown!”  He had always looked down to meet Joe’s eyes, but to his shock, the light eyes were almost level with his.

“I have!” Joe said gleefully.  “See what happens when you leave for six months?”

“Nothing good, that’s for sure,” Ben joked.  In truth, he was amused and happy for Joe, who had always been so small for his age.  “How did this happen?”

Gwil snorted.  “Sir James has a theory that with you gone, Joe finally got enough food.”

“Oye!” Ben said, looking at his brother with an offended air.  “And who was the one who first figured out how to steal cakes?  I told Lord Roger that all my scouting ability comes from watching Gwil sneak down to the kitchens.”

“At least you learned something,” Gwil retorted, and Joe giggled.

Ben just chuckled as he saw Joe’s horse, Phae.  His brother had only graduated to a warhorse just before Gwil’s wedding, and Phae had made it clear from day one that Joe was her colt, and a small and sickly one at that.  No matter how much he whined and pleaded, she moved only as fast as she well-pleased, making sure her master was safe.  Phae was actually quite a large mare, young and powerful, and Ben had at first wondered why she had been selected for Joe.  He didn’t doubt the decision from Lords Roger and John; he was just curious.

“She can protect him,” John had explained quietly.  “She will never let him fall, and will always carry him to safety.”  Ben had understood that the time might come when Joe would need a fast and strong steed.

“Phae is letting you ride her?” Ben teased lightly.  The warhorse had a rather unnerving ability to know when Joe was ill and refused to let him go for rides against doctors’ orders. 

“Shut up,” Joe muttered.

“And they call this brotherly love,” Gwil sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.  He had almost forgotten how quickly his little brothers caused headaches.  He was glad to see Ben again, and happy his brother had enjoyed his military deployment.  But Gwil was even happier that he could now return to his husband.

The next weeks were busy with news from Rhye.  After months of debate over the summer, Queen Helen had indeed abdicated, and it was now the head of the Malek line – King Edward - that was crowned.  Rami wrote Gwil that there had been some suggestion that he and Freddie go to the coronation, but both John and Joe felt it was a bad idea, so Rami had taken to bed with a fake illness as a polite excuse.

‘Papa says he is disappointed,’ Rami wrote in the secret code that the lords had developed years earlier and was now used by the younger brothers.  ‘But that he understands.  I hate lying so much, but there is no choice.  My father is now third in line, Gwil…..and if I am to one day sit on throne then is means something has happened to my papa.’

“Freddie and Rami had always knows this,” Brian said gently that night when Gwil shared his letter. 

“Has Lord John ever seen when Rami will be king?” Gwil asked worriedly.  It would be one thing he if was older – meaning his father had had a long life. 

Brian sighed, looking at his hands for a moment.  “Soon,” he said quietly.

The first snowfall arrived the following week, and the next day came an urgent message from Lord John’s estate that everyone was needed as soon as possible.  Rami and Freddie were fortunately at their estate, so Gwil knew as he and Brian packed that they would all be together.  They set out as soon as it was light enough, and fortunately made decent time through the snow.

“Brian!  Gwil!” Lord Freddie called and ran down the stairs to the courtyard. “Thank gods you’re here!”

“What is happening?” Brian asked, quickly giving the reins of his horse to a stable boy.  He saw a sleigh with the markings of Sir James’s house and guessed that the guardian had already arrived with Ben and Joe.

“We’ve had more news,” Freddie said to Brian and Gwil as they hurried inside.  “But John has seen something as well, and it’s not good.”  He paused, and shook his head.  “And John is not well either,” he said.  Gwil frowned, worried at that and he saw Brian clench his fists in concern.

They went to Lord John’s private study were Sir James, Ben, and Joe were gathered with the older mage.  Giwl couldn’t help but notice that the older mage didn’t look so well.  It was evident that he had lost weight, even though he was wrapped in a warm cloak.  His face was pale, and eyes lacked their usual spark. In John’s lap, there were two cats, an old one and a kitten, snuggling to their master’s hands and purring, as Fada stayed beside Joe. Joe sat next to his fiancé, silent, but from their eyes and expressions one could easily guess a vivid discussion taking place between the mages.

They had tea and fortunately soon heard the horn of Roger’s company, indicating that he was near.  John and Freddie looked relieved, and only a few minutes later Roger rushed in.  He stopped only to hug his brothers and then sat quickly so they could begin.

Freddie sat down at the head of the table and looked around the company. “We received an urgent pigeon from our ambassador in Rhye. Lord Keith and his son are both bedridden with high fever.”

“Lord Keith?” Gwil covered his mouth. “Gods... he’s first in line for the throne of Rhye! And his son after him!”  King Edward was childless; if Lord Keith and his son died, Rami’s father were be the new heir.

“The Dark?” Ben asked sharply. “Do you think they might not recover?”

“Of course, they won’t recover!” The usually calm Rami jumped up and hit his fist against the table. “Of course, it’s The Dark! Helen resigns, Lord Keith dies... and... and...”

“My love, please, calm down,” Freddie said gently, “we need to-”

“Calm down? It’s not your father who’s in danger, Freddie!”

“Rami,” Gwil stood up as well, “we don’t know that. Why would The Dark want you on the throne of Rhye? Why would it murder for that?”

“I don’t know,” Rami retorted, “and that’s why we can’t just wait anymore. Whatever reasons the Dark might have, and whatever visions you two might have,” he glanced over the mages, “I can’t just sit here, do nothing and make it happen!” he turned to Freddie, and his voice got quieter. “I know what you told me about visions. And how they always happen. But Lord John only saw me to become king, and I accepted that, but that could be in years, decades, not now – and not because the enemy we’re supposed to fight with gets rid of all my predecessors – including my father. We need to save him. Somehow, please...”

After a moment of silence, Lord Brian slowly nodded. “You’re right in one thing, Rami. Whatever the Dark plans, it can’t be good for us, even though we can’t see clearly why. So it has to be stopped, whether it involves the royals of Rhye or not.”

“So – that means to save Lord Keith?” Ben said. “But what can we do? The Dark... there’s no army, there’s not even a “someone” we can fight with.”

“There is always someone,” Lord John suddenly said, and all the eyes turned to him. “The death of King Harold and the crown prince by poison, Queen Helen’s accident, now the fever of Lord Keith – this is a doing of an evil curse. And the source of a curse is always a mage.”

“You said The Dark enslaves mages,” Freddie said, “are you suggesting it’s their work?”

“Either their work or The Dark itself is an evil Mage.”

“You’ve know this for quite a while, haven’t you,” Lord Brian frowned. “And you’re trying to find him – or her. Is that what wrecked you so?”

“I’m not-”

“Oh, please! Just look at yourself! You look like a walking corpse, and you know damn well we all think that!”

“It doesn’t matter!” John hissed.

“My brothers,” Freddie quickly interfered, “calm down. We all know for a fact we cannot defeat The Dark in any other way than with all of us united. That means no more secrets. No more hiding. We need to be honest among each other, about our strengths, weaknesses and any other facts. I hope we all understand that.”  Everyone nodded, and Freddie looked at his youngest brother.  “John, you have to tell us everything now.”

The older mage sighed, but didn’t argue. “There is so much evil will against us, against me and Joe... it’s hard,” he admitted quietly, “hard to shield yourself with one hand and trying to reach further with the other. Trying to break the defenses... is like crawling half buried in a mud in no given direction.”

“Why didn’t you let me help?” Joe asked. “I would, why-”

“Do you think I would let you harm yourself?” John snapped. “I already lowered your restraints, your protection, do you really think I would let you search for the... disgusting thing?”

“That’s not the point now,” Freddie glared at both mages. “Now it’s Lord Keith and his son that we need to worry about. John – is there anything we can do?”

“The Dark’s will drives the curse, makes it stronger,” John answered tiredly. “I suppose a counter-enchantment would do the opposite and perhaps save the Lord and his son. But...”

“But?” Rami looked nervous. “You can’t do it?”

“I don’t think I could get to them in time for that. There are enchantments that work long distances, true, but that distance weakens their power considerably and I’m not strong enough...”

“You aren’t,” Joe frowned. “And I’m not as well, but together, we are. If we work together, my lord, no will can challenge ours.”

“I can’t let you do this, Joseph, it’s too risky.”

“So you let an innocent man die instead?” Joe challenged.

John sighed and turned to Freddie. “My king?” he asked flatly.

Freddie frowned. He was used to Joe using that title quite often, but not John. “Yes, brother?”

“We are both your subjects, and at your service. So, anything you order, we do, both Joseph and I.”

Long silence followed, as Freddie just pressed Rami’s hand, thinking, his eyes slowly going over all the people in the room.

“Do it,” he said quietly. “We need to make a stance, and this is just the way. We cannot let The Dark get away with its crimes just because a prophecy said they would happen. Go together, my mages, and challenge it. But... we will be present while you do, and if there’s any sign it is more than you both can handle, you retreat immediately; that’s an order.”

John and Joe both nodded.  “As you wish, brother,” John said quietly.

It took a little more than an hour for both mages to prepare everything, and they gathered in the spacious antechamber off John’s room, as both mages finished drawing magical symbols on the floor and walls.  John also mixed several potions from his private box in a wide bowl which now stood in the middle of the room.

“That should be all,” the older mage said, checking all the symbols for the last time. “Everybody be careful not to disturb the lines.”

All the lords and their spouses quietly nodded and stepped further back, just to be sure. Despite the seriousness of the matter, Ben was a little excited to see proper magic spells for the first time; when Joe had transformed the pebbles and coins, it had been what his brother called ‘simple’ magic.  Changing substance was not all that hard, Joe had explained.  It was casting spells to create something new that took the most energy.

Lord John kneeled on the other side of the bowl, opposite of Joe, and his face was serious.  “Ready, Joseph?”

Joe firmly nodded and reached to take his lord’s hands. “Ready, my lord.”  Fada and both the cats stepped near to their masters, and Gwil reflected that Fada was not just a guardian, but also a familiar, an animal capable of assisting a mage with magic.  The cats obviously served a similar purpose for Lord John, and all three animals seemed as focused as their humans.

Both leaned over the magical mixture, and for a moment, Ben was almost disappointed. There was no thunder and lightning, no flash of light, nothing.

But the quiet was deafening, and the presence of mages almost as if grew to take all the chamber for itself. The air got thick, vibrating with something Ben couldn’t describe, but knew what it was. Magic.

“Look,” Gwil murmured, blue eyes not leaving their baby brother.

Every muscle in the mages’ body was strained under their skin as they both got into a sort of motionless trance, looking far, far away. Soon, drops of sweat glistened on their skin, and Joe’s shirt started to go wet. Their hands trembled in their connection and both pale faces bore expressions of pain and exertion.  The tension of whole chamber got higher and higher, the temperature as well, soon everybody was red-faced and sweating, gulping, gasping for breath.

Suddenly, Joe screamed, and Gwil’s heart froze. He often enough listened to Joe’s nightmares, but this... this was a shriek of a complete and absolute dread, raw and inhuman. Sooner than any of the lords could react, Joe let go of John as some force threw the older mage back from the bowl and against the wall.

“Joe!” Ben gasped and rushed for his brother, who collapsed onto the floor like a lifeless ragdoll.   “Joe, Joe, little brother, please,” Ben gasped through tears, “are you alright, please, be alright...”  Rami and Gwil joined them as the lord rushed to John’s side, Fada whining frantically, her nose nudging her master, trying to rouse him.

To Ben’s relief, Joe opened his eyes. “We met it,” he sobbed. “The Dark... so strong, so much... it pushed me away from Lord John.  I tried to protect him....”

“He’s not breathing!” Freddie cried out. “John! Gods...”

Gwil turned around from Joe just to see Lord Roger take his brother’s head in his hands and breathe into him, once, twice, three, four... Brian was tearing off John’s shirt, feeling for a pulse and ready to press on his chest for heart compressions.  He nodded frantically at Freddie, indicating that there was a pulse.  Now Roger just had to breathe once again for their brother.  Lord John’s cats hissed, swatting their master’s long hair with their paws.

Long minutes ticked by, but finally Lord John gasped when Roger paused, his chest heaving upward and Roger sagged in relief beside him.  Joe was struggling to stand, and Gwil and Ben helped him up, keeping him safe between them, Fada pushing her way in front so Joe could lean on her if needed.

“Take him to bed,” Joe rasped and tried to get up. Gwil had to hold himself back to not stop Joe but understood this was a moment of everything or nothing, so instead he offered Joe his arm as a support.  “Freddie, Brian, Roger, take John to bed,” Joe ordered, and his voice sounded older and so authoritative that no one thought of questioning him. “Rami, John’s box, green jar with dry leaves in it, I’ll need that. And flint and steel. Ben, Gwil, help me get there, please.”

Everybody got moving and soon John was laid to his bed. Everybody anxiously watched how Joe poured the leaves Rami brought on a plate next to John and set them on fire.

Thick smoke filled the room, but instead of an unpleasant reek of burn, it smelled like... life. Gwil couldn’t describe the sensation, but suddenly he felt lighter and refreshed, happy and powerful. Like in a fog, but instead of dulled, all his senses felt hundred times sharper and it was... amazing...

Joe waved his hands to get as much smoke as possible to John, whose cheeks turned a bit brighter...

... and he steadily breathed in. And out. And in. At least he was breathing on his own….John suddenly jerked.

“No...,” John mumbled and bit his lip so hard few drops of blood ran down his chin. “No... NO!” he screamed and writhed on the bed in pure agony. “No! No!”

“Restrain him!” Joe exclaimed and the lords immediately caught their brother’s arms and legs, while Joe put a hand on his forehead, deeply focused.

“Cadal, socar sios,” Joe muttered the words of an enchantment, “tha mi còmhla riut. Socar sios, cadal... cadal.. John... ghaoil... cadal...”

John slowly relaxed in the restraints, only letting out small whimpers.

“What’s happening to him?” Freddie whispered. “What is this?”

“It’s The Dark,” Joe said and shivered in exhaustion. Ben quickly stepped forward and supported him, holding him around his waist and letting Joe lean against him. “We got to Lord Keith and tried to force the curse back, but The Dark came... it... pushed me away from there and grabbed John. So much... evil and hatred.”

“Did it let John go as well?” Roger asked, his face grave.

“No...,” Joe sighed sadly, turning to the lord. “He is possessed. Or at least... that’s The Dark’s intention. I can feel it’s will inside him. Right now, he is fighting for himself. If he wins, he comes back... if he loses...,” Joe swallowed.  “Then what comes back won’t be John anymore.”

None of the men present dared to say anything. What could even be said?  Everyone could only watch how Joe lay down on the bed, under the covers next to his lord, and took him in a firm embrace, Fada pushing her way into the bed to stretch out on Lord John’s other side. All of John’s cats somehow found their way into the bedroom as well and joined the young mage in protecting their master.  Gwil reflected briefly that there seemed to be even more felines than resided at Lord Freddie’s estate, and tried to smile, hoping it was a good sign that Lord John had so many supporters.

Gwil suddenly realized that Joe was singing. It was a strange and heart-breaking sight.

“Hush, little baby, don’t cry,

it’s late and your eyes fall with sleep,

blue night sky shines with stars

and the moonlight is ours,

guarding the forests so deep.

Don’t fret, my baby, just dream,

it’s late, let the beauty grow wings,

you know I am here,

never far, only near,

sleep baby, dream in my arms.”

Lord Brian gasped silently. “Joe?”

“Yes?” the young mage looked up in slight confusion.

“Where... where did you learn that?”

Joe frowned, thinking. “I….don’t know,” he admitted.  “I think I’ve always known it.  No, wait….when we first came to Queen, I heard it. What is it?”

“John was just a baby when we all got together,” Brian explained, his face deeply moved, “He still had a wet nurse, and she stayed as a nanny and used to sing this lullaby for us when we were afraid of the dark. We all were... back then... and now still, I suppose.”

Joe smiled sadly.

Hours later, John opened his eyes and the room froze. He blinked several times, confused, looking over the crowd around his bed.

“Freddie?” he whispered helplessly, looking at his oldest brother. “Freddie? What...”

“John...,” Freddie’s eyes widened, “is it... you? Is it you, baby brother? Please, say something!”

“It’s me...,” John frowned and weakly touched his forehead, “why... are you asking? Why are you all... looking at me like.. like...”

Joe nodded and closed his eyes in silent relief, and that was all the lords needed to cry out in pure happiness and fall over each other, everybody trying to be the first one to hug their mage, their baby brother. John’s cats just barely managed to save themselves from being squashed.

“Wait!” John suddenly cried out. “Wait, something... it’s wrong, it’s all wrong! I can’t see!”

The lords immediately exchanged frightened looks. “Can’t see?” Roger asked. “What do you mean?”

“I can’t... can’t... read your thoughts, I can’t... see anything, I... my... powers, they’re gone, it’s gone! No! The Dark has taken... taken...”  He tried to get up from the bed in sheer panic, but Joe, still by his side, pushed him back.

“Calm down and listen, my lord” Joe ordered sternly. “The Dark didn’t take your powers. They’re only blocked. By me.”

Everybody stared at him in disbelief.

“What?” John’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t... you’re not strong enough for something like that!”

“I am, my lord,” Joe said softly and got out from the bed. “I’m stronger than you think.”

“Stop it!” John hissed angrily. “This isn’t a game, Joe!”

“I agree. I’m not playing with you, and I’m sorry, so sorry, but...,” Joe swallowed his tears. “The Dark nearly got you. Now it knows where you are, knows your magic, it made its path. I blocked your powers completely, that’s the only way how to close that connection, at least until you’re strong enough to defend yourself again.”

“I’m strong enough!”

“With all the respect, my Lord Mage, you’re not. You’ve spent years forcing yourself into visions, protecting Queen, protecting me, searching for The Dark... you need to rest, my lord. We nearly lost you today!”

“He’s right, John,” Brian said and took his brother’s hand, “you’re on the edge. You need to heal, to get better, and if Joseph is right and taking your power away is the only way how to keep you safe and healthy – then that’s what we do.”

Freddie and Roger only nodded.

“Shut up!” John snapped and pushed him away, so weakly it felt more like a caress, but Brian let go anyway. “And stop looking at me!” he sobbed. “Stop looking at me, I can’t... bear it, I can’t hear you... the thoughts... I’ve always... you’re staring and nothing... hear... get out... get out! Get out!”

The lords and their spouses instinctively looked at Joe, who turned to Freddie. “My king, make sure there is a servant in this chamber the whole time, keeping watch.”

“We will be keeping watch ourselves,” Roger said. “No one gets in here besides us.”

“Get out, all of you,” John mumbled, trying to hide tears in his voice, “I want to be alone.”

“Please,” Joe turned to Rami, unable to hold his exhaustion and fear any longer, “please...”

Rami quickly scooped him in his arms. “Alright,” he said, “bedtime for you, little mage.”

All the lords, except for Roger who insisted on taking the first watch, quietly wished John good night and left the chamber.

**

When John opened his eyes again, he blinked. He was on a blanket, in a sunny, summer forest, and next to him a cold stream ran with a soft murmur.

A beautiful, quiet place full of green and light. John allowed himself to smile a bit.

“You told me only this was a place where you played as children,” a voice behind him spoke. “I hope I didn’t make a mistake by choosing this for our little talk, my husband.”

John turned around so fast his neck creaked.

Between the silver birches, there was Joe, leaning against the tree and smiling. But this wasn’t the Joe that John knew. This one looked older, a fully grown, mature man, maybe even older than John was now.

“Joseph...how old are you? Is this a dream?”

“Thirty-six, and yes, it’s a dream. A dream I made so I could come talk to you.”

“From the future?”

“From our future,” Joe corrected him. “Our future if we defeat The Dark.”  Joe sighed shaking his head.  “You gave me quite a fright that night. That bit with The Dark, me blocking your powers.  It was a terrible night.”

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I had to.”  Joe looked at him seriously.  “You need to rest and get strong and healthy.  It is vital you are in your full health for the final battle with The Dark. Everything depends on it. Your life, Joe’s life, everybody. Future of all the magic in Queen. By that time, your Joe will be strained, weak and tired – you can’t let him down, do you understand, husband? And when the right time comes, you’ll know, both of you.”

John slowly nodded, though his heart skipped several beats. Joe leaned forward and pressed his soft lips on John’s – and John felt like flying, flying away... in bliss and happiness... far away...

**

And then he woke up, in his bed, with Brian sitting by his side.

Chapter Text

Eighteen months later…...

Ben was mad.  Well and truly pissed off.  Upon reflection, he admitted that really, he was embarrassed and upset at himself, which equaled mad in his mind.  He was never going to live this down.

Well, he decided, enough self-pity.  He had work to do, and a wedding to get to.  He might be missed he if didn’t show for the wedding, since it was his own.

Ben grinned as he freed his arms from the ropes and slid out his lucky knife from his left boot heel that no one ever checked.

**********

**********

“Camping?”  Rami stood, arms crossed, staring at Ben.

“Yes.”

“Camping,” Gwil repeated.  “We ask you what you would like to do before we leave for Lord Rogers for your wedding, and you want to go camping.”

Rami sighed.  “And not just any camping.  You want to go into the mountains?”

“I think it sounds like fun,” Joe said loyally.  Gwil glared at the youngest.

“You would,” he muttered.

Joe just smiled.  “I’ve been perfectly healthy,” he argued.  “It’s summer; it’s warm, and Ben has the perfect spot picked out.  It’s only a few hours away.”

“And you asked me what I wanted to do,” Ben cheerfully reminded them.  “So, come on, get your packs and let’s go, lazy.”

The next day, the four brothers arrived at the tiny mountain meadow Ben had found on a scouting trip.  It was isolated and completely beautiful, and all agreed it was a perfect place for a few days of fun.  They had traveled light, with just small single person tents and two servants for Joe in case he took ill.  They spent the days fishing and swimming and the nights talking around the campfire, reminiscing about old pranks and adventures. 

It had been a difficult past year, with news from Rhye steadily growing worse.  Lord Keith and his son had passed away from their illness, and now Rami’s father was the heir apparent.  The brothers knew he was worried about his father and tried to not bring up the subject.  By unspoken agreement, they wanted this short trip to be relaxed and happy, and they all kept the conversations light, hoping they could escape from The Dark for a few days.  Everyone was happy and relaxed, and ready for a few days of fun.

In the years since their weddings, Rami and Gwil had proven to be accomplished diplomats and strategists.  Rami and Freddie were demanded in the capital almost constantly as they were both now close to the thrones of two countries.  Freddie was the heir apparent to Queen, and rumors were rife about Rami’s placement.  Some said if his father became King of Rhye, then Sami would be made the formal heir, even though Rami was the older twin.  It was a subject the brothers tried to avoid as they well knew Rami feared for his father’s life. 

“So how is your mustache?” Gwil teased Rami, making the oldest brother blush.  “I think I see at least five more hairs!”  Rami had thought growing a mustache would make him look more mature, and to his everlasting regret he had mentioned it to his brothers.  They now all took delight in teasing him, as his mustache seemed to be growing in only one small hair at a time.  Gwil had grown a small, neatly trimmed beard in seemingly no time at all after his wedding, making Rami intensely jealous.

Gwil had been more than glad to stay at the estates of their lords since his wedding.  He had taken over the role of assistant manager for all four estates, helping his husband and Lord John control the properties.  Gwil was just 20 years old, but he was already known in all of Queen as a shrewd negotiator and manager and many said he would be a perfect Lord of Treasury.  Among the brothers, Gwil just shrugged and said his financial skills came from stopping Joe from changing pebbles into gems.

Everyone worried about Joe, who they understood was now taking on a double burden in magic, but so far he had been mostly well, although he tired easily and had to spend a great deal of time in bed from even the smallest of bruises.  At least Lord John was healthier, and all were happy for that blessing.  Ben had been at Sir James’s when the two mages had quarreled about Joe continuing to block John’s powers, and he had written Rami and Gwil that he was rather surprised that the mansion was still standing.  Still, they seemed to have reached an understanding, and both sets of brothers were relieved.

The second night of their trip, Rami and Ben had a fish cooking contest, and after much consideration Joe declared Rami the winner, which had Ben sulking.  “Just for that, I am pitching your tent over some rocks,” he muttered to the eldest brother.

“It already is, I swear,” Rami complained. 

“That again?” Ben raised a pale eyebrow.  “These tents are perfectly comfortable.”

“They are miserable,” Gwil countered.  “Remind me why we let you talk us into using these little tents.”

Ben rolled his eyes.  “Because it’s the whole point of camping,” he argued. 

“My tent’s comfortable,” Joe volunteered.

Rami ruffled the youngest’s hair, making Joe scowl.  “You have Fada to keep you warm,” he teased.  They all knew the wolfhound was happy to have Joe sleep on her anytime.  Joe had grown a bit taller, but he was still thin.  The youngest also had a thick mattress to ensure he was comfortable.

“You two are just going soft in married life,” Ben teased.

Gwil threw a piece of fish at his brother.  “You take that back.”

“Can’t make me!”

The brothers finally stopped the friendly bickering, and all turned in for the night.  A few hours later, Joe was awoken by Fada alerting, and he sat up, hearing voices and sensing movement in the small campsite.  Before he could crawl out to investigate, he heard Ben snarl a very colorful curse that Joe filed away for future reference, and then there was laughter.  A moment later there was fumbling on the opening to his tent.

“Joe?” said a familiar voice.

“Ben, what are you doing?”  Joe crawled over and undid the inner ties to the flap.

“Our moron brothers,” Ben grumbled, “poured a bucket of water on my tent to make it ‘wilder’; at least that’s what Rami claimed before he and Gwil ran off.”

Joe giggled.  “Oh gods, let me see,” he begged.

“Later, it’s freezing out here and water everywhere.”  Ben flopped inside the tent, sighing happily at the warmth.  “I’ll hurt them in the morning,” he promised.  “Now move over,” and he playfully shoved Joe to make room on his mattress.

“Watch your boots,” Joe complained.  They always wore soft boots even at night when out since it was not safe especially for Joe to wander barefoot.  Ben grunted and stuck his feet off the mattress so it wouldn’t get wet or dirty.

Ben quickly fell asleep, but Joe was awake, trying to stifle his giggles.  He decided he just had to see the damage and carefully crawled out of the tent, Fada at his side.  There was just enough moonlight for Joe to see that Ben’s tent was indeed soaking wet, looking a bit more like a sunken boat than a tent.  Fada didn’t look impressed, and trotted off into the woods at some noise, and Joe followed, curious, a short distance into the trees.  The sound turned out to be a deer with her fawn, and Joe watched for a time, happy to see the healthy baby.  Wild animals were sensitive to magic, and he blocked himself for a moment, to disguise himself while he watched the deer.  He was just getting ready to return to camp when something hit him.

Joe fell to his knees, gasping.  It took a moment for him to realize that it wasn’t a physical blow but rather some sort of spell, making him unable to move.  He gritted his teeth against the pain and then he felt no more and collapsed to the ground.

When he awoke, he could still barely move, only semi-conscious, and vaguely noticing that it was dawn, meaning he must have been unconscious for hours.  Fada whined and barked, howling for help since she would not leave him, but there was only silence.  Gathering all his strength, Joe pushed back against the spell sending all he had out in a radius, seeking to stop it.  It took long minutes of battle, but finally he felt the walls of the spell collapse, and he tried to regain his breath.  After several attempts, he was able to grab Fada’s harness and pulled himself to sit up, but still couldn’t stand.  He leaned against her for a seemingly endless amount of time until finally, he heard voices.

“Joe!  Ben!”  It was Rami, and moments later Joe could hear Gwil also shouting, in addition to the servants.

“Over here!” he managed to call.  Fada howled, and one of the servants came running.

“My lords!  I found Lord Joseph!” he shouted.  He had a sword drawn and was scanning the trees for any sign of danger.

“Joe!” Gwil appeared, his bow and arrow notched and ready.  He picked Joe up without hesitation and with assistance from the servant began running back to camp.

‘I’m alright,” Joe gasped.  “What is happening?”

Gwil shook his head.  “Unknown,” he said shortly.  “Rami and I were returning when something knocked us down.  The same happened in camp.  We were all out for hours.” 

“Joe!” It was Rami, his broadsword ready, and the other servant was with him at the tents.  “Any sign of Ben?”

“What?” Joe cried.

Rami looked at the youngest, his face grim.  “Ben is missing.”

*****

*****

Gwil and a servant rode at full speed to the nearest sentry posts where carrier pigeons were dispatched and signal towers lit.  Rami and Joe remained at the campsite until Sir James and the first group arrived a few hours later.

“It was a spell,” Joe told them, nearly in tears.  “I was able to fight it, but it took a while.  It was meant to knock us all out, and it did, but I think I was able to end the spell more quickly than it was intended.”

Sir James nodded curtly.  “So, we may have an advantage,” he mused.  “They may not expect that you all awoke and summed help as quickly as you did.  You will return home, Joseph.  Lord John sent word just before we left that he is on his way; we have also contacted the other lords and they will arrive later today.”

“Why didn’t I see anything?” Joe was trying to pull his hair out, and Gwil took his hands.

“Is it possible that the spell to knock us out also blocked you?” he asked quietly.  Joe thought for a moment and then nodded.  “They have another mage with them,” Gwil said, looking in concern at Rami and Sir James.

“I should go with you then,” Joe said, but the other three all shook their heads.

“You need to get home and be safe,” Rami ordered.  “It’s possible they wanted you, and they took Ben by mistake.  You need to get to safety.”  He turned and ordered the best warriors to escort Joe back to Sir James’s house and keep Joe there.  “Promise me, Joe, we need to know where you are.  Don’t leave Sir James’s home.”

“Alright,” Joe finally said.  Gwil hugged him fiercely.

“We will find Ben,” he swore.  He picked up Joe and put him Phae and looked at the horse and Fada seriously.  “Take Joe home,” he ordered them, knowing that they understood much more than one would think.  “Don’t let him leave.  He is to stay at home until one of us comes for him.”  Phae snorted in what sounded like agreement and Gwil swore that Fada nodded.  Without any direction from Joe, Phae turned and took off down the path, the guards barely keeping up with her, Fada racing alongside.

“They will get him home safely,” Gwil said, returning to Rami and Sir James as a scout rode up.

“Signs of two, maybe three, horses,” she reported.  “They headed into the mountain paths where they likely thought it would be hard for us to track them.”  She smiled a little grimly.  “But we can still follow them.”

Sir James nodded.  “Good.”  He whistled for his horse.  “Now, let’s find Benjamin.”

**********

**********

Ben considered his options.  He had blacked out – he assumed from some spell – and regained consciousness in a wooden box, of all things.  His hands had been tied, but really, it had not taken much for him to get free.  Judging from the movement, he guessed his box was in a small cart, and he listened carefully, hearing muttered voices.  He didn’t know how long he had been asleep and that was irritating.

The cart was moving at a rapid pace and Ben hated that he was getting further and further away from his brothers, but he knew he had to be patient and wait and assess the full situation.  After an hour or so, he had made out three different voices, so he knew he was facing at least three opponents.  He would have to bide his time.

There was some scuffling, and the lid to his box started to move.  Making a quick decision, Ben put his hands back behind his back, so they looked still tied, his knife concealed in his sleeve.  It would be best right now to feign unconsciousness.  The lid was pulled back, and he could sense people above him.

“Well, now isn’t he a looker,” said the first voice.  There was a grunt of agreement.

“I guess mages can be pretty.”

Mage?  Did they think he was Joe?  Ben listened carefully as the voices continued.

“You think maybe Master will let us have him for a bit of fun?”

There was the sound of a smack.  “Stupid!  If you want to live, you know you don’t question or ask anything of Master. He may or may not be in a good mood, but you never ask.”

“Alright, you’ve had your look,” snarled a third voice.  “He may be pretty now, but he won’t be for long once we get back.  Is the brat in its box?”

“Yes,” said the second voice.  There was a kicking sound, and Ben heard a faint whimper.  “Awake, even.”

“Better be.  It needs to keep this new mage asleep till we reach the main camp.”

The three voices bickered, and Ben carefully listened, taking note of everything.  Three people for sure, plus whatever was ‘the brat’ in another box.  They obviously thought he was a mage, and he just sighed in relief that Joe had not been taken as it seemed that they had something that would have kept Joe unconscious.  It wasn’t working on Ben anymore, thankfully, and he knew he would have to act quickly, before they reached their camp.

“Hey, stop, there’s a deer in that meadow.”

“So?”

“Fresh venison.  We can camp here for the night.”

There was a snort.  “Well, we do have time, I guess.  That spell should keep the others back there out for a day at least.”  Ben frowned, wondering how his brothers were fairing.  It looked like he was on his own. And he was guessing that it was nearly nighttime, which meant they had been travelling for a full day.

The cart came to a halt, and Ben carefully kept track of the weight shifting, nothing that it seemed two had gotten off.  “Hurry up then, I’m going to have a smoke,” said the third voice.  There was another shift, and Ben knew he was now alone in the cart.

Carefully, without a sound, he rolled over and raised his head.  He blinked a little at the late afternoon light after hours of darkness, but he quickly made out a man with his back to the cart, smoking a pipe as he watched a large meadow.  Giving thanks that the man was nearby, Ben made a decision, and raised his fists, boxing the man’s temples.  He fell instantly, and Ben held onto his dirty hair, lowering the man down.

Ben leaped out of the cart and dragged the man underneath it.  A moment’s search revealed a bow and arrow, and he quickly notched it, scanning the field.  He ran silently forward, using the tall grass to hide him, and picked up a rock.  He let it fly, and it struck the second man in the head, knocking him down.  Before the third man could react, Ben smacked him with the bow, and then with his fists again, rendering him unconscious.

The whole thing had taken less than one minute.

Ben automatically rolled down, waiting to see if there were any further actions, but it seemed that he had correctly judged that the three were alone.  It took him a few minutes to drag the bodies back to the cart, nothing that all three were still alive, which he knew Lord Roger would like for questioning.  He quickly bound and gagged them, tossing them into the cart, and covering them with a tarp he found.  There were three horses tied up behind the cart, and Ben paused to debate his best course of action now.  He had almost forgotten about the other box when there was another whimper.

Ben drew his knife, holding it at ready as he studied the box.  It was smaller than the one he had been in, held closed with a simple latch.  He double checked that the surviving men were securely bound and debated opening the box.  It was apparently a mage, and someone that could control other mages, but his magic was obviously not working on Ben.  Still, he knew he had to be careful since he had been made unconscious for at least a short time.  But he knew from Joe that such spells took time to cast, and Ben was confident in his reflexes.  If he suspected anything, he would have time to knock out whoever was in the box.  Deciding, he opened the latch and threw open the top.

His first thought was of Joe, seeing a small child huddled inside.  He lowered his knife but kept it nearby as he cleared his throat.  “Hello?”  A dirty face looked up for a second and then quickly lowered as the child tried to curl up even smaller.  “Hey, it’s alright,” Ben said.  “Everything is ok.  My name is Ben.  Can you tell me your name?”

The child raised its head again, but still didn’t look at Ben, and Ben saw that it appeared to be a boy.  “A-Adam, my lord,” he whispered.

“Hello, Adam.  Can you tell me why you are in the box?” 

Adam tucked his face back down.  “My place, my lord.”  His voice was so soft Ben could barely hear him.

“Well, that can’t be comfortable at all,” Ben said.  “Why don’t you come out?”  He knew he had to keep the child in his sight so he could not cast any spells.

“I—“Adam moved a little, and Ben saw to his horror that there was a heavy metal shackle on the child’s left ankle and it was fastened to a bolt in the box.

“Shit!  No, I’m not mad at you,” Ben correctly hurriedly as the child flinched at his voice. “Let me see, alright?”  He saw that there was a small padlock on the shackle and took a guess as to where the key might be.  Sure enough, he quickly found it on a chain around the next of the first man he had taken down, and he had the child freed in no time.  “Here, come on, it’s alright.” He put his hands under the child’s arms and lifted him up.

In the light, Ben saw that Adam was indeed tiny, dressed in rags.  Judging from his experience with Joe, he thought the child was maybe only four or five years old.  He had dark curls that reminded him a little of Lord Freddie but kept his head down.  “Adam?  Look at me, please, it’s alright.”  He was glad he had covered the men so the child would not see their bodies.  Ben crawled over them to reach the seat at the front of the cart, knowing they had to get moving.  The two mules responded to his snap of the reins, and he turned the cart around and then set the animals on the trail they had been on in the opposite direction.  He would have to decide quickly to either stay with the cart or leave it so they could travel faster. 

Adam obediently raised his head, and Ben frowned as he looked at the bright eyes.  Something was…. off.  He waved a hand in front of the tiny face and raised his eyebrows as the child didn’t blink.  “Adam, can you see me?”

“No, my lord,” the child whispered.  He titled his head awkwardly, obviously trying to ‘look’ in Ben’s direction.

Blind, Ben realized.  He quickly hugged the child, noting how stiff and scared he was.  “I’m sorry, Adam, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said, urging the mules to hurry.  “Can you tell me why you are here?  Who are those men with you?”

Adam just shook his head, clearly terrified.  “Alright, don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me,” Ben assured him.  The child was barefoot, and Ben took a moment to reach back and dug up a small blanket that he wrapped around the boy, knowing that the thin rags could not be keeping him warm in the chill evening air.  “Can you at least tell me how long I have been with you?”

“A day, my lord,” Adam whispered.  He took a shaky breath.  “I—I was supposed to keep you asleep.”

“Well, I am not a mage, Adam.  It’s not your fault that I am awake.”  Ben was glad that the child did not ask about the men, and decided it was best to wait a while before asking more questions.  It was good to hear they were only a day away from what should be familiar land. 

Adam shook his head.  “Master will be angry,” he whispered. 

“Master?”  Adam just nodded fearfully, huddling into the blanket.  “Does your Master use magic, Adam?”  There was a nod.  “Well, I know people who use magic too, Adam.  And they won’t be angry, I promise.”

“We are supposed to bring all mages to Master, my lord,” Adam said softly.

Ben sighed.  “Well, we are going to my friends, Adam, and they will be your friends too.  Don’t worry.”  Adam just whimpered and huddled in the blanket.  “Are you tired?” Ben asked as he pulled Adam into his lap.  “Why don’t you sleep for a while?  Everything is going to be alright.”

There was another whimper and after a while, Ben felt the child’s body grow heavy and he relaxed and fell asleep, surely more comfortable than he had been in some time.  Ben made a mental note to punch out the men again for hurting a child as soon as they woke up.

Ben considered his options again, glad that it was nearly night.  The land didn’t look familiar, but he figured for now just heading away from wherever they had been going was smart.  He would head to high ground, and hopefully get his bearings from there.  If they were only a day or so away from Sir James’s, then he was confident that he would recognize something.

He would have to ditch the cart soon, Ben decided.  The meadow they had been camping in was not accessible by even the small cart, so he guessed he had been taken by horseback for at least a few hours before they had met up with the cart.  He had no problems continuing to punch out the men and tying them over a horse.

Adam changed the situation, though.  He could feel bones through the rags the child had been wearing, and Ben ideally would like to stop and get him warm and something to eat.  He reluctantly decided against that, knowing it was important to get back up into the mountains where he could evade anyone coming to meet up with his kidnappers.  At least he could keep the child warm, and he seemed to need sleep almost as much as food.

A few hours later they had reached the limits of the cart.  Ben quickly stripped the cart of any weapons and supplies, tying them to one of the mules.  He slung the unconsciousness men over the other mule and two of the horses, and then took Adam in his arms as he mounted the third horse.  Leading the train of three horses and two mules, they set off into the mountains.

**********

**********

Ben had been missing for over a day, and everyone was frantic, especially Joe, who could not see his brother, no matter how hard he tried.  Lord John tried to remind him that he could not see everything, and Joe just continued to struggle. 

Rami, Gwil, Sir James, and the lords led groups into the mountains, following the trail until it ended.  At dawn on the second day, scouts found an abandoned cart, and began backtracking through the narrow trails.  Rami and Gwil were with Lords Roger and Brian when a scout found them a few hours later.  “We think we found a sign, my lords,” he said quickly.  “It is your private message, Lord Taylor, scratched into rock.”

Roger brightened and they hurried to the mark, concealed carefully so only one trained by Roger’s troops could find it. It was a coded message that someone from Lord Taylor’s forces was nearby.  They began searching out in a pattern, knowing the need for caution.  Thirty minutes later, Rami was pushing his way through branches when a familiar voice spoke up.

“I’ve had you in my sights for five minutes, brother.”  It was Ben, popping out from a hidden cave, grinning broadly as he lowered his bow.

Rami paused only to sound the signal that he had found Ben and then jerked his little brother into a fierce hug.  Quickly, other forces arrived and soon Lord Roger rushed in.  He picked up Ben in a hug, and no one thought anything of it when they exchanged a passionate kiss, hanging on to each other.  Roger had been frantic and searching nonstop with his best scouts since word had reach them.

“Benjamin, what in all the gods names happened?” Roger demanded when he finally released his fiancé.

“Got kidnapped, got away,” Ben said casually.  He had already shown Rami and the first to arrive where he had tied up the kidnappers and left the horses and mules.  “I recognized the land when dawn came, and decided it was best to hide here since I didn’t want to risk travelling during the day, not knowing how close you were and if anyone was following us.  I knew this outpost was a safe place for Adam.”

“Adam?” Lord Brian asked.

Ben nodded and ducked back into the small cave, designed to hide 3-4 troops, and emerged holding a small sleeping boy in his arms.  “Our new baby mage,” he said softly.  “He ate a little this morning, and then fell back asleep.  He’s exhausted, and I don’t want to know how long it’s been since he ate before I found him.

“He’s the one who blocked Joe, and made us fall asleep,” Rami guessed, looking at the tiny child.

Ben nodded, his voice low and angry.  “And he’s blind.”

“What?” Lord Roger was shocked, his voice matching Ben’s.

“He hasn’t been able to tell me much; poor thing has been asleep nearly the whole time.  But from what he has said and what I heard from the men before I knocked them out, his job was to render mages unconscious so they could be brought to their Master.  The Dark,” he added.  “He was kept chained in a box,” Ben snarled, his arms protectively holding the child.

“Gods,” Lord Brian exclaimed.  He shook his head and signaled for horses.  “We need to get both of you – and the prisoners – back quickly.  We have sent signals that we found you; my home is the nearest from here, so we will head there.  John and Joseph will no doubt meet us there as soon as they can.”

Lord Roger nodded.  “Agreed,” he said.  He held out his arms for Adam, but Ben shook his head, and the lord nodded in understanding.  “Let’s get moving.”  He helped Ben mount a horse, the young lord refusing to release Adam even for that, and then gathered them up.  Surrounded by troops, they headed for Castle May.

A few hours later, Rami, Gwil, and Ben were at Castle May with their lords.  Ben had finally reluctantly surrendered Adam to a doctor and nurse and given his report.  Roger was openly looking forward to spending some time with the kidnappers.  

“We need information, Roger,” Freddie reminded him for about the tenth time.  “Don’t kill them.”

“Right.” Roger said, waving his hand.  Ben smiled at Lord Freddie.

“I’ll watch him,” he promised. 

Freddie shook his head.  “I don’t think you need to be anywhere near them again,” he started to argue, but both Roger and Ben glared at him, and he threw his hands up in the air.  “We need them alive,” he finally said.

“Right,” Roger repeated.

Lord John and Joe arrived at nightfall, and immediately went to Adam, who had awoken only once during the entire day.  It was late night when John and Joe joined the others in Brian’s study.

“How is Adam?” Ben asked in concern.  He felt very protective of the child he had rescued and was rather looking forward to beating up the men again.

John smiled tiredly.  “The doctor says he should be fine with rest and lots of good food.  He seems to be about five years old.  He woke up for a bit and we were able to ask him some questions before he fell asleep again.”

“What happened to him?” Freddie asked.  “I assume he was a mage taken by The Dark?”

“His Master,” Ben muttered. 

John nodded, sighing as he sat down.  “I asked him what he could remember from before he was with The Dark, and he said he saw his mother being killed.”  All the men winched at the news.  “After that, he does not remember seeing much of anything; I suspect that The Dark forced him to use his power so quickly and at such force that it took his sight.  From what he said, I would guess he’s been with The Dark for perhaps two years.”

“If he stopped using magic, would his sight return?” Freddie asked.  He thought of how John had become healthier once he stopped using his magic.

“It is possible, but uncertain.  So much damage has been done in the previous two years that I don’t know if it would be a complete recovery.”

Joe rubbed his temples.  “I’ve blocked him,” he said.  “The Dark cannot find him again.  We just have to wait now.”

John nodded again.   “Adam said that all he has ever learned is how to block magic from other mages.  He seems to have been carried around as a sort of magic seeker and deterrent; he admitted that he was told to block magic so Joe did not suspect anything, and then he was to keep Joe unconscious once they had him.”

“Then it’s good that they grabbed me by mistake,” Ben said firmly.

“Well,” Freddie sighed, running his hands through his hair.  “We are very grateful that it turned out as it did.  You did well, Benjamin.”

Ben flushed a little at the praise.  “They were careless,” he shrugged modestly.  “Thought that I was passed out.”

“Still,” Freddie insisted, lying a hand on Ben’s shoulder and giving it a reassuring squeeze.  “We are very proud of you.”  The lord grinned.  “And you claim you never have adventures!”

Roger snorted from where he was pouring himself a stout glass of wine.  “We can do without these sorts of adventures, thank you,” he muttered.

“I’m glad you are alright,” Joe said to his brother, hugging him. “I’m sorry I couldn’t see anything.”

“Don’t apologize,” Ben said firmly.  “Our new baby mage did what he was told to do.”

“And speaking of which, what shall we do with him?” Brian asked.  “Is he any danger to us, or is he in any danger?”

“Joe has blocked him, so he is hidden now from The Dark,” John said.  “He won’t pose any danger to us.  He deserves to be well-treated now, and hopefully he will heal a bit.  In time, he might regain some eyesight.”

Gwil looked at his youngest brother in concern.  “Can you block two mages, plus shield yourself?” he asked seriously.  Of all the brothers, he understood the most about the mages and their powers.  John and Joe both turned to him for advice on many matters, and the young lord’s calming mind was always soothing for them.  He certainly understood their connections with their animals better than anyone else.  Lord John had once remarked that Gwil might have some of his own powers, which Gwil vehemently protested. 

Joe sighed, shrugging his shoulders.  “It really wasn’t too hard to shield Adam; he is so exhausted and ill that I don’t know how he was able to work any magic at all.  He would barely register as a mage now even without my help.”

Ben cracked his knuckles.  “I need to smack those three again,” he said, his tone menacing.  “You should have seen him; he was shackled.”

Freddie, Brian, and Roger all visibly winced at the words.

“He is really scared,” Joe offered softly.  “He…well…he doesn’t like me too much.  All he knows is mages being terrifying and punishing him if he didn’t use his magic how they wanted.  It will take him a while to trust me.” He looked at John and smiled.  “But he likes John.”

“He has good taste,” Roger teased.

“Then we will take care of him,” Freddie decided.  “Perhaps in time he will be able to tell us more.”  John and Joe both nodded.

“I will be responsible for him,” John said firmly.  “He needs special care.  Since Ben is leaving soon, it was planned for Joe to come stay with me anyway, and Adam would be best suited with us.”  It had been decided that it was important for the mages to be together, so Joe would be moving to stay with Lord John earlier than originally planned.  Sir James would stay with them for extended periods of time when none of the lords or their spouses were available.

“And we will take turns being with you,” Freddie decided, smiling.  “I think we don’t dare leave you three alone.”

John snorted.  “I would be insulted, but I must admit its likely true.”

Brian clasped his brother on the shoulder with a warm smile.  “Now, I think everyone to bed.  Ben, especially you.”  He hugged the young.  “We are all very proud of you.”  Ben blushed again but smiled.

There was a chorus of good nights, and Rami and Gwil went with their spouses and John and Joe returned to the boy’s suite so they could stay with Adam.  Ben was headed there as well but was gently pulled aside by Lord Roger.

“Thank the gods you are safe,” the lord murmured, pulling his fiance into a hug as soon as they were alone.

Ben sighed, leaning against him.  He had been brave and put on a good front, but now that it was all over, he was relieved to be hugged and back with his family.  “I didn’t think; just reacted,” he said quietly.  “I’m glad I didn’t have to kill anyone.”  He was a soldier, and knew it was a reality he would face – and likely soon – but was secretly glad it had not happened yet.

Roger nodded.  “I’m glad you’ve never had to,” he agreed.  He brushed back a tear.  “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Um…” Ben took a deep calming breath.  “We will never have to find out,” he said.  Roger nodded and kissed him firmly.

**********

**********

Gwil shivered and sank deeper in his bath, trying to focus on his book. He had read it at least ten times already, but after the previous two days he needed something easy and familiar.

“You’re thinking,” Brian’s voice sounded from the door and Gwil quickly turned around. His husband was leaning against the doorframe, handsome and smiling. There were times when he still felt a bit strange about being watched in a bath, but two years of marriage had brought the couple into an atmosphere of unspoken trust and intimacy.

Gwil shrugged. “Just reading.”

Brian walked into the bath chamber and gently laid his hands on Gwil’s shoulders. “It must be hard to read like this,” he smiled, “not to mention half of the candles went out before I even came.”  Gwil realized he was holding the book upside down and quickly put it away.

“I was... thinking,” he admitted.

“I figured,” Brian chuckled and pressed a soft kiss in Gwil’s hair. “Can I join you?”

After getting a nod in answer, Brian quickly stripped and joined his spouse in the spacious tub, their long legs entwined. “What is it that has you thinking now, my husband?” he asked softly.

Gwil sighed.  “We thought we were safe, that we could protect ourselves. And then we get knocked down by a little child.”

“A mage,” Brian opposed.

“Doesn’t matter! It was only a dumb luck that Joe didn’t end up a slave to The Dark.  We could do nothing!”

Brian looked at his husband gently.  “No matter who was there, it would have happened the same,” he tried to point out.  “Freddie, Roger, I, and even John would have been unable to stop it.

“But that’s the thing!” Gwil leaned forward with an anxious expression on his face. “Every time it strikes from where we don’t expect it, and every time it’s closer and closer. They basically just walked into our camp, took our brother, and we were helpless!”

Brian reached over and took on of Gwil’s hands in his, rubbing it gently.  “I’m scared, Bri,” Gwil said softly.  “What will happen next time?”

“I’m scared, too, my love,” Brian admitted. “But with every attack like this we learn more and more. Let’s hope John gets something from the little boy.”

“Or Ben,” Gwilym had to smile a little. “He is very protective of him.”

His husband chuckled.  “Have I ever told you about the day we met you boys; the day you arrived at John’s house?”

“No.” Gwil smiled and settled back in the bath, ready to listen. 

Brian shook his head at the memory.  “We were scared to death,” he confessed.  “What did we know about taking care of children?  We about pestered your poor governesses to death before they left to get you; driving them crazy with questions.  Freddie even asked what boys ate, as if he couldn’t remember when we were a bit younger!”  Gwil laughed at the image of the always confident lord not remembering food.  “And then that morning, when we knew you were coming, John was so flustered that he told the kitchens to have wine ready for you in your rooms, as if we were receiving adult guests.”

“We might have liked that,” Gwil snorted.

“I suspect you would have,” Brian agreed, rolling his eyes a little.  “So, we met you, and then left you to settle in for a bit.  The four of us all went to John’s study and had a stiff drink because we were even more terrified than before.  It was clear that you older three – especially Benjamin - were ready to kill anyone who got between you and Joseph.  John was quaking in his boots, and Freddie was completely intimidated by you and Rami.  Roger was proud of Benjamin for being so protective of Joseph, but also scared that he was going to get stabbed in the back if he ticked Benjamin off.”

“Ben would have most definitely stabbed Lord Roger in the front,” Gwil assured his husband with a smirk.  “He would never be so dishonorable to do otherwise.”  The lord chucked.

“My point, my love, is that your four as are united and strong as any group could possibly be.  You will always do everything possible to protect each other, and I rather pity anyone or anything that would oppose you.  There is reason Fate chose you four and I know it is because you are the greatest threat to The Dark that could possibly arise.  And Benjamin will take care of Adam as well now.”

Gwil flushed a little at the praise. “Rami and I foolishly thought we oversaw the small pair, but it always seemed to be the other way around. Ben is surprisingly maternal.”

“As is Roger,” Brian agreed.  There was a long pause. “How about you?” he asked suddenly.

“Me what?” Gwil looked up. “Maternal? What do you mean?”

“Well,” Brian glanced away and in the faint light of candles Gwil could see a soft blush. “You were promised to a man when you were barely two years old, so blood children are not possible.  But we have never talked if you wish to foster or adopt.  We are already parents in one fashion, but there are other options as well.”

“That is true,” Gwil mussed.  Since his marriage, he and Brian had been pleased to have been asked to serve as godparents to five children.  Gwil had been especially touched to be asked by a cousin of his in Rhye.  They had not been able to attend the christening but had sent presents and in return had several portraits of their Rhye goddaughter proudly displayed in Gwil’s study.

“I would like that,” he said.  “I love our godchildren, and they are our children, but yes, I would like to adopt…if you do, that is.  And foster any family’s children that would have us.”

Brian nodded, a shy smile on his face.  “When we defeat The Dark, we shall make plans,” he promised. 

Gwil realized he suddenly felt a little giddy at the prospect. “I can image Roger and Ben doing that as well,” he said.  “As maternal as they are, I’m sure they will adopt and foster.”

“Oh dear,” Brian chuckled.  “I think they will adopt an army of girls and unleash the deadliest fighting unit in the history of the world.”

Gwil grimaced as he reluctantly nodded agreement.  “Then we shall adopt an army of boys…. who will be defeated,” he conceded.  “It may be up to Lord John and Joe to have some balance.”

“A mage army?” Brian shook his head.  “Still would be defeated by the girls.”

“True,” Gwil acknowledged.  He smiled at his husband.  “And Lord Freddie and Rami?”

“Ah,” Brian sighed.  “Their path is harder to tell,” he said.  “There is…much unknown.

Gwil thought back to Rami’s wedding day.  “Their closest blood family is Sami and his family.”  Sami had indeed married his lady Illene a year after Rami’s wedding, and they already had a son and a second child on the way.  “But they are of Rhye.”  He knew that even two decades after the end of the war, there was still much bitterness on both sides. 

Gwil had not been immune to snide comments and jabs, just as Rami had endured.  There many in Queen openly jealous of the Rhye hostages and how they had been promised to four of the most illustrious houses of the land.  Freddie being so close now to the throne had only added to occasionally bitterness toward Rami, who always held his head high and ignored remarks.  Ignored, but never forgot, Gwil knew.

“It is such madness,” he sighed.  “Ever since Helen was forced to abdicate, I know there are those in Queen who think Lord Freddie should abdicate so one who can have blood children can take the crown.”

“Which is ridiculous,” Brian snorted.  “We know it is somehow The Dark behind what is happening in Rhye.  All we can do is stand strong and refuse to yield for Freddie or for Rami.”

“Do you think that will happen?” Gwil asked worriedly.  “We know there are those in Rhye who already consider Rami not in the line, since he is married to a Queen lord.  Sami worries about it a great deal.  He says he and his wife do not want the crown, and I believe them.”

“I see no reason to not believe them,” Brian agreed. “John likes Sami very much; he is a pure soul, just as his brother.  Sami would be too honorable to take the crown over his brother without Rami telling him to do so.”

“The Uniter,” Gwil remembered.  “Joe named Rami the Uniter King.  And Lord Freddie Emperor, first of our lands.”

Brian nodded.  “And John agreed with him.”  He reached across the tub, to draw his husband into his arms, and Gwil went willingly.

It had made Gwil flustered, the first times, when Lord Brian would easily pick him up or move him.  Gwil had been the tall brother for so long that it was secretly nice to be the one held, the one cuddled.  Gwil was young and strong, but he would never willingly pit himself against his husband, who was now forty years of age, but far tougher than his spouse.  It was not that Gwil was weak; far from it.  But he knew Lord Brian had muscles and skill born of war, experience, and determination.  His husband did occasionally enjoy jokingly putting the younger man ‘in his place’. 

“We are united,” Brian said softly, holding Gwil tight.  “All eight of us.  John saw before you were even born what we had to do to win.  And we shall.  I will accept nothing else.”

“Neither will I,” Gwil promised.  They kissed, sealing their vow.

**********

**********

Adam rolled over, confused as he slowly woke up.  He could feel something soft underneath him, and something just as comfortable and warm covering him.  He was even wearing something soft, and that was amazing.  Puzzled, he laid still, having learned that it was not good to move unless he was told to.  If he wasn’t smacked for it, then he usually hurt himself.  He wasn’t in his box, and anything outside of it meant possible danger.

“Adam?” There was kind voice that seemed somehow familiar.  “Good morning.  I’m John.  Do you remember me from last night?”

Adam frowned, thinking.  “Y-yes, my lord,” he said tentatively.  He had learned long ago that the people with him liked to always be addressed as lord or lady.  He didn’t really remember this new man, but felt it was safer to not say that he had forgotten him.

There was a soft sound, and whatever Adam was lying on sunk a little.  “It’s alright, my dear,” the voice - Lord John – said.  “I am sitting beside you on the bed.  You were more asleep than awake when we met last night, and very scared.  Do you remember Ben finding you?”

That was a name Adam did remember and he dared to smile a little.  “Yes, my lord.  Ben—“he hesitated, not wanting to say something that could possibly get Ben in trouble.  Should he tell them that Ben took him out of his box? No, it was too dangerous.  “Yes, I remember him, my lord,” he finally decided to say.

“Ben would like to see you,” Lord John said, and Adam secretly thought his voice was nice.  “But first, let’s eat some breakfast, shall we?”

Adam turned his head toward the voice.  “Yes, my lord,” he said a bit blankly.  Surely Lord John didn’t mean breakfast for Adam.

But he did.  Lord John patiently and carefully guided Adam’s hands in finding the porridge and glass of milk on a tray, encouraging Adam to eat.  There was even soft bread, and Adam could not remember the last time he had been allowed to eat so much.  In fact, he could only manage a bit, and Lord John assured him that he could have more in a little while.  “You don’t want to get sick, so eat just a bit now, and then you can have more in a few hours,” he promised.  Adam didn’t really believe him but nodded.

“The doctor wants you to rest for a few days, but I can carry you out to the study later and you can lie on the couch if you like while I work,” Lord John offered.  “One of Brian’s staff has a little boy about your age, and they were happy to loan you some night clothes and slippers.  We have already ordered some new things for you.”

“New things?” Adam tilted his head a little in confusion.  Then he ducked his head, thinking he would surely get slapped for questioning the lord.

Instead, there was a soft sigh.  “Adam,” Lord John said, his voice kind.  “It is alright to ask me – or anyone else – questions anytime.  I want you to ask questions whenever you have them, alright?”

Adam kept his head lowered.  “Yes, my lord,” he said obediently, biting his lip.  He was scared, and decided the best thing was to do what he was told, no matter how odd it might be.  He carefully felt the sleeve of the warm nightshirt he was bundled into and marveled at how soft it was.  He was even wearing socks, something he had nearly forgotten existed.

John bit his own lip as he studied the child.  The day before, the nurse and doctor had spent nearly two hours bathing Adam and then bandaging his numerous cuts.  There was an infected cut around the boy’s left ankle where the shackle had been, and too many scrapes and bruises to count.  He was appallingly thin and weak, and it would take weeks for him to recover.  And his eyes….  John shook his head.  He had no idea if Adam would regain any sight at all, but it was surely worth a try. 

The lord had not been able to work magic since Joe had blocked him nearly two years ago, but nothing had stopped John from training and looking up spells.  Even with his magic blocked so he could rest, he had been able to do a few simple things because magic was such a part of him that it was like breathing and even Joe could block only so much.  John was already going through his extensive knowledge of healing spells and planning what might work best for Adam, knowing they would need to wait a few months until the child was physical as strong as possible before the lord and Joe could attempt any healing.

“Here, this is some tea that should help you feel better,” John said kindly, holding the cup carefully so Adam could feel it and bring it to his mouth on his own.  All John wanted to do was ensure that the warm liquid did not spill and that it was not too hot for the child. It had healing herbs for pain and infection, plus a few things John had quietly added.  Adam was more than grateful to drink anything, and soon he was dozing again, his tiny stomach full for the first time that he could remember.

John stayed with him, giving Adam some more porridge and bits of cooked chicken when he awoke a few hours later, and more tea.  Adam was trying to decide if it was truly alright for him to ask a question when there was a knock on the door and a familiar voice spoke.

“Adam!  How are you?”  It was Ben, and Adam immediately sat up, turning in the direction of the voice.  A second later, familiar arms scooped him up gently despite Lord John’s protests that Adam should stay in bed.  “Nonsense, my lord, Adam is a fierce warrior,” Ben said cheerfully.  “Surely another warrior can hold him?”

“My lord,” Adam said softly, happy and relieved to know Ben was alright.  He hadn’t been sure that Lord John was telling the truth when he said Ben was with them, but he was beginning to think he could trust these people.

“Are you feeling better?” Ben asked, bouncing him a little as he used to with Joe.

“Yes, my lord, thank you,” Adam answered.  He was reaching for Ben’s shoulder to steady himself and accidentally pulled on some hair.  “Oh, I am so sorry, my lord!” He immediately hunched in on himself again, waiting for a slap.

“Adam,” Ben gently took his hand and lifted it up to touch his hair.  “There is no harm done at all; there is nothing to apologize for.  I am sorry that I jostled you.”

Adam just frowned, not quite believing that he was being apologized to.  It was really overwhelming, and a few tears ran down his face.

Ben looked at Lord John, panicked.  “Adam?  Are you alright?  Did I hurt you?”

“N-no, my lord,” Adam said, trying to stop his crying.  He knew no one liked it.

“Here,” Lord John said.  “Benjamin, why don’t you lie Adam back down, and we can talk for a few minutes?  Then he should get some more rest.”

“Of course, my lord,” Ben said, and Adam found himself carefully and gently lowered back into the soft bed, pillows placed around him.  Adam wasn’t really happy to be out of Ben’s arms but felt better when his rescuer sat beside him on the bed, keeping a hand on his arm so Adam knew where he was.

“Adam,” Lord John said gently.  “Can we ask you some more questions?”  Adam squirmed nervously but nodded.  “It is alright if you don’t know the answers, just tell us what you can, child.  No one will be angry with you.”

“You are safe here,” Ben assured him, squeezing his hand.  “Remember, these are my friends.”

Adam forced himself to take a deep breath.  “Alright,” he whispered. 

“Good lad,” Lord John said.  “Now, do you remember anything about where you lived with…. your master?”

Adam tensed, and swallowed hard, but did his best to think.  “It was always cold,” he said, shivering at the memory.

“Did everyone there use magic?”

“I think so,” Adam frowned, thinking.  “I…was taken a lot.  To bring in new mages.”  He wasn’t sure how this would be received, but based on everything so far, it seemed that being honest was best.  “I’m sorry.”

“You were just doing what you were told to do.  It’s not your fault, and there is nothing to be sorry for,” Lord John said kindly.

Adam fiddled with the blanket edge.  “I was supposed to get a mage; are they okay?” he asked nervously. 

“Joseph is fine,” Lord John assured him.  “You met him briefly last night as well, but you were almost asleep so I don’t expect you would remember him.”

Adam did remember another mage vaguely.  They had been very powerful.  He tentatively tried to reach out and frowned. “I…. can’t feel them,” he said nervously, wondering if he would get punished. 

“No,” Lord John said, rubbing Adam’s arm gently.  “Do you know what being ‘blocked’ means?”

“Stopping magic?”

“Yes, in a way.  Joseph has blocked your magic, Adam.  Don’t worry, it is still there.  But you need to rest and not use your powers.”

“But…” Adam turned his head in the lord’s direction.  “But its my job!  Its all I am good for,” he repeated words he had constantly been told.  He was starting to panic, terrified what would happen to him.

“Adam.”  It was Lord Ben, his voice as kind as always.  “Listen to me; calm down.  You are good for many, many, things, and not just magic.  We don’t want you to use your magic now because it hurts you.  We want you to get better.”

“But how do I earn my keep then?”

Ben picked up the boy carefully, settling him on his lap.  “Adam, you are five years old.  You do not have a job, and don’t have to earn your keep.  We are going to take care of you, and all you have to do is get better.”

“But—”

“No, dear,” Lord John said kindly.  “Adam, I would very much like it if you came to live with me….and Joseph.  We want you to be with us, and all you have to do is get better and learn whatever you like.”

“Lord John was one of my guardians when I was young,” Ben said cheerfully.  “You will like him, Adam, I promise.  And wait until you meet Miami!  I have so many stories to tell you!”

Adam bit his lip, not knowing what to say.  This was all very confusing and he was so tired.  Without realizing it, he winced, his face pale and pinched.

“I think we have kept you up enough now, child,” Lord John said.  “Here, this is some tea; can you drink a little bit more?”  Adam nodded obediently, knowing to never turn down drink or food.  He sipped the drink and was laid back down.  “You rest some more, my dear.  Ben or I will stay with you.”

“Yes, my lord,” Adam whispered, and soon he was back asleep.

**********

**********

Chapter Text

Roger and Sir James took lead on interrogating the men that Ben brought back, and none of the news was good.  They could tell few specifics but confirmed that they did kidnap mages for their dark master and take then to a village where other soldiers took them to the master.  Because of the system, they themselves had never seen where mages were taken or even seen the dark lord himself.  They admitted that rumors were that the master always wore a face mask and gloves, adding to his mystery.

John and Joe went down to the cells and stayed quietly out of the way and out of sight during one interrogation, trying to see if they could determine anything.  Joe nearly started a nosebleed from the stress, stating that the men were blocked by a covering spell that prevented him from seeing much.  All he could add was that the Dark Castle was on the forests on the border of Rhye and Queen, protected by spells that kept it hidden.

Under further questioning, information was gathered on troop sizes and locations, and Roger sent his best scouts and agents to investigate.    He and Ben naturally wanted to go themselves, but the wedding could not be postponed without serious questions being raised, and they knew secrecy was still their best weapon.

“Send scouts and agents to see if they can infiltrate, now that we know more,” Freddie decided the next afternoon.  “But we must act as if all is normal.  We have a wedding to attend in just over a month.”

Rami was in a corner of Lord Brian’s study, and Gwil couldn’t help but glance at him in concern. Things had been tense between Rami and his parents since the death of Lord Keith and his son, and Lord Malek being named the heir presumptive.  It had been 18 months since the oldest cousin of the Malek line – King Edward – had taken the throne.  Rami knew well the talk that he should be taken out of the succession because he was now ‘of Queen’, and he also worried about something happening to his father.  Lord Malek had not exchanged a single letter with his son in nearly a year, despite Rami’s best efforts.

“It has begun,” Rami said quietly as Freddie went over and took his husband’s hand.  “The war.”

“Yes,” Freddie agreed softly.  “And we must be ready for some possible…. unpleasantness…with the families.  I am sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, my lord,” Gwil said.  “And we understand we must keep the kidnapping secret.  It would cause many questions and worries.  We cannot let The Dark know that we are aware of them and now have foiled a kidnapping.  And of course we cannot let anyone know Lord John and Joe – and Adam – are mages.”

Freddie managed a small smile.  “I am always asking you to keep secrets from your own parents,” he said sadly.

“It must be done,” Ben nodded, his expression firm.  Gwil and Rami nodded in agreement.  Gwil was about to add something when there was a knock on the door to the study.  Sir James answered it, and there was a moment of hushed discussion before he turned to the lords.

“My lords, we are requested by Lord John to please meet in his study,” he said finally.

Freddie nodded, and pulled something from a drawer that made Rami smile, and then everyone quickly went to the room off John’s bedroom.  They were joined by John and Joe, both who whom were frowning.  “What is wrong?” Freddie asked quietly.

John sighed, running his hands through his long hair.  “Adam is feeling a bit better,” he assured them first.  “And he is remembering more.  He is a very smart lad.  I think he can tell us more now, and it is best if you hear it from him.  Freddie, Ben – I think he would be most willing to talk to you.  I hate to do this to him, but everyone else please be quiet.  We will keep the door open so you can listen; I will not tell him you are here.”  John looked all of them sternly.  “Understand – I am allowing this only because I think it’s crucial that we all hear the same thing at the same time.  I will not allow any other taking advantage of his disability.”

“We understand,” Brian assured him.  “Will he know we are listening?”

“Not if you are quiet.  Joe has blocked his magic, so he will not be able to sense you.”  John looked at all of them firmly.  “I mean it; do NOT break my trust in this matter.  And I will not do this to him again.”

“We promise,” Freddie vowed, and everyone nodded in agreement. John glared at them for an additional moment, making his point completely clear, and then nodded and gestured for Freddie and Ben to enter his bedroom.  Joe was already inside, sitting in a comfortable chair with Fada at his feet.

Adam was already looking better, washed and clad in fresh nightclothes.  John had spent an hour that morning brushing and trimming his hair, and Ben was glad to see his foundling looking alert and content.  He had visited Adam the night before and again early in the morning and was assured by the doctors that Adam was no longer in pain and was beginning to heal.  It would take a long time for him to completely recover from the neglect he had suffered, but he was responding well to the medicine and good food and was on the path to recovery.

“Hello Adam,” Ben said cheerfully and was glad when the child willingly climbed into his arms as he sat on the bed.  “How are you feeling this afternoon?”

“Good, my lord,” Adam said shyly.  Ben shook his head.

“Adam, my name is Ben,” he chuckled.  “Remember?  You don’t have to call me my lord.”

“Yes, my l---Ben,” Adam quickly corrected.  Ben just smiled and settled the child on his lap, wrapping a warm blanket around him.

“Adam, do you feel up to answering some more questions?” Lord John asked gently, taking a chair beside the bed, and the child nodded.

“Yes, my lord,” he said.  Nothing had been able to dissuade Adam from addressing John as ‘my lord’.

“Alright, my dear.  Adam, I would like you to meet my oldest brother, Freddie.”  John took Adam’s right hand and gently laid it in Freddie’s.

“I am honored to meet you, Adam,” Freddie said gently, touching the child’s hand.

“My lord,” Adam said shyly, slightly squirming back into Ben’s arms.  He was clearly nervous, but also determined to be brave.

“We are very happy to have you with us, Adam,” Freddie continued.  “As you may know, this is Brian and Gwil’s home, but I hope you will come visit me and Rami – my husband – at our home.  Do you like cats?”

Adam tilted his head in confusion at the question.  “I---don’t know, my lord,” he whispered nervously.

“Well, I have some lovely cats and I’m sure they will love you.  Brian is silly and for some reason does not have cats, but I always have a toy with me.”  Freddie pulled out a small cat doll and gently placed it in Adam’s palms, guiding the small hands to feel the gift.  “This is for you, dear.  It is yours now, forever.  If you would like a real kitten, we can certainly arrange that.”

Adam’s sightless eyes were wide as he carefully felt the toy.  “For me?” he asked, clearly unable to believe it.

“Yes, yours, I promise,” Freddie assured him.  “Children need toys, my dear, and this is perfect for you.”  He smiled at John, and mouthed ‘no sharp edges’ which made his brother nod happily.

“Cats are nice, Adam,” Ben said cheerfully.  “But just wait until I get you a dog!”

“A dog?”  Adam looked completely puzzled now.

“Yes,” Ben said firmly.  “Joe has a dog, and you need one also.  We will pick the perfect one for you.”

“Cats are better,” Freddie said a bit crossly.  Ben just grinned at the lord as Adam held his new toy tightly.

John nodded at Freddie and the lord took a deep breath.  “Adam, thank you for answering our questions.  I know this must be very difficult for you, dear.”  Adam just nodded, ready to tell what he could.  “Can you tell us anymore about the man who had you, Adam?  I know it is scary, but anything you can tell us will help.”

“Remember,” Ben added firmly, “you are safe here, Adam.  You are never going back to him.”

Adam nodded, and bit his lip.  “The Master?”  Adam visibly shook a little at the name.  “I was only with him a few times, I think.  He—he did something.”  One hand touched his head.  “Something up here.  It hurt.”  Ben frowned, looking at Lord John and the man sighed.

“He… brought out your magic, my dear,” John explained, his expression sad.  “You were very young to have it started.  That is why it hurt.”

Adam bit his lip, clearly thinking.  “His hands were…. funny.  They felt funny, I mean.”

Freddie quickly pulled his cloak to cover his hand, and then touched Adam’s arm.  “Like this?”

“I think so, my lord,” Adam answered, his small fingers feeling the material.  “Gloves?”

“Indeed,” Freddie praised.  “You are very smart, Adam.”  The child blushed a little at the words.  “Did he say anything else you remember?”

“He didn’t speak a lot to me.  But I did hear him tell other people that he wanted revenge, my lord.”

“Did he ever say revenge against who?  Do you remember any names?” 

Adam nodded.  “Deacon.”

Freddie sat up as if struck, his dark eyes wide, looking John who appeared equally shocked.  “Deacon?” he repeated, his voice sharp.  “Are you certain of that name?”

“Yes, my lord,” Adam said.  He sensed the sudden tension in the room and huddled a little closer to Ben, who wrapped his arms around him tightly, starring at John in surprise as well.  In his chair, Joe had sat up, shock on his face.

Freddie looked over at his brothers and their spouses in the doorway, everyone’s eyes wide.  He held up a hand, signaling to them to be quiet and still and then turned back to the child.  “Adam, this is very important.  Did you ever hear why he wanted revenge against Deacon?  Did you hear anything else?”

Adam bit his lip nervously, concentrating.  “He said that with his army of mages and the armies of Rhye he will get his revenge on House Deacon.”

“Rhye?” Ben almost jumped at the name.

“I---yes.  Rhye,” Adam said. He was clearly nervous, hunching in on himself as if he expected another slap.  “I—did I say something wrong?  I’m sorry!”

“No, it’s alight child,” John said, taking Adam’s hand and patting it gently.  “We want to know the truth; do not worry about what you say.  You have done well to remember all that you have.”

“Is there anything else you remember, either about Deacon or about Rhye?” Freddie asked.  Adam clearly thought hard, and finally shook his head.  “Alright then, dear, thank you for talking to me.  If you remember anything else, I would like to hear it, but you have indeed done well.  I think we should let you have a snack and then nap again for a time.  I will send in a nurse; I need to talk to John, Ben, and Joe.  Oh, and you must think of a name soon for your kitten.”  Freddie gently hugged Adam’s hands. 

“Yes, my lord.”  Adam accepted a warm hug from Ben and John and then obediently settled back in the bed, still clutching his toy in amazement, his fingers carefully feeling every part of it.  In the other room, Brian went to the hall to fetch a nurse who came in to sit with Adam while the men gathered.

“The library,” Freddie said quietly.  Everyone nodded and followed him, Joe holding Lord John’s hand tightly.  The older mage’s face was pale, his lips tight in clear thought.  Freddie waited until all eight of them plus Sir James were in the library, the door firmly closed, before he turned to John and put his hands on his youngest brother’s shoulders.  “Deacy?”

“I’m alright,” John said automatically, but he was clearly dazed.  Joe did not look much better, and both were quickly guided to sit on a couch, Fada protectively beside them.

“What the hells?” Roger muttered, his fists clenching.  “How does The Dark know John’s name?”

Freddie looked at everyone sharply, shaking his head.  “Roger – you and I will interrogate the prisoners again immediately.  Joseph – can you sense anything?”

“No, my lord,” Joe said, obviously as surprised as the rest of them.  “I’ve never had any hint about this.”

“Nor I,” John sighed.  “I supposed that it is possible that The Dark knows my name from when I was… possessed.”  Joe scowled at his fiancé.

“He tried to possess you,” he pointed out with a mutter.  “You fought back and won.” 

“But why revenge?” Gwil asked.  “Because you broke their spell on you?  Who would want revenge on you?”

John looked down at his boots, and Freddie tensed.  “John—“he began.

“Who else, Freddie?” John said, his eyes still downcast.

Brian frowned, clearly knowing what they were talking about.  “I don’t believe it,” he said firmly.

“Believe what?” Ben was looking in frustration around the room.  “And what was that about the armies of Rhye?  Only the monarch can order the armies, so that would be King Edward now.”

John finally looked up; his eyes sad.  “And who is his heir?  It makes even more sense now, Freddie,” he said quietly, looking at his eldest brother.  Roger growled a little, pacing angrily about the room now.  Gwil was ready to tear his hair out if someone didn’t explain quickly.

Rami suddenly gasped a little, his eyes wide, and his brothers looked at him warily.  “What?” Joe demanded.  Rami looked at his husband, his face pale.

“Our parents would want revenge against Lord John, since he enforced the treaty to take us,” Rami said, his voice tight.  “And then they were refused yet again when they wanted Ben and Joe after my wedding.  Now, my father is in line for the throne…and as king, he would order armies.”

Freddie quickly went to his young husband.  “Rami, we do not know anything for certain,” he cautioned.

“But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Rami demanded; his fists clenched.  “You think my father is The Dark, don’t you?  He hates Queen, he tried to take back Ben and Joe, and he will order armies when he is king.”

“What?” Ben was up on his feet.  Gwil and Joe just starred in shock.

“My love, I think nothing yet,” Freddie said firmly.  “We cannot jump to conclusions.”

“How could Lord Malek be The Dark?” Ben looked furious, standing beside Rami as if to defend him.

“Your parents have always hated me and sought revenge,” John said quietly.  “And I cannot blame them.”

Ben refused to believe it.  “But to think Lord Malek is The Dark?  That is insane!”

“As king, my father would command the armies,” Rami said, his voice flat now with grief.  “It all makes sense.”

“The treaty!” Gwil said quickly.  “The treaty says that the armies of Rhye are under the command of our lords.  It is not truly the ruler of Rhye.”

“Treaties can be broken,” Brian said quietly, shaking his head.  “It is possible there is a secret army in Rhye.  We have never found proof of such a thing, but a… revolt… is always possible.”

Ben turned to the tall lord.  “And you think our parents would lead this?” he demanded.

“Peace!” Freddie roared, glaring at everyone.  “We will all stop accusations and speculation this moment.  Is that clear?”  He was every bit a ruler, demanding obedience, before tempers flared further, and slowly all nodded.  Freddie waited until he had their full attention, and then continued, his voice icy.  “First, we will interrogate the prisoners again, specifically asking if they know of any revenge plots, and about the armies of Rhye.  Then we will meet rationally and discuss this.”  He stood still, forcing everyone to meet his eyes.  Brian, Roger, and John nodded quickly; it took the younger set of brothers more time, but finally each of them gave a curt nod, acknowledging their obedience to the high lord.

Freddie took a deep breath, making plans.  “Roger – you and I will go to the prisoners now.  Rami and Ben – you will observe, and only observe.   You have a right to know immediately anything we learn, but you will not interfere unless directed, do you understand?”  Both brothers nodded reluctantly.  “Miami, stay with Rami and Ben.  Brian, you will take John, Joe, and Gwil, and go back to young Adam.  Let him rest, but when he awakes, ask if he can remember anything else.”  The lord looked around the room and everyone nodded or bowed their head.  “Then let us go,” Freddie ordered. 

Brian pulled John aside as they went up the stairs. “Adam does not know your last name,” he said quietly.

John nodded.  “No one has said it around him.”  He sighed.  “We can’t keep it secret.  Someone will say something.  It is better if I tell him.”

Adam took the news in shock, clearly terrified now that he had indeed done something wrong.  It took all of them to comfort the child, assuring him that John was safe and no one was angry at Adam.  “We are glad you told us, Adam,” Brian said firmly.  “It is best we know that The Dark wants John.”

“We were supposed to take you, Lord Joseph,” Adam said timidly, clearly putting the pieces together.

“You were just doing what you were told to do, Adam,” Joe said, hugging the child.  “No one blames you.”

Adam shook a little.  “Master can’t find me?”

“No,” John assured him.  “We promise.  He had no idea where you are, and we will keep it secret from him and other mages.  You are hidden, child. We will not let anything happen to you.”

“Here, you still have yet to meet Fada,” Joe said, deciding to change the subject.  He patted the bed and Fada happily came over to meet the newest member of her pack.

“We will say that he is the orphan son of one of my tenants,” John said quietly to Brian as Gwil and Joe introduced Fada to Adam and the older men went to the doorway.  “It would be best if we stay here until Roger and Ben’s wedding.”

Brian nodded in agreement.  “We should stay together, and surely it would be best for Adam to not have to travel for a time.  Miami can cover for anything needed at your estate for the time being.”  He paused, and put an arm around his youngest brother, drawing him into the other room for a moment.  “John, did you ever sense anything from Lord Malek or the other parents hinting that they could be behind The Dark?”

John shook his head.  “That is what is making me crazy,” he admitted.  “I felt a great deal from them, of course; anger at the treaty, hated of all of us, especially me, but nothing evil.  Nothing that ever felt anything like The Dark.”

“Then we must wait and see what we can learn from the prisoners.  And be on alert for Roger and Ben’s wedding.”  Brian hugged his brother.  “We will get through this, John.”

The youngest lord shook his head.  “But at what price, Brian?  I ordered that children be taken from their parents, and now we may tell those children that their parents are connected to The Dark?  They will hate us.”

Brian thought of his husband, of Rami and Freddie.  Against the odds, they had true, loving, marriages in their arranged matches, and he knew Roger and Ben felt the same love for each other, as did John and Joe.  Would accusations against their parents change this?  He hugged his brother again, not knowing what else to do.

Hours later, a nurse and servant came to the bedroom to stay with Adam, telling the others that they were requested by Lord Freddie in the library.  Brian was glad when Gwil took his hand, squeezing it in reassurance and he saw Joe also smile at John and lean against him for a moment.  It seemed that they at least were at peace with one another.

Brian was further relieved when they arrived at the study and saw Rami and Freddie quietly talking.  Both looked tired, but there seemed to be no anger between them and Freddie kissed his husband’s hand, to which Rami smiled wearily.  There was no doubt much more to discuss, but the near anger from earlier seemed dissipated.  Roger and Ben entered, and while they were both tense, they too seemed united.  Brian prayed it would stay so; he would not let The Dark have a victory by dividing them from their husbands.

“They confirm that Deacon was a name they have heard before,” Freddie said without preamble once they were all gathered.  “We have instructed the guards to make certain no one mentions John.  One of them has also heard mentioned of the armies of Rhye, but knows no details.  If there is any sort of conspiracy in Rhye, it is still small.”  He looked at all of them firmly.  “For now, there is no evidence that any of your parents are involved.  We must be cautious of everyone, but we will not single out or focus on anyone until we have more information.”

“That is fair,” Rami said, nodding.  “It is reasonable, and we understand.”  He looked at Ben, who reluctantly inclined his head in agreement.

“Neither Joseph nor I have ever felt anything from Rhye, or from the parents,” John stated with conviction. 

Gwil released a deep breath he had been holding, taking his husband’s hand again.  He had hoped that the news would be so, and he could feel the earlier tension ease.

“We cannot let The Dark drive us apart,” Brian said, and Gwil looked at his husband with love and pride.

“I agree,” Freddie said.  “For now, we will send extra scouts to the borders and heighten our defenses.        And,” he smiled at Roger and Ben.  “We have a wedding to attend soon.”

They slowly broke away for dinner, and Freddie went to his husband.  “I am sorry, my love,” he said quietly.  “No one wants to suspect your father, or anyone else from Rhye.”

Rami nodded in understanding, and looked at Freddie, his eyes full of tears.  “And what if I suspect my own father?” he whispered.  Freddie drew him into his arms and held him close.  For now, there was nothing he could say.

**********

**********

Brian smiled as tiny hands ran over his face and hair.  “And this is curly hair, my lord?” Adam asked in fascination as he gently tugged on a long strand, feeling the tight corkscrews.

“Yes, it is,” Gwil jumped in before Brian could answer.  “And he has more hair than the rest of us put together!”

“I do not.  Gwilym, do not tell young Adam lies,” Brian pouted.  Adam just giggled.

In the past week, Adam had made a steady recovery, growing stronger and braver each day.  He was allowed up for brief periods of time, resting in the sunshine on the balconies and carried down to the bathhouse.  It reminded Gwil of when Joe had his first swimming lesson, and he smiled at his husband, noting how Brian lit up around children.  There had been something of a custody battle already, but John had managed to lay claim to Adam after some not-so-always friendly arguments with his brothers.   For now, everyone was happy to share him and try to help him adjust to his new life.

It had been one of the nurses and Freddie who had discovered that Adam was hiding away some of the snacks and treats he was given during the day, putting them under the bed when he thought he was alone.  By agreement, no one said anything, and just made sure that Adam was constantly offered food, helping him to feel secure that he did not have to hide any extra against a time when he might not be given meals.  Roger and Ben were especially shocked, and made a point of giving Adam sweets and food every time they visited and practically hovering over the child until he ate all he could.

Fada was also clearly taken with the new addition to the household.  John was sleeping on the comfortable couch in the adjoining study – not wanting to be away from the boys - while Joe and Adam shared the large bed and Fada slept in the doorway in-between, keeping watch on all three of her charges.  Adam loved his first toy, the cuddle cat from Freddie that he had named Felix, but he was thrilled to be promised a puppy as soon as the wedding was over.  Lord John had already contacted his kennel master to see what hound might be a good fit for the lad.

“Too bad Fada doesn’t have puppies; one of them would be perfect,” Joe remarked one afternoon as Fada tugged on a rope with Adam.

“That would be perfect.” Gwil agreed.  “Maybe one day.”  He handed Joe a glass of water and the younger brother looked at him for a moment before accepting it.

“Thank you; I was just going to ask about a drink,” Joe remarked.  It was a warm day and they were sitting on the balcony off John’s bedroom.  Joe had bruised his knee, and had been ordered to keep it elevated on a chair and pillows.

“Don’t expect this service all the time,” Gwil warned, but he smiled and ruffled his brother’s hair.

Adam giggled as Fada give up on the rope and licked his face.  She was as gentle was always, and seemed to understand when Adam accidentally pulled on her ears or poked her nose as he felt her face.  “I like dogs,” he whispered to her and then picked up his toy.  “And cats,” he admitted.  Fada took the admission well and just playfully nudged the boy.

Joe was about to say something when he dropped the glass and it shattered on the floor.  Gwil took one look at his brother and saw immediately that he was deep in a vision, his whole body shaking and his eyes rolled back in his head.  John rushed to his side and Gwil joined him, long familiar with what to do.  “Adam, it is alright, just don’t move; there is glass on the floor,” John ordered.  “Fada, stay with Adam.”  In response, Fada laid down on the child, keeping him still.  John and Gwil picked Joe up and took him into the bedroom, lying him down.  As soon as he was settled, Gwil hurried out and picked up Adam, taking him to the couch in the study.

“What is happening?” Adam whispered, frightened.

“Joe is having a vision,” Gwil said quietly as he tucked a blanket around Adam.  “You are on the couch; can you stay here, Adam?  Fada will stay with you.  I need to send for the others and help Lord John with Joe.”  Adam quickly nodded, understanding.  He was used to staying where he was put, and clutched his cuddle cat, Fada nudging him so he knew she was beside him.

Gwil called for a servant, and asked them to fetch the other lords.  Returning to the bedroom, he found Joe limp and quiet; the shaking done, but still obviously deep in his sight.  John gratefully accepted a washcloth that he laid on Joe’s head, and together they made sure Joe had not cut himself on the glass.

Brian was the first to arrive, with Freddie and Ben close behind.  Roger was out training horses and word was sent to him to return quickly.  Sir James took Adam to his room so the child could rest, and Fada returned to Joe’s side.  All they could do now was wait.

“Can you tell anything?” Freddie quietly asked John. The older mage’s magic was blocked, but from time to time something still crept through the defenses Joe had created.  If John was with Joe when there was a vision, he could occasionally sense something.  John has his own eyes closed, his hands on Joe’s head, focusing all he could.

“Only that it is something occurring now,” he finally answered.  “Joe is seeing it as it happens.” 

Nearly thirty minutes after it started, Joe relaxed, falling into a deep sleep.  John stroked his hair and washed his face, Rami getting a cool compress for Joe’s knee.  They sent for tea, and John added some of the herbs he always carried with him that helped relieve pain after a vision so that it would be ready when Joe awoke.

After an hour, Joe finally stirred, groggy as always after a vision.  They knew from experience that it would be a while before he was awake enough to tell them what he had seen, and settled in in the bedroom and study.  Roger rushed in just as Joe took a deep breath, fighting to speak.

“Don’t force yourself,” John warned, but Joe shook his head.

“You have to know now,” he insisted, closing his eyes, then opening them again to focus on Rami.  “It’s about Rhye,” he whispered.

Everyone tensed and gathered around.  “Just tell us what you can,” Rami said quietly, taking Joe’s hand.  “No matter what it was.”

Joe nodded, wincing a little at the pain the motion cause, and closed his eyes again.  “There was a….tournament,” he said.  “I think at your house, Ben.”

“My family was going to hold a tournament in celebration of the wedding,” Ben confirmed quietly. 

“King Edward was there.  He wanted to participate…” Joe struggled for breath.  “He---he rode out—and he was killed in a joust.”

“What?!” Everyone gasped, looking at each other in concern.  Freddie immediately grabbed Rami’s hand, holding it tight.

“He is dead,” Joe repeated.  He managed to open his eyes and looked at Rami again.  “They think it was an accident….but it wasn’t,” he whispered.

Freddie tightened his hold on his husband’s shoulder.  “Rami’s father?” he asked crisply.

Joe closed his eyes.  “King Said.”

‘No!” Rami chocked, looking up at Freddie.  “No!  He---“ he broke off as Freddie pulled his husband tight against him.

“This does not leave this room,” Freddie ordered, looking around as he enfolded Rami in his arms.  “We will say that Joe had a seizure and fell, and we are worried about him bleeding.  Doctors will come in and examine him for any injuries.  Brian and John, stay here with Gwil and Joe, send for doctors.  Roger and Ben, go to Adam and make sure he has not had a similar vision, and then return here.  Stay here until Rami and I return; we will be in our rooms if Joe sees anything else, but otherwise remain here.  Is that clear?”  They all nodded, and Freddie guided Rami out.

Decades ago, each of the lords had re-designed their family homes to make guest suites near each of the master bedrooms.  Freddie was glad that the suite he and Rami stayed in was only a few steps away from John’s room, and he managed to get Rami inside without being seen by any staff.  Roger and Ben stayed in the hallway until Freddie nodded, and then they left to find Adam.  Freddie firmly closed the door behind him and guided his husband to the couch where Rami practically collapsed.

“Rami,” Freddie sat beside him and took his hands.  “Look at me, darling.”  Slowly, Rami lifted his head, his eyes wide with tears.  “It is alright,” Freddie said, his voice firm.  “We will accept nothing else.  We have known this day is coming, and we will make it right.”

“But—“ Rami shook his head.  “What if my father is The Dark?  And even if he isn’t, the visions and the master say we will fight Rhye, which means we will fight my father!”  Rami looked at his husband, shaking.  “How can I fight against him?  Or order troops to maybe kill him?”

Freddie put his hands firmly on Rami’s shoulders, grounding him.  “My dearest, you will never have to fight against your father, or any of your family or your brother’s families; we have sworn this.  No matter what happens, we will never ask you to raise arms against your own kin.”

Rami managed to nod that he understood that much, and bit his lip.  “What do we do now?” he asked, his voice hollow.  “My father—his coronation – we can’t go, can we?”

“I don’t know how,” Freddie said honestly.  “Current monarchs and those directly in line – such as we are - do not customarily attend coronations.  Even if not for that—“ Freddie paused, and looked at his husband steadily.  “We cannot ignore that there would be great danger to us attending.  I think it best if we stay together…. and near our forces.”

Rami nodded, and then burst into tears, his husband holding him tightly.

An hour later, Rami and Freddie returned to John’s room to find the rest gathered, waiting patiently.  Freddie sat and looked at each of them.  “We must act that we know nothing,” he reminded them firmly.  “It will be difficult, but if there is any hint at all, then it puts John, Joe, and Adam in danger as others will wonder how we could possibly know.”  He looked at the younger set of brothers, his expression sad.  “It is the hardest part of magical knowledge,” he added softly, “not being able to express it.  It is yet another secret we must keep.”

“One day, we can say,” John vowed.

“I hope so,” Freddie agreed.  “For now, we must continue as we have been.  We already said we were going to stay here until the wedding, and we should continue that except for Roger leaving as planned to prepare.  I assume that news will reach us within a few days at the most; news such as this will be sent by messenger doves, and all we can do is quietly be ready.  Once we have the news, we will have to see what our king orders.”

“So we just have to wait,” Gwil sighed, looking at Rami sadly.  He could tell his brother had been crying, but now he was quiet, but steady as he sat beside Freddie.

“It is all we can do,” Brian nodded.  “We cannot arouse any suspicion by behaving differently or changing plans without reason.”

“Well,” Rami looked at his husband.  “I guess we will soon find out if my father does intend to remove me from the succession.”  They all knew of the rumors, and Gwil laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “And if he does, then we know we will be fighting him, because there is no other way I will named king other than war if he removes me.”

Gwil squeezed his shoulder.  “We will be with you,” he vowed, and Ben and Joe nodded.

The next day passed in agonizing slowness.  They had to attend the pre-wedding festivities that Brian and Gwil had planned, dancing, smiling, and acting as if nothing was wrong.  “How did you manage it all those years?” Rami asked Freddie quietly as they rode together that morning.  “You had to keep so many secrets, never revealing what you knew.”

Freddie sighed, looking at the mountains.  “It was difficult, and it never gets easier,” he admitted.  “But I do not think that lying should be easy, no matter the reason.  It was especially hard when you boys came to us.  We so wanted to offer some reason; to give some comfort.  But all we could do was know it was for this time that we are in now; when we all must unite to defeat The Dark.”

“Who may be my father,” Rami said, his eyes downcast.  There was nothing Freddie could say.

The next morning, Rami and Freddie were awoken in the early hours by a pounding on the door to their chamber.  “My lords!” called a servant.  “I am sorry to disturb you, but there is urgent news!”  Freddie looked at Rami and nodded as they pulled on dressing gowns.

“Send for my brothers,” Freddie ordered as they entered the hallway.  “We will gather in the library.”

Quickly the other’s arrived, Roger carrying Joe, who was still weak from his vision.  He was recovering slowly and to his embarrassment he had to be carried at times as walking was difficult even with crutches or Fada and a cane for assistance.  All quietly braced themselves, taking comfort in quiet support.  As soon as they were settled, a messenger dressed in the colors of the Queen army was escorted in.

“My lords.”  The scout bowed to the men.  “I bring news from Rhye that was sent to Lord Brian’s post by dove.  Two days ago, Lord Hardy hosted a tournament in celebration of his son’s upcoming wedding.  King Edward participated in the jousts and he was injured by accident during the lists.  He died later that night.”

Freddie bowed his head, and everyone followed his lead.  “This is most horrible news,” he said, his voice completely sincere.  “We are grieved to hear this.”

“Said Malek is now king,” the messenger continued, glancing at Rami, who kept his head down.  “King Said is having his coronation immediately.  He may in fact already be crowned by now.”

“What?” Freddie was honestly shocked, as was everyone.  No one would have expected this.  “But surely King Edward is scarcely mourned and buried!”

“I understand, my lord, but that is the news, verified by many sources,” the messenger confirmed.  “I know that my commanders are preparing to send doves to our forces in Rhye, and they will surely contact you.”  The woman spread her hands in apology.  “We are all surprised at the news, but we were told to tell you and our king that King Said is on the throne and crowned.”  She hesitated, but stood tall and looked at Rami.  “And there is one last bit of news, my lords.  King Said has named his second son Sami as his heir.”

It was not a shock, but still, it was hard news to hear.  Rami clenched his fists and Joe leaned against his oldest brother, trying to offer some comfort.  “Thank you,” Freddie told the messenger.  “Please, be sure to eat and rest.  Tomorrow we may ask you to take a longer message from me to the capital.”

“Of course, my lords.”  The woman bowed, and left.

“Gods, crowed already?” Brian murmured as the door closed behind the messenger.

“He is moving fast,” Roger agreed, pacing again.  “We must alert our troops immediately.”

Freddie nodded.  “Put everyone on quiet alert,” he ordered.  “We will make no move now, but tell our commanders to be ready.  I will compose a message to our king saying that we will gradually and quietly move more forces to the borders with Rhye.  Roger, Brian – send our best spies and scouts to the border immediately and tell them to concentrate on any troop movements.  We need to know what is happening in the Rhye capital.  I cannot believe that this sudden coronation has not caused talk.  Now is the time to learn more.”

Rami had still not said a word, his head still down, and Gwil and Ben went to join Joe beside their eldest brother.  “We are here with you,” Ben said quietly.  Rami managed a nod, but could not look at anyone.  Gwil looked at Freddie and saw the concern in his eyes.

“Please, may I have a moment with Rami?” Freddie said.  “Send orders to our forces and then try to rest for a few more hours.”  Everyone nodded and quietly left.  Freddie took a deep breath and went to his husband.

“I am sorry, my dear,” he said softly, taking Rami’s hands.

“He is The Dark,” Rami said, still unable to meet Freddie’s eyes.  “He has disinherited me, and crowned himself immediately, defying any norm and even decency.  He would move this fast only if he was preparing to attack.”

Freddie hesitated, but finally nodded, unable to lie to his husband.  “It seems so.”

Rami finally looked up, and his green eyes were filled with tears, but also determination.  “Then we must do what we need to do to stop him,” he said flatly.  “We have been preparing for over 20 years; the time has come.”  He took a deep breath.  “We must win, Freddie,” he said firmly.  “We have to for both Queen and Rhye.  We must defeat The Dark, no matter who or what they are.  Promise me this, Freddie; we must win.”

Freddie pulled his husband into a hug.  “We will win,” he promised.

**********

**********

Ben and Lord Roger were married three weeks later in a party that started days before the ceremony and promised to continue for more days.  None of the parents had come, all sending stiffly formal messages that they were busy with matters in Rhye.  It was a clear snub, and that and the news of Kind Said’s unseemly immediate coronation was the gossip of all of Queen.

Roger and Ben privately said that they wanted their brothers to enjoy themselves and try to relax as much as they could; they all knew the time of war was coming, and this could well be their last celebration for some time.  Roger had already planned an enormous party for his nuptials, and nothing was going to make him pull back now.  Ben was in complete agreement even with the absence of their parents.

Gwil’s heart ached for Ben, who naturally had assumed that his own parents would attend his wedding regardless of events in Rhye.  But after the initial shock, Ben put on a brave face, holding his head high, laughing, joking, and dancing, determined to let nothing take away his happiness at his marriage.  He was breaking on the inside, but to the outside he showed nothing but grace.  All the guests quietly praised the young man for his courage and determination, and Ben was fawned over by all the guests, who were appalled at his parent’s behavior.

“It is scandalous,” Giwl heard an older lady sniff as he paused outside a balcony door where a group had gone for a breath of fresh air.  “Not just for boycotting their own child’s wedding but for crowing a new king when the old one is not even in the grave!  That young man deserves a better family.”

“It is good he is formally of Queen now,” agreed a friend.  “The nerve of those parents!  Thank the gods their sons are decent boys.”

“Well, they were raised in Queen; of course, they would be better behaved,” said another.  “I always wondered why our lords would bind themselves to Rhye children, but at least it has made these boys good sorts.”

“Because they were raised here, away from those dreadful parents,” commented yet another.  “Thank the gods they were taken from their parents at a young age and raised properly.  Gods only know what they may have been like otherwise.”

“Don’t listen to them,” John said quietly, starting Gwil a bit, embarrassed he was caught eavesdropping.  “Trust me, that group gossips about everything under the sun.”

Gwil blushed a little as he walked back into the ballroom with John.  “I know I shouldn’t listen, it’s just hard not to,” he admitted.  “It is all everyone is talking about.  I had to take a break from dancing because all my partners want to talk about how horrible my parents are.”  He looked at the dance floor, where Roger and Ben were leading another set.  “And the truth, Lord John, is that I agree with them to a degree.  I never thought that our parents would not be here.  I mean, we could understand Rami’s parents not coming, but not Ben’s family refusing to attend.” 

John took his hand, squeezing it for comfort.  “I know this is difficult,” he said carefully.  They had to watch what they said in public, but Gwil knew all that John was quietly conveying.  “Come, dance with me this set.  You lead, and I will dazzle everyone with my dancing and cause some new gossip.”  Despite everything, Gwil had to laugh and he happily escorted the lord out onto the floor.

In the months since his magic was temporarily blocked, John had grown stronger than he had ever been before in his life.  Among the discoveries with his good health was a previously hidden talent for dancing that was indeed the other popular talk of the parties.  John had always had to limit his dancing, but now he was free to indulge and was outlasting even Freddie for his stamina on the dance floor.  His dance card was full with a waiting list of people wanting to join him and the musicians were happy to strike up festive tunes when they saw the lord.

John had even sacrificed himself - in Ben’s opinion – in the most noble show ever by taking on the May twins, now seven years old and devastated that the love of their life was officially married and out of their reach.  After a night of pouting, they had switched their allegiance to Lord John, and the secret mage made them giggle in delight as he treated them as gown up ladies, bowing gallantly to them, fetching lemonade, and in general making a fuss over the pair.  Joe took it all with good humor.

Joe could still not walk unaided, and needed a cane or supporting arm in addition to Fada’s assistance.  He was exhausted and weak, his joints aching nearly all the time.  Still, he was as determined as Ben to be happy, and he was content to be settled in a comfortable chair and waited on.  The May twins apologized for taking away his fiancé for dancing, and Joe gravely told them that he was grateful for them taking care of the older man.  They were flattered at the responsibility, and assured him that they would watch over Lord John, making a point to visit Joe in-between dances.  Between them and their friends, Joe had a court of young ladies keeping him company.  Gwil thought he actually looked rather smug about it all.

“I think you and Joe should end your engagement and each marry one of the twins,” Gwil joked as they danced past Joe and his ladies.

“Don’t repeat that,” John begged.  “They have already suggested it!”

Gwil laughed at the notion as he looked at the wedding couple.  It was rather difficult to decide who was more magnificent, Roger or Ben, as they danced and visited with guests.  Ben was practically glowing in the green and black of House Hardy, and Roger was his match in the rose and cream of his house.  Keeping with tradition, Rami and Freddie had gifted Ben with a sword, while Gwi and Brian had given a ring and John and Joe presented him a broach in the intertwined colors of their houses.

“Is Fada with Adam?” Gwil asked as they twirled past Joe again.  It was odd to see Joe anywhere without his hound nearby.

“Ummm…. I guess so,” John agreed, showing off a spin and taking Gwil’s hand again.  “She has been spending a lot of time with him when she knows Joe has other minders.”  Joe had been confined to bed almost as much as Adam in recent days; he had been allowed out of his rooms only for the ceremony and the celebration that night.  Adam was safely tucked away in his room with a nurse and governess in attendance, and Fada clearly loved the child.

“Well, he does have an army of ladies, so Fada can take a break,” Gwil joked, and John laughed as he completed yet another spin, dazzling some observers.

After their dance, John was claimed by an admirer and Gwil decided to go join Joe.  He felt uneasy not seeing Fada with her master and quickly deduced that Joe was getting tired, but he was too polite to say anything.  Gwil frowned and grumbled at a few people and soon had cleared a small space around his youngest brother so Joe could close his eyes for a few minutes.   “Do you want to go upstairs?” Gwil asked, making sure Joe had a fresh glass of water.

“No, not yet,” Joe smiled tiredly.   “It’s nice to hear the music and watch people having a good time.”  He looked at his fiancé and grinned.  “And funny to see Lord John dance.”

“John has always loved to dance,” Freddie commented as he and Rami came to join them for a bit.  “He was never able to dance a lot before because of his heart and headaches, but he does love it when he can partake.  Our dance tutors always liked him best. Roger was so jealous, especially when it was our female tutor, Mistress Suzanne.  She was completely gorgeous, tall, blond, with great big—”

“Lord Freddie!” Gwil hissed, scandalized as he reached to cover Joe’s ears.

“Big brown eyes,” Freddie continued without missing a beat.  Rami snorted, and Gwil was glad to see his older brother smile.  It had been a difficult few weeks for them all, but especially for Rami.  There had been no word from Sami even after discrete inquiries were made.  In fact, according to their agents, Sami and his family had been hardly seen at all in public since the coronation of his father, and no one knew what quite to make of that development. 

“If you are going to censor me, then I might as well go upstairs,” Joe huffed, smacking Gwil’s hands away. 

Gwil saw Lord John go speak to Roger, and a few minutes later Roger was calling for a pause in the dancing and leading Ben up onto the dais so he could make an announcement.  Everyone gathered eagerly to hear what he would have to say.

Roger raised a glass and called for a toast.  “My lords, ladies, and gentlemen,” he called, his voice proud.  “I wish to thank you all for your attendance; this special day has been made even more special with your presence.”  There were cheers and shouts and Roger smiled.  “But I would also like to propose a toast to those who – due to sad events and commitment to duty – were not able to be here.  I am very proud to now be connected by marriage to House Hardy of Rhye and raise a toast to Benjamin's’ parents, who I am proud to call my family.”

Gwil raised an eyebrow at Lord John as everyone dutifully followed Roger’s lead and toasted Ben’s parents.  Some did not look too thrilled, but all did as manners dictated.  John saw Gwil’s questioning look, and made his way to him.

“It is only courteous, and we do not want any to think there is discontentment between our lands.  We must carry on,” he said quietly.  “Benjamin’s parents do deserve our well wishes.”  John took a long drink of his wine.  “And it is good to shut up some of the gossips," he added with a smile.

Gwil smiled.  “I agree,” he said.  He looked back to Joe who was clearly tired.  “I will take Joe up to bed,” he said.  “Stay and dance some more, I know Joe would like that.”

John nodded.  “I will send up the nighttime servants for him and Adam and come up shortly myself.”

Gwil went to Joe and glared at him until Joe sighed and nodded in understanding.  “Well, since Fada has abandoned me, you get to take me upstairs, hound Gwilym.”

“With pleasure,” Gwil smiled.  Rami took Joe’s other arm and carefully helped their brother upstairs after saying good night to Roger and Ben.  Both grooms hugged Joe, and Ben snickered at something Joe whispered, which made the big pair frown.  They knew nothing good was going to come of that.

John, Joe, and Adam were sharing John’s usual suite at Castle Taylor, with the boys in the bedroom and John on a cot in the study, still not wanting to be separated.  Gwil was surprised when they found Adam with just his nurse and new governess, and not a sign of Fada anywhere.  They got Joe comfortably settled beside Adam, who was already asleep, and promised the ladies that they would sit with the boys until the night servants came on duty so the nurse and governess could go enjoy the party.  The servants soon arrived and they returned to the hall to find Ben and Lord Roger rather conspicuously absent, and exchanged smiles.

*****

*****

The minute Roger sealed the door from the secret corridor, Ben pounced on his husband.  Fortunately, Roger was more than ready.

Swords were carefully put on tables but all other items went flying as the pair made their way to the enormous bed.  Ben tossed one boot over his shoulder and the other in the vague direction of the door, not really caring one bit.  Roger was no better, and there was a loud smash as one boot connected with a table.  They both ignored it.

Ben had been sat down by Sir James when he turned thirteen and given a dry lecture, just like Rami and Gwil before him.  Unlike his brothers, however, Ben had listened and then asked questions that soon had their guardian blushing.  When Ben started drawing sketches to illustrate his questions, Sir James gave up and sent him away and then the man had a bottle of wine.  Ben smirked, rather pleased with himself; it was always so fun to fluster Miami.

Lord Roger arrived a few days later and after a scolding about manners, he had explained things that had Ben blushing.  Still, he listened, although at the time he was fairly certain that Lord Roger was speaking from past experience; surely he was too old now, and even if he wasn’t, it made Ben slightly ill to think of Lord Roger that way. 

Ben was very glad that he had gotten over that ridiculous assumption and feeling.

Husband,” he said in satisfaction as Roger moaned against his neck where he was pressing a line of kisses.

“Your husband,” Roger agreed.

Ben had taken a more casual attitude toward things than his older brothers, with Lord Roger’s tacit understanding.  He had enjoyed several dalliances with other older teenagers; ‘being a young person’ as Freddie and Brian had both stammered to their fiancés.  When they’d had the first talk, Roger admitted that he had had himself a very good time when he was young, and it was hardly fair for him to expect differently from Ben.  Still, Ben didn’t abuse the opportunity, having only a few reasonably discrete liaisons to satisfy some natural curiosity, and then decided that he was content now to wait for his marriage.  He was really looking forward to the wedding night, as was Roger. 

A flung jacket nearly knocked over a mirror and lamp, and both noted that they really had to be a bit more careful.

“My husband,” Roger growled, kissing down Ben’s neck.  Ben just hummed in total agreement, pulling Roger down as he fell back on the bed, clothes finally discarded.

Ben was more than pleased at what he saw as he studied his husband and he felt a flush of arousal as Roger clearly admired him.  Ben had kissed and touched men and enjoyed it, but he had never had full sex with a male, deciding to wait for that.  He had told Roger a few months ago, and had not missed the clear lust in those blue eyes, Roger preening at the notion that Ben would save that for his husband.

“I’ve been waiting, husband,” Ben deliberately teased.  He was confident Roger would do fine under pressure.

“Ummm…and you expect me to rush this then?” Roger said, deciding apparently to kiss every inch of Ben’s body.

“Don’t be mean,” Ben warned, arching as Roger’s hands went below his waist.

Roger just chuckled at the words.  “Oh, I think I can be a little mean,” he teased.  He gently took hold of Ben’s cock, stroking it slowly, and the younger man moaned.  “See, some teasing is very good.”

Well, Ben knew that two could play at this game.  Soon he was smirking as well as Roger moaned back.  It was all very nice and all, but Ben had something else in mind.  He dug under the pillows and found the small bottle of oil that Rami had felt sure would be present.  Ben smirked at Roger’s raised eyebrow.

“Its good to have big brothers who tell you things,” Ben shrugged, a wicked smile on his lips.  Roger just chuckled.

“It is indeed,” he agreed, taking the bottle.

Ben felt only anticipation as Roger carefully prepared him.  He had fingered himself a few times, curious, and decided it was alright.  He had to amend that assessment when Roger’s fingers found the spot inside him, and Ben jerked in surprise.

“Good?” Roger asked.  He looked a bit smug, but also honestly concerned,

Ben kissed him firmly.  “Stop, and I will kill you,” he vowed.  Roger nodded.

“I take that as a yes,” he said.

A few minutes later, and Ben had to pull away, deciding that he wanted to come with his husband inside him.  He took charge, pushing Roger onto his back for a moment and proceeded to spread the oil thoroughly over his cock, making Roger moan again.  With a growl, Roger sprung, gently grabbing Ben’s shoulders and pushing him down now onto the bed and settled between his legs.  Ben kissed him fiercely, wrapping his legs around Roger’s waist.

“Ready?” Roger asked.  He clearly was eager, but it was also obvious that he would not move until Ben was ready as well, and Ben smiled at his husband.

“Now!” Ben growled, and Roger chuckled in understanding.

It stung a little, but Ben stayed calm, knowing that it would feel good with just a bit of patience.  Not that he was any good at patience, but he figured for this he could make an exception.  Roger seemed to feel the same, and he moved slowly and then stopped, taking shaky breaths as he waited for Ben.

Ben closed his eyes and then opened them, sighing in contentment as he adjusted.  “Move, now,” he ordered, his voice bossy.  Roger chuckled and obliged.

It was….amazing.  Maybe a little sore at first, but it was quickly replaced by sheer pleasure and Ben arched his back at the sensation.  His fingers dug into Roger’s shoulders and he pulled down his husband so he could kiss him thoroughly.  He had to eventually break away a little so they could breathe, but Ben hurried back to the kissing.  It took Ben only a short time to respond with a passion, meeting everyone of Roger’s thrusts as they chased their pleasure.  Soon, they both shuddered, finishing at the same time.

Roger was kissing him, asking if he was alright, murmuring that he loved him.  Ben just smirked, deciding that he was very pleased that his husband still had present experience with making love.  He was going to peruse the extent of that experience with great pleasure.

**********

**********

A scratching on the outside door awoke John early the next morning.  Frowning, he got up and opened the door to find Fada in the hallway, a servant looking apologetic.  “She insisted on trying to get in, my lord,” he said.

“Thank you, it’s quite alright,” John assured him.  Fada sniffed John and then went into the bedroom to check on the boys.  Joe groaned and rolled over when the dog licked his hair to wake him up.

“Good morning, bitc—“

“Language, Joseph!” John frowned, looking to make sure Adam was still asleep.

“Well, it’s true!” Joe argued.

 

Chapter Text

Two months after Roger and Ben’s wedding, joking announcements were sent from the Deacon estate to the lords, announcing the birth of three puppies to Fada, a noble lady, and some unknown no-good scum dog from Castle Taylor.

“Keep your rotter hunting mutts away from my precious pups, Roger” John scribbled at the bottom of the notes.

“So that is where Fada sneaked away to the day of wedding,” Gwil reflected as he smiled at the message.  “Looks like Adam can soon have one of her puppies after all.”

Brian chuckled.  “Knowing Fada, she likely planned it.  John’s animals have always been frightfully intelligent.”

“Are they all familiars?”

“Umm…possibly,” Brian admitted.  “I’ve never wanted to ask.  When we go there tomorrow you may ask, but I don’t think I want to know the answer.”

The next day, Brian and Gwil traveled to John’s estate for the latest meeting of the lords.  They were meeting every week and sending messages via doves on an almost daily basis now.  There was news to gather and troops were being made ready for possible attack.  Queen and Rhye were still technically at peace, so it all had to be secretly.

Roger and Ben’s idea of a honeymoon had been a scouting trip to the border to gather more intelligence and try to locate The Dark’s castle.  They had failed to find the castle, but did learn that the disappearance of mages – especially children - had apparently been occurring quietly for years.  It made all of them reflect seriously.

“The second summer we were in Queen, when the bandits attacked Sir James’s estate,” Gwil mussed the next day when they met.  “They were after Joe, weren’t they?”

“Very likely,” Roger agreed.  “Or even John.  It’s likely they sensed both of them.”

“And our parents demanding Ben and Joe to be returned?” Rami asked.  “If my father is The Dark, then it would explain also why they suddenly asked for their return.  They wanted Joe.”

John nodded.  “And it would have seemed odd to ask for just him, so they framed it as a request for the young pair.”

Joe shuddered a little.  “If we had gone even for a visit, we would have never returned.”

“I think so,” Brian admitted.

“And the stories we heard when we were young about mage children being taken for special schools,” Ben mussed.  “They were actually being kidnapped.  It makes sense now.  And why people are so hesitant to admit if they know a mage; no one will speak of it, but in reality, if a family said they had a mage child, that child would be taken.  No wonder everything is so secretive about mages.”

John sighed in agreement.  “There is a reason there is such a long-held secrecy about mages, and it is kept so quiet.  We just never understood all the reasons before.”

Gwil looked at Joe, and frowned, taking another blanket off a nearby couch and draping it over his youngest brother.  Joe smiled wearily, accepting the fussing with grace.  Gwil was glad to be back with his brother, feeling very odd when they were separated, especially now that Fada was busy with her pups. 

“I feel better,” Joe objected mildly when Gwil picked up a glass of medicinal tea for him.

“Good.  Drink more,” Gwil grumbled.  “And then we go upstairs for you to get some rest and I’ll sit with Adam.”

Freddie smiled from where he and Roger were studying maps.  “You have become quite broody, Gwilym,” he teased lightly.

“Well, someone has to be, with Fada busy,” Gwil countered.  “I feel better being here.”

Lord John suddenly looked at Gwil sharply, his eyebrows raised.  Gwil might have missed it, except he was also keeping an eye on the oldest mage, and saw his surprise.  “What is it, my lord?” he asked, immediately on alert.  “Is everything alright?”

“John?” Brian glanced up from his own maps and ledgers.

“I am fine,” John assured them all hurriedly.  “I…er…just need to think for a moment.”

“Do you need to rest?” Freddie demanded, going to his brother out of habit and feeling his forehead.  John rolled his eyes, but shook his head.

“I am fine,” he repeated.  “Joseph, why don’t you and I go visit with Adam for a bit.  I think we are done here for now.”  Freddie nodded.  “We shall see you for tea,” John said. 

Gwil helped John take Joe upstairs, the young mage walking slowly even with support.  He needed a cane now at all times, even with assistance.  Joe had not fallen or had any bleeds recently, for which all were grateful, but he was exhausted and his joints were in near constant pain.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go soak in the bathhouse?” Gwil asked.  “I can go get your swimming costume.”

“Later would be nice,” Joe admitted, “but not right now.”  He looked at Lord John, and Gwil frowned.

“What?” he demanded.

John smiled as he guided Joe to the couch on the balcony off the bedroom Joe and Adam now shared.  “Nothing; everything is fine,” he said.  “Stop fussing, Gwilym, and let us cranky mages visit for a bit.”

Gwil grumbled, but reluctantly let after seeing Adam safely settled on the balcony with his toys and getting a pitcher of water and cups for all of them in addition to some snacks.  “A servant will be in the hallway,” he advised them sternly, and John waved him off with a smile.

“What do you think?” John asked Joe after Gwil had left.

Joe rolled his eyes.  “He is going to be a huge pain,” he muttered.

*****

*****

“A familiar?”  Gwil starred at John and Joe, and Brian’s eyebrows were nearly invisible in his hairline.  “A human familiar?  That’s impossible.”

“Rare indeed, but not impossible,” John assured them.  “I have never known one personally, but I have heard of them.”

“It could be worse,” Joe offered, grinning.  “I promise to not scratch your belly and I’m sure Adam will be careful about pulling on your ears or tail.”

Brian glared at his brother.  “How is this even possible?” he demanded.

John smiled at them.  “A familiar is any creature that has a touch of magical power.  They themselves cannot work magic, but they can increase the power of a mage and comfort them when needed.  They are also very attune to magic; it is why they seek out mages and want to protect them.  Most humans either do not have enough magic to be a familiar, or they have too much magic and are a full mage themselves.  It is a rare balance to achieve.”

“Lucky me,” Gwil groaned.

“It makes sense,” John corrected gently.  “Joseph and I – and now Adam – have always felt comforted by your presence, Gwilym.  And you do seem attune to us as well.”

“You always know when I’m sick, and you would get me things before I even realized I wanted them; like getting a book off a tall shelf or bringing me sometime to drink or eat,” Joe added.  “And you were the one I always wanted when I was little and had nightmares.  I still do.”

Gwil thought on that for a moment and slowly nodded.  “I just thought…well…that anyone could feel that,” he admitted.

“Not at all,” John said.  “And we feel a bit better when you are around; Joe has felt slightly better since you arrived this morning and even Adam is stronger.  And remember after Freddie and Rami’s wedding, when I fainted on the battlements with you beside me?  I was feeling awful, and yet something told me to go up above and I did feel better when I saw you.  I was instinctively seeking you out when Fada and Hadar needed to be with Joseph.”

Brian cleared his throat.  “You said a familiar can increase the power of a mage.  Is that true with Gwilym as well?”

“Yes,” John nodded firmly.  “Now that I know Gwilym is a familiar, I can feel the increase in Joseph’s powers.”

“It is a little easier to block Adam and Lord John,” Joe offered.  “And I really do feel better.  It’s always been that way.  And when both you and Fada are with me, I actually feel a lot better.”

Gwil ran his hands over his face, thinking.  “Anything else I should know?” he sighed.

John shrugged.  “I do not know,” he admitted.  “I can communicate with animal familiars to a degree, and I think you may have the same gift.”

“You always seem to know what Fada is thinking, and even Phae,” Joe added, referring to his protective warhorse. “They listen to you.”  Gwil had to think on that for a moment.

“I….yes, I think maybe I can communicate with them a little,” he realized, looking rather pleased now at the notion.  “Does magic run in families?  Is it inherited at all?”

‘It can be,” John nodded.  “Not always, but sometimes, yes.”

Gwil smiled a little.  “Well, I suppose it might make some sense then.  Joe are I are distantly related – we have a mutual great-grandmother.”

“Ah, I never knew that,” John said, smiling at Joe.

Brian sighed, thinking hard.  “Well, it is best for us to be with you as much as possible,” he decided.  They all knew that Joe was weak.  He refused to lift the block on John, and it added to his strain, but Joe insisted every vision and dream he had told him that he had to wait; John needed all the rest he could gather.

“What about Adam?” Gwil asked.

“He must stay with us,” John said.  “I think from that Joseph, Adam, and I should not be separated unless it is vital.  We need each other.”

“And me,” Gwil decided.  He looked at Brian, who nodded in agreement.  “If I can help you by being with you, then that is what I should do.”

“I agree,” Brian said firmly.  “Gwilym should stay with you, and I will also as much as possible.”  He laid a hand on his sword, and Gwil and John nodded in understanding. 

With the war looming, Joe and Adam were the only ones who now went unarmed.  John had worked hard over the previous months to develop his self-defense and fighting and like Gwil, he had proved deadly accurate with a bow which was never far from him.  Roger had practiced with his brother until John was reasonably proficient with a sword, but his best skill was the bow.

“It is not your fault, Deacy,” Roger had insisted one afternoon when John felt miserable about his lack of fighting ability.  “You could never practice much before, and it takes many years to develop skill with the broadsword.  You need to know some for self-defense, but we will concentrate on the bow for battle.”  He paused, and smiled, clapping his brother on the back.  “It still feels odd to even think about letting you anywhere near a battle,” he admitted.

“You better let me,” John grumbled.

Now, Brian looked at Gwil. “Take care of them,” he told his husband. 

Freddie came forward from where he and the others had been quietly listening.  “Gwilym,” he said, his voice steady.  “When John was young, we assigned him a special guard who stayed with him when we could not be at his side.  That guard still exists, and is needed now more than ever to help protect our mages.  John, Joseph, and Adam are now your assignment, Gwilym.  I name you the captain of their private guard.  We will stay together as much as we can, but if we must separate, you will stay with them; do not leave their side.”  Gwil bowed his head at the duty. 

“I will protect them to my death,” he swore.

Brian put his hand on his husband’s shoulder.  “As will we all.”

Freddie nodded, and looked at everyone.  “As we plan, we must know our assignments and duties.  Brian, Roger, and Benjamin are our generals in the field.  Brian – stay with Gwilym as much as possible, but you must always be ready to go to the front as required.  Gwilym – keep our mages safely behind the lines.  Always have fast horses and an escape route planned.  Our fallback location, in case of absolute disaster, is the capital.  Sir James is in charge of our estates and forces when we are not available.” Freddie looked at his husband steadily.  “Rami, next to our mages, you are in the most danger.”

“Why?” Joe asked quietly, his eyes wide.

Rami took a deep breath, looking at his youngest brother.  “We have heard that there is a …. movement … in the capital of Queen to overthrow my father and put me on the throne.”  Gwil and Ben looked started at the news, and Rami nodded.  “Technically, Rhye is subject to Queen since the end of the war.  If King Gabriel wished to enforce it, he could in theory order my father to step down, and the council in the capital has suggested that I be named king in his place.”

“It would put Rhye firmly under the control of Queen, even more than it has been,” Freddie said.  “Since the death of King Edward, there have been many who have suggested it to me.  It is seen as a way to put Rhye ‘in its place’.   Some houses have even offered troops to make it so.  Many say they would not stop even at that, and would fully conquer Rhye and make it part of Queen and take away its independence.”

“We must assume that my father has heard of this, even though we have tried to keep it quiet,” Rami continued.  “He has named Sami as heir, but again, there are many in Queen who say that can be overruled and name me instead.  Thus, I am now a threat to my father….and to Sami.”

“You would never harm your father or Sami!” Joe objected.

Rami took Joe’s hands.  “I would not, but we must assume the worst, little brother.”  Joe frowned and then his eyes grew wide in understanding.

“Sami would never—“ Joe started to say, but then he broke off.

“But we cannot know about my father,” Rami finished.  He hugged Joe tightly.  “For the safety of all of us, we cannot assume anything, Joe.  We have to be strong about this.”  Rami pulled back and looked at Gwil and Ben.  “I will not seek to raise my hand against my father or twin, but neither will I let any of you be put in danger for it.  I mean this, my brothers, and this is an order:  if you face either of them in battle, then do what you must.  Do not hesitate.  Protect yourselves and your troops.”

Gwil and Ben exchanged glances and then nodded, their faces grim.  “Promise me.” Rami ordered.  “You must put yourselves, your troops, and our husbands and brothers before House Malek.”

“I promise,” Gwil said, his voice tight but firm.  “And the same for any of House Lee; if they take up arms against us, then they are no longer of my family if they fight on the side of The Dark.”

“I am now of House Taylor of Queen,” Ben said with determination.  “If we see House Hardy in battle, then they have made their choice.”

Joe took a deep breath.  “House Mazzello has made its decision as well,” he agreed quietly. 

Freddie’s eyes were bright with unshed tears.  “We do not want any of you to fight your own houses,” he said.

“But it may happen,” Rami pointed out.  “None of us want war, my lord.  If there is any way we can still avoid it, we must take that course.  And none of us will seek out our families on the battlefield.  But,” Rami took a deep breath.  “We know Lord John’s visions, Joe’s visions, and all that has taken place recently.  It seems that things are coming to pass.  And if so, we must be ready.  We made our vows long ago, my king.”  He stood proudly and determined, his brothers beside him.  “You are my husband and my High liege lord,” he said to Freddie, echoing his words from long ago.  “If I do become the king of Rhye, it will be subject to you and your crown.  My loyalty is to you and your brothers, who are my other liege lords, and I am your servant.”  He took Freddie’s hand, and kissed the signet ring that Freddie wore as an heir to the crown, a true act of obedience and loyalty.

“My lord,” Gwil said, coming forward.  He too, kissed Freddie’s ring.  “My brother, the Lord Mage Joseph, once named you our Emperor.  I have no reason to doubt my decision then or now to bind myself to you and your brothers.  I continue to hold myself to my husband’s even earlier vows to you, and they will not falter.”

Ben stepped up and kissed the ring.  “Emperor Frederick,” he said formally.  “My loyalty is to you, my brother Lord Rami, and whoever you appoint.  I will serve you faithfully to the end of my days.”

Ten years earlier, Joe had been a bit young to make a formal vow, but now he stood up from the couch he had been seated on, brushing away John and Gwil’s movements to support his arms.  “My lord,” he said, his voice strong and clear.  “I saw you as first our king, and then as our emperor.  This has not changed, nor has my allegiance to you.  My betrothed, the Lord Mage John, once made an oath on my behalf, but I am old enough now to state it for myself.  I am your servant to command, my powers at your disposal only.  I still see and name you our king and emperor, and I am first among your servants.” He kissed Freddie’s ring, and Freddie smiled, taking Joe’s small hand in his and kissing it in turn.

“We will do all possible to still avoid war again Rhye, or minimize it if we cannot prevent it,” Freddie vowed.  “We must might to defeat The Dark but we will not defeat Rhye; John saw that we need their forces and talents.  We must work together.”

“How?” Ben asked quietly, his eyes stormy with emotions.  “It seems they will not work with us, and may indeed be the enemy.”

“I do not yet believe that the common person in Rhye is the same as The Dark,” Brian said gently.  “John saw that our countries will work together, and I think this will happen.  Remember, in most wars it is not the average person who causes the war, even if they must fight the battle out of loyalty to their crown.”

Rami nodded, but still looked at them seriously. “And for now, we can only think that the crown of Rhye is The Dark, or at least working with them.  This is not the Papa I knew, but we must accept the possibility.  All of you must protect yourselves, even against my family or yours.”

Freddie drew everyone into a hug.  “We will stand together,” he promised.

**********

**********

When Rami was young, he had always assumed that wars started quickly with great fanfare.  It seemed that a declaration of war was made and troops would ride the next day into battle.  It seemed quite exciting and a little glorious.

Reality, he now knew, was different.  It was mundane things; checking inventories, updating supplies.  It was not mighty soldiers but the support personnel who truly drove an army; nothing could be won without the blacksmith to repair a stirrup, and cooks to feed the warriors.

And nothing happened quickly.  Even by dove, it could take several days for emergency messages and they were short in what could be sent.  There was no formal decree yet, no discernable act of war that any of the lords could point to.  Only silence from Rhye.

Except for one glimpse.

One of Roger’s scouts arrived, entrusted with a letter that they had sworn to put only into the hands of one of the warlords who had defeated Rhye decades ago.  The scout was elderly and experienced, one of Roger’s most trusted soldiers.  He had made friends long ago in Rhye and among the people who lived on the borders of both countries, and his name was held in good account by all.  For this reason, he had been given a tiny paper with no name on the outside, only verbal instructions on who to deliver it to, and the promise that when opened, the one that the letter was for would know it.

He put it into Roger’s hands with the verbal message, and then disappeared back into the lands where he operated.

Roger brought the letter to the library in John’s mansion where the lords were staying.  Freddie opened it, and shook his head after looking at the writing, not really reading the words out of respect for who it was intended.  He passed it to Brian, who also quickly shook his head, and then to Roger and John.  It was then passed to Rami, and he gasped as soon as he saw the familiar handwriting.

“Sami,” he breathed.  All were quiet, letting Rami absorb the few words.  Finally, he cleared his throat. 

‘I stand with you.  Stay safe; you are wanted.’

“He sent this at great risk,” Roger commented, admiration clear.

“He is warning me,” Rami said sadly.  “We are correct that I am wanted in Rhye as I pose a threat.”

Freddie frowned but nodded in agreement.  “You cannot go near the borders,” he ordered his husband.  Rami looked up, his eyes flashing and opened his mouth to protest but Freddie held up his hand.  “If I were of Rhye, my priority would be kidnapping you, my love, as you are indeed a threat.  Sami took a risk to send you this, and you must listen to him and to me.”

“Freddie is right, Rami,” Brian said gently.  “You are in danger just as much as John and Joseph.”

Rami clenched his fists, but finally reluctantly nodded.  Freddie squeezed his hands.  “Our time will come,” he said firmly. 

That afternoon, Rami and Gwil went upstairs to visit with Adam and Joe and the pups.  Fada had chosen to give birth in the study of Joe and Adam’s bedroom, and Adam was delighting in gently touching the one month old babies.

“They are still so tiny,” he whispered, very carefully running a small finger over one pup.

“But they will grow as big as Fada,” Joe agreed.  “It’s amazing.”

Rami cleared his throat, so Adam would know he was there.  “Good afternoon, you two.  How are the pups doing?” he asked, coming to sit with them on the floor.  Gwil greeted Adam and pulled the youngest into his lap.  Rami smiled, reflecting that the mages did indeed seem comfortable around the new human familiar. 

“Very good,” Joe smiled as he put a pup in Adam’s hands so he could hold it for a moment.  “Lord John is threatening to go to Castle Taylor and see which mutt looks like it could be the father.”

Adam giggled at the words.  “Fada won’t tell,” he said to Rami.  “Lord John was asking her yesterday who the father is.”

“I have an idea,” Gwil confided to Adam, “but I won’t tell him either.” 

Rami had to laugh in agreement.  “Lord John is very silly.  I think it’s good that Fada had pups so now you can have all three of them, Adam.”  Adam blushed, lowing his head.

“Oh, just one is fine,” he said quickly.  He was still afraid of bothering anyone or seeming to ask for anything.

“Well, I suppose you could give one each to your sisters,” Joe teased, and Adam blushed again.

The day after Roger and Ben’s wedding, the May twins had come across Adam sitting on a balcony in the warm sunshine, being read to by his governess.  After introductions, they had immediately taken to the young boy, curious and protective, indigent when it was gently explained that he was an orphan.  Before Adam quite knew what was happening, he had two self-proclaimed older sisters, determined to spoil him rotten.  He had been extremely puzzled when presents arrived for him soon after the wedding; the twins sending him lots of gifts.  Adam could not understand why anyone would give him presents.

“You have to pick names for all of them,” Joe told Adam as he guided Adam’s hands in returning the baby to Fada’s side.  “Fada agrees that they are all your pups when they are old enough.”

Adam flushed with pleasure, accepting a deliberately sloppy kiss from Gwil and laughing. 

Later, Adam went down for his nap, and Ben joined them as they went out onto the balcony.  Rami sighed as he looked around.  “Remember when we first came here?” he smiled at his brothers.

Gwil nodded.  “I was glad it was our first stop in Queen; we all wanted to know what Joe’s future house looked like.”

“I was so scared,” Joe admitted with a small smile.  “But you all made me feel better.  I knew I was safe with you.”

Ben ruffled Joe’s hair, a long-time habit of the older brothers.  “Remember when you got Hadar, and we got our first warhorses?”

“I remember that you finally started liking Lord Roger then,” Gwil teased.  “You hated them all so much.”

“I was mad,” Ben huffed.  “We didn’t know why we were here, and no one trusted them.”

“We said we would be alright, and it’s true,” Rami said firmly.  “Together, we are strong and we will keep each other safe, just like when we were young.”

Joe looked at Rami with worried eyes. “Rami, do you really think we will face any of our family on the battlefield?”  He didn’t like the idea at all, and could see nothing regarding that event.

“It is possible,” Rami said gently.  “When battle starts, we don’t know what will happen.”

“When will it start?” Ben asked.  “It feels like it is dragging on forever.”

Rami nodded.  “I feel the same,” he admitted.  “We have been preparing for years, and in one way it feels like it will never happen.  Yet I think we can all feel it coming.”

“Wars take a long time,” Gwil pointed out.  “It will be winter soon, and even if there are declarations of war, nothing much may happen until spring.  It all depends on the weather.”

“I have been trying to see, but nothing is coming to me,” Joe said, angry at himself.  “It’s making me crazy that I can’t help with anything right now.”

Ben rubbed Joe’s shoulders.  “You have already done so much, do not push yourself now, Joe.  You need to rest just as much as Adam and Lord John.”

Gwil smiled a little.  “Mages get cranky when they cannot see everything they want,” he said to Ben and Rami, who both grinned at Joe’s indigent look.

“I do not,” Joe wined.

“You do to,” Ben countered.

“Do not!”

Rami sighed and looked at Gwil.  “I saw we let the small pair battle it out, and you and I go find our husbands.”

Joe perked up at that.  “Is it nice being married?” he asked his three big brothers.  “I mean, nice nice?”  Rami and Gwil both frowned at the question while Ben grinned.

“The best,” Ben assured him.  “Why, once —”

“Oh, no!” Gwil said, holding up his hand.  “Ben, shut up right this moment.   Joe, wash your mind out with soap.”

Joe pouted.  “It’s not… fair,” he muttered.  He saw his brothers frown and sighed a little.  “Sometimes I wonder if I….well, if I will ever get to experience that.”

The older brothers exchanged worried looks.  “Joe, why do you say that?” Rami asked carefully, moving closer to the youngest.  “You are weak, yes, but surely healthy enough.”

“I don’t know,” Joe said honestly.  “Between the magic draining me, and my illness, I wonder.”

That possibility had never occurred to Rami, and judging by their expressions, Gwil and Ben had never considered that either.  “Has a doctor, or Lord John, ever said anything to you about that?” Gwil asked.

“Said to my face, no,” Joe reluctantly answered.  Rami sighed a bit, remembering when Lord John had said identical words about the thoughts of people.  “But a few doctors have wondered, especially lately.  At least one has spoken to Lord John about it.”

Ben looked torn between sympathy and anger.  “Do you want us to talk to Lord John?” he offered.  Joe considered, and then shook his head. 

“I guess I should talk to him,” he said sheepishly.  “Try to be mature about it since I’m one who brought it up.”

Gwil just smiled and hugged him.  “You’ll live,” he assured him.  “Did you ever get The Talk from Sir James?” he asked, trying to make the topic of conversation a bit lighter.  They were noble gentleman, but also brothers, and teasing each other about everything possible was what they did best.  Rami groaned and Ben smirked at the question.

Joe giggled a little.  “I think Ben scared him for life.  When I turned thirteen Sir James asked if I had any questions, and I pointed out that I had shared a room with Ben since I was five.  He nodded and let me drink a small glass of wine while he had the rest of the bottle.”

Ben puffed up with pride at his accomplishment.

John knew something was bothering Joe as soon as they met for dinner.  Rami and Gwil helped Joe come down while Ben gave Adam a piggyback ride and they all settled around the large table.  Since Adam was present, they kept the conversation light, and truthfully, they all needed a break as well.  Adam had made great progress in eating on his own, and needed help only in cutting his food once he knew what was where on the plate.  Joe just toyed with his own food, not hardly touching anything even though the kitchen staff had been diligently preparing Joe’s favorite foods in an effort to tempt the young lord to eat.  Even at his most ill, Joe usually had a good appetite and it made John frown to see him eat so little.

“Do you feel alright?” he asked quietly as the main course was cleared.

“Just tired,” Joe smiled.  John didn’t believe him for a moment.

“Why don’t we meet in my study after dinner?” he suggested, and Joe nodded, biting his lip a little. 

As hour later they met in John’s private study on the second floor, telling the others that they needed some time alone.  All their brothers respected the request, and went off to different tasks, letting the two mages visit quietly.  Ben promised he would tuck Adam into bed and stay with him until the night nurse arrived.

“What are you sensing, my fiancé?” John asked softly as he poured tea for them.  Joe shook his head.

“Not sensing, for once, actually.  It’s what I am not seeing that is bothering me,” Joe finally confessed.

“The war?”

Joe looked down at his hands.  “Well, yes, that too,” he admitted.  “But I am …curious…about something more…um…” he sighed.  “Personal.”  He glanced at Lord John and took a deep breath.  “I know that the doctors are worried about my health.”

“We all are,” John said gently.  “But remember, Joseph, you yourself sent me a dream from a future where you were healthy and strong.”

“A future where we defeated The Dark,” Joe pointed out.  “If we don’t….” he trailed off, shaking his head, knowing they should not speak of such things.

“It is difficult,” John said, his voice soft.  “So often, I was not sure if I was seeing the only future, or a possible future.  It becomes…complicated.  And then you wonder what would happen if you didn’t do what your visions tell you.”

Joe looked at the man, his eyes curious.  “Did you ever think about not following your visions?”

“So often that the times cannot be counted,” John said, looking at the small fire in the hearth that servants had prepared to ward off any evening chill.  “Not at first, of course.  I was even younger than you when I saw how to defeat Rhye, and once I told my brothers, we never hesitated once to do as they said.  It seemed so perfect, so easy.  I got overconfident, actually, and very proud of myself.”

Joe had to frown at that; Lord John was one of the most humble and unassuming men he knew.  “Pride, my lord?  That does not seem like you.”

John smiled sadly.  “Ah, but it was indeed a source of pride, once that I reveled in for a time.  I could not fight – never had been able to – and when I was growing up, the war with Rhye had lasted for generations and all children dreamed of being soldiers and the ones to defeat the enemy.  It was a favorite fantasy of all children.  And there I was, lord of my lands since I was four, descended from warriors, raised with future lords of the greatest houses of Queen, our country at war, and I couldn’t hold even a bow for more than an hour or so, let alone a sword.”

Joe thought on that for a while.  He well knew what it was like to be seen as weak, to not be allowed to fight, and at least he had grown up in a time of peace, where for the first time in centuries, war was not a priority.  Many adults – intending to be kind - had thought how fortunate it was that at least Joe was not expected to be a warrior in the new peaceful times.

“And so,” John sighed, continuing.  “When it became clear to my brothers and I that was a mage, that I could see the future and how to defeat Rhye, I was so terribly proud and excited.  At last I felt I was contributing something; Roger called me a magic soldier, and I about burst with pride.  I became bossy, actually, telling Freddie – of all people – what to do; and he listened!  All of them listened!  I was still surrounded by guards, coddled, servants with me every second I was not with my brothers, but at least I felt important, finally.  I could not have been happier; everything seemed perfect.”

“And then you saw that you had to demand children in the peace treaty,” Joe knew.

John nodded, taking a sip of his tea, his expression grave.  “Brian asked if I was certain.  He meant nothing wrong; it was a logical and reasonable question.  But I became so angry that I threw a lamp at him and screamed and actually ran out of the tent.  How dare he question me?  I was good enough to tell them how to organize troops for war but not how to negotiate peace?  I was furious at all of them.  I was a mage, for gods sake, while they were mere humans.”  Joe just listened, fascinated at the story.  He had never heard this before.  Lord John kept his gaze on the fire, as if seeing the past in its flames.

“And then I realized the depths of what I was suddenly saying we had to do; take children from their parents.  And I didn’t see why; just that we were to do it.  The irony hit me hard; I had always felt bitter that I was an orphan, not even allowed to be with my aunts or uncles.  We sometimes stayed with Freddie, Brian, or Roger’s families, and while I loved them, I was also actually jealous that they had parents; that they knew them.  I was jealous that they knew their homes; I could count on one hand the number of times we came to the Deacon estates when I was young because so many battles were fought at the borders and this land was not considered safe for us four; we were kept further back.  So,” John sighed.  “I was a right mess when I stopped being furious that my brothers had dared to question me, and realized what I had just said.”

Joe sat quietly, thinking.  He knew taking his brothers and he from their parents had been the hardest thing imaginable for Lord John, even if it had saved Joe’s life.  The lord blamed himself for the anger from their parents, and perhaps – although never spoken of – Joe knew that Lord John even wondered if he was responsible for turning Rami’s father to The Dark.  It was an endless cycle for the lord; in trying to prepare for the future battle, he had caused the hatred that caused this new war?

“It is not your fault,” Joe finally said, his voice firm.  “I know this, my lord.  You did not cause anyone to turn to evil, no matter what was done.”

John smiled sadly.  “I will never know,” he said.  “And that is another burden of our powers, my dear one. We must either trust in the visions, or ignore them completely; we cannot pick and choose.”

They were both quiet for a few minutes, Joe studying his hands and the cup of tea he held.  He was weak and ill; he always had been.  But he had also always proved people wrong.  He was stronger than they knew.

“Then we will show them all just how strong we are,” he said, his head high.  “I choose to trust in the visions that we will win, and that we have done all necessary to ensure this.  And after we defeat The Dark, you and I shall marry and happily grow old together.”

John reached over and clasped his hand.  “We will win,” he said confidentially.  Joe nodded and smiled.

“Let’s show everyone what mages can do.”

**********

**********

The next weeks passed with agonizing slowness.  Ben went out with the scouts and Roger oversaw the final preparations to their private armies.  They discussed Freddie and Rami going to the capital, but decided it could be seen as an unusual move for them, and they had to stay to normal appearing routines to not arouse any suspicion.  It was Fall, and all were busy with reports from the harvests at their estates.

“Nothing may happen until Spring,” Freddie mussed one night as he and Rami relaxed in their bath.  “We would be fortunate if that occurs.  Even after decades, we can still prepare.”

“It’s not knowing that makes us all crazy,” Rami admitted.  “I think we have gotten a little spoiled with Joe visions always letting us know what is happening.”

“Oh, we were most definitely spoiled with John’s visions,” Freddie agreed.  “But there were times we didn’t want John to see things because the visions or dreams always weaken him.  I am not terribly proud of it, but there were times we slipped him some medicine in his drink to make him rest.  When he found out he got terribly angry, but we kept doing it.  Roger told him it was that or he was tied to the bed.”

Rami smiled a little; he had heard the story of the sleepwalking mage being tethered by his brother.  “I would say we should try that with Joe, but I’m more than a little scared of what revenge he would come up with.”

Freddie cleared his throat.  “If he gets advice from John, then it should be avoided at all costs,” he agreed.

Brian and Gwil split most of their time either at Lord John’s home or at the various warehouses of each estate.   Gwil had thrown himself into being a familiar, and was reading every bit of literature Lord John had on the subject and having long discussions with the eldest mage.  They had confirmed that Gwil could indeed communicate on a basic level with Fada and John’s cats, which intrigued Freddie to no end.

“What are they thinking?” the lord demanded on one visit.  “And can you come to my estate and talk to my cats?  They are being unreasonable.”  Rami just snorted at the suggestion.  After his wedding, it had taken him weeks to be accepted by the felines, some of whom regarded him in Freddie’s bed with suspicion.  He still had a rather cautious relationship with a few of them.

“Freddie, Gwilym is not a bloody translator,” John scolded. 

“But I need to know what they want!” Freddie protested. 

Gwil sighed.  “Its likely more fish, trust me,” he muttered.  At least, it was what Lord John’s cats always complained about.

It had been an unusual event, to say the least, but Gwil was determined to become the best possible familiar and to know all he could about mages and their powers.  A decade with Joe had taught him much, and Gwil recognized now that he had always been attune to his mage brother and his needs and powers.  He scoured Lord John’s library for every possible resource, memorizing every detail.  Gwil had his husband recount every bit of John’s magic and its consequences that he could possibly remember, cataloging in his head what it all meant.  He knew that if anything did happen to their mages, he was in charge of their care.   Gwil could leave nothing to chance.

Gwil was home with Brian one afternoon when an urgent message arrived that they were requested to go to Lord John’s as soon as possible.  They quickly packed and left, travelling through the night.  Roger rode out to meet them at dawn.

“Everyone is alright,” he told them.  ‘But Joseph senses that something is about to happen.  Poor Adam is so nervous, he was crying when I arrived.”  Roger took a breath, gazing at them seriously.  “Even John is having premonitions.  He cannot see anything specific, but he says there is a feeling of dread over this day.”

Brian was shocked at the news.  “But Joseph blocked John and Adam; how could they see anything?”

Gwil sighed, looking at his husband.  “Magic is such a part of a mage that even an attempt to stop it may not always work.  Or,” he bit his lip a little, but knew he had to continue; to be honest and forthcoming with his husband and his brother.  “I think that Joe is so weak now between his illness and blocking two mages, that no matter how many familiars he has, his control is slipping.”

Roger frowned; his bearded face scowled in worry.  “Is Joseph in danger?” he asked bluntly.

“I don’t know,” Gwil said honestly.  “But….he might be, yes.  If – when—something happens, it could break any control he still has.”

“And then John might have his magic back?”

“I think so,” Gwil agreed after a moment’s thought.  “But it would only be because Joe has been weakened…or is ill.”

Brian nodded grimly at the news.  “Has everyone arrived?” he asked.

“Rami and Ben were out training, but we received word that they are on their way.  Freddie arrived a few hours ago,” Roger reported.

They turned their horses over to the grooms and went to John’s study where all three mages were gathered, Freddie and Sir James fussing over them worriedly.  Gwil was rather taken aback at how pale all three were, and quickly went to them.  “You should be in bed,” Sir James scolded them all.  John just sighed from where he was resting in a chair, his feet propped up on a stool as he held Adam.  The child was awake, but clearly exhausted, fussing and pulling at his hair.

“Later,” he said vaguely. 

“We’ll be in bed later,” Joe clarified crossly.  He was huddled on a couch in blankets, and rubbing his temples.  “Why can’t I see anything?” he fussed.

“You don’t control it,” Lord John told him softly.  “No mage does, no matter what we think.”  

Brian frowned at the exchange and at seeing how pale the mages were.  He went to John and after a moment John reluctantly nodded and Brian drew Freddie over to a corner where they could talk privately.  Gwil squeezed Joe’s hands, knowing his husband was informing their high liege lord of Gwil’s concerns about the mages.  The fact that John had obviously given consent to tell Freddie made Gwil know that he had been correct.

Freddie gestured for Gwil to join them, and he looked back at the three mages, understanding immediately the consequences.  “So, we may soon have three unblocked, unshielded, mages,” he said softly.  “All of them likely ill.”

Gwil shuffled his feet nervously.  “I think so.”

“Is there anything we can do to help them?” Freddie asked.

“I don’t know,” Gwil said sadly.  “All of their familiar’s are here, and family as well.  That truly does help.  Just….have their medicines ready.”  Fada’s puppies had been brought over in a basket and placed in a warm corner of the study so their mother could easily go back and forth between them and her charges.  All of Lord John’s cats were gathered as well, trying to keep the mages warm with their soft bodies and adding purring to the comfort.

Freddie beckoned to Sir James, who joined them.  “Brian, Miami, do not say anything specific, but have the medicines that help ease their pain ready for our mages.  And of course, Adam’s healing medicine.”  The child was still on a strict regime for medicine to heal his old wounds.  He had recently experienced flashes of ‘brightness’ as he called it as well, which John felt could be a sign that some of his sight might yet hopefully be restored. The doctors had prescribed soothing compresses for his eyes.

“Joe’s bleeding medicine as well,” Gwil said hoarsely, unhappily.  He had learned in hindsight that what trigged some of Joe’s worst bleeds was an injury combined with a vision.  “We will need it no matter what,” he said, seeing Freddie and his husband’s faces.

They did not question him.  “Please see to it, Miami,” Freddie said gently.  “And as always, make sure Joseph’s doctors and nurses are nearby.  We will say he is sick.”

“It is the truth,” Miami whispered sadly, bowing and then leaving to carry out his lord’s orders.

Freddie gestured to Roger, and he joined them for a moment, looking in concern at the unattended mages.  “What?” he grumbled a little.

“I think we all know what they are seeing,” Freddie said, his voice commanding.  “It is the start of the war.”

Gwil couldn’t hold back his flinch; he had prayed so hard for years that it could still something be avoided.  But now, he knew the moment truly was upon them.

“Roger,” Freddie continued, “we must guard our mages.  If Joseph loses his control due to illness, then John and young Adam will be unshielded and revealed to The Dark.  Joseph especially is in grave danger as his health is already weak.  I have dispatched Miami to ensure our finest doctors are available.”

Roger nodded shortly.  “I will send scouts to find Rami and Benjamin, and have them travel even faster than they already are,” he vowed, leaving to send yet more messages.

Freddie turned back to Gwil, and the young lord took a deep breath as his husband took his hand.  Gwil realized that if all their mages took ill, then he was in charge of them.

Adam and Joe both fell asleep just as Rami and Ben arrived a few hours later and were carried to bed, Fada following them with her pups and Gwil deciding to stay with them while the other’s remained with Lord John in the study.  There was nothing they could do now but wait.

Ben gratefully gulped the hot coffee that the staff had prepared as they sat quietly with John, who had also fallen into a light doze, a warm blanket covering him.  “We are as ready as we will ever be,” he said, looking at Lord Roger with a confident expression.  His husband nodded.

“If they demand a fight, then we will give them one.”

“I would say we must try to avoid it, but it seems we truly cannot,” Freddie admitted.  “I know John hoped that this one time, he would ultimately be proven wrong.”

Brian sighed.  “But if—“ he broke off as John suddenly jerked awake, his eyes wide.

“It has begun,” he gasped.  “Our forces have been attacked, Ambassador Lord Crystal captured.  He is held prisoner and some of our troops killed.

“What?” cried Freddie.  Before he ask more, John staggered to his feet, untangling himself from the blanket.

“Joseph!  We must go to him, now!”  John pushed past Roger and ran to the door.  As soon as it was opened, they could hear Fada and all her pups howling from down the hall and a servant came running.

“My lords!  You are needed!”  They all ran down the hall and pushed in the boys bedroom.

Joe was lying on the bed, his entire body convulsing in tremors.  Gwil was frantically throwing blankets and pillows aside so Joe would not tangle himself in them and Adam was on the floor beside Fada, her teeth gently gripping the sleeve of his robe to hold him safely in place.  Ben quickly picked up Adam and held him while the others went to Joe.  Adam’s governess and nurse had already brought out towels to try and stem the blood that was flowing from Joe’s nose.

“What is happening?” Adam cried.  “I—Fada—she pulled me off the bed!  Is Joe alright?”

“Joe is having a seizure and a nose bleed,” Ben explained quietly, keeping his voice calm, for one second glad that Adam could not see the horrible sight.  “Fada was just trying to get you safely away.”

“My lords.”  Joe’s doctor had arrived and she quickly went to work with her nurses, trying to stabilize him.  John knelt beside the bed and talked calmly to Joe, reassuring him that he was not alone, gently stroking his hair.

“It is alright,” he whispered, knowing it was possible that Joe might be able to hear him.  “Just breathe, my dear, just breathe.”

The seizure lasted for only a minute, thankfully, but Joe was unconscious, the blood continuing to flow from his nose.  “We need to sit him up now,” the doctor said.  John quickly sat on the bed and Joe was pulled up into his arms, his head tilted back against John’s shoulder to keep it elevated.

Ben swallowed hard at the sight, remembering when Joe had had a nose bleed when he was younger.  There had been no pain, but it had taken a full day for the bleed to stop and Joe had been weak from the blood loss for days.  Now, Joe was again covered in blood, the bright red staining his shirt.

John beckoned for Gwil to come over and whispered to him to get his bag of herbs that he always kept nearby.  Gwil rushed to the study and returned in a minute, quickly mixing them in warm water.  The potion was added to Joe’s usual medicine and set aside for when Joe was aware enough to drink.  The doctor and John held towels to Joe’s nose, pinching it tightly.

“Breathe through your mouth,” John told Joe softly, brushing his hair away from his face.  “Follow my breathing, come now.” He took in a slow deep breath and then released it just as slowly, coaching Joe to follow his pace.  After a few minutes Joe blinked a little, coming around.

“Good, my young lord,” the doctor said, taking a fresh towel covered with healing salve from her nurse and holding it to Joe’s nose.  Joe squirmed a little, trying to turn his head away. “No, no my lord, I know it’s uncomfortable, but stay still.  You have a nose bleed.”

“You are alright,” John said firmly.  “Just breathe slowly through your mouth.”  He kept talking to Joe, keeping him calm and centered.  He and the doctor started carefully giving tiny Joe sips of his medicine, Joe still groggy but able to swallow and follow their directions.

Ben took Adam into Joe’s study, the door open so they could still hear everything.  After a couple of hours the loss of blood gradually slowed.  Joe was able to drink more medicine and slipped into a more natural doze.  A bit later, John asked the doctor and nurses to please give them a moment alone, and everyone gathered around Joe’s bed to hear about the rest of what John had seen.

John looked up at them, his eyes blazing.  “War has begun,” he said quietly.  “Ambassador Crystal was arrested this morning and taken to prison in the Rhye capital.  At least two members of his guard were killed and more injured.  They are also in prison, as are nearly all of our other officials; a few managed to escape and are on the run.  Our military stationed at the capital was also attacked; I don’t know how many of them were killed or captured.  It seems nearly all of our outposts between the capital and the border were also attacked.  Most are holding, but they are cut off from assistance.”

“What about at the border with Rhye?” Roger asked tightly.

John closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath and seeming to cast himself outwards.  “I cannot see anything, but sense that Rhye forces have not crossed the border.  But news has reached our forces of events in the capital and at the outposts.  Our generals are ready to march at our orders.”

“They should not cross the border yet,” Freddie ordered.  “It is a clear attack, but until I get word from our king I cannot order offensive maneuvers yet except in the Rhye capital.  Our orders will be to defend ourselves within Rhye lands.  All Queen troops in Rhye are authorized to assist our troops at the outposts and capital.”  Everyone nodded understanding.  “John, any idea of how long until official word reaches us?”

“I know doves were sent; it should not be long.  Sometime today, I think.”

“John.”  Brian sat on the edge of the bed and looked at his youngest brother intently.  “How are you able to see this?  Has the block Joseph put in place been removed?”

John nodded sadly.  “The force of the vision broke his hold.  It was like a dam being burst.  Adam is also unblocked, but his magic is still so weak, I do not think he will be able to use it at all.”

“How is Joe?” Rami asked worriedly as he held a clean towel to Joe’s nose.  The blood flow was slowed, but still steady even around the packed bandages in his nose and John and Rami taking turns to pinch his nose.

“Very weak, but now that I have my power back, I can help him to heal a bit faster than he has been, and he is no longer drained to block Adam and I.  I think the seizure was from stress and shock.  The nose bleed may last a while, and he will be tired and frail for some time.”  John sighed, stroking Joe’s long hair.  “As far as his magic goes, he is as weak as Adam.  I can barely detect anything at all from him.”

Freddie nodded shortly.  “Then we should let him and Adam rest.  In fact, I suggest we all rest; it may be our last chance for some time.  And until we receive official word, we must be quiet about what we know.” He looked at the younger lords in sympathy.  “I am sorry,” he said quietly.  The moment had come when they were likely soon going to face their own countrymen in battle.

Rami thought he surely would not be able to rest, but half an hour later when Freddie laid down beside him in bed and drew him close, he felt his eyes start to close from exhaustion and pain.  “We must fight my father,” he whispered.

Freddie kissed his head.  “I had prayed we might somehow prevent this.”

“But we now know it is real.”  He twisted his head a little to look at his husband.  “I meant what I told my brothers; do not hesitate to fight my father or twin if they threaten you.  Protect yourself, my husband.”

There was a kiss to his lips.  “We will protect each other.”

*****

The messengers arrived at dinner time.  Freddie had already drafted orders in his head and sent instructions to the border and messages to the capital.

Roger and Ben set out for the border the next morning, and the next morning doves arrived for Freddie from the capital, having been sent through the night, a procedure done only in emergencies.

“King Gabriel has summoned us,” he told John after he had read the short note.  They were gathered in John’s private study upstairs, Rami and Gwil joining them and Brian.

John blinked at the news.  “Why me?” he asked, perplexed.  It was not something that he had seen at any point.

“He does not say,” Freddie said, “And he demands us to come immediately.  A guard is on its way to escort us there.”

“A guard?”  Brian was immediately on alert.  “That does not sound well.”

Freddie sighed.  “I do not believe my cousin has any evil intent.  Rather, it is like him to make sure we come and don’t try to ride to battle, and the guard is more likely for protection instead of force.  But it is clear that we cannot refuse his command.” He turned to John.  “I know it is hard to ask you to leave Joseph, but I do not think we have a choice.”

John frowned.  “Joseph is barely awake,” he argued.  It had been just two days since the visions, and Joe had again bled for an entire day before it finally halted.  He was weak, waking only to eat and drink a little and then fall back asleep. 

“I know, my brother, but he is safe here, and our brothers and spouses will be with him.”

“I don’t like both of you leaving,” Brian said worriedly.  “Why would King Gabriel summon John and not Rami?” 

“I have no idea, but again, we cannot refuse him.  It would be best if we rode out to meet this escort, and we go as quickly as possible so that we can then return just as quickly.”

John looked in pain, but he finally reluctantly nodded.  Freddie clasped his shoulder, conveying support.  “We will hurry, explaining that Joseph is not well.  Rami, you have command of my armies if necessary.”

“And mine,” John added.  “We know the number that should remain here, but if needed, take the others to support Roger and Benjamin.  Brian – may I put you and Sir James in charge of my estate?  Joseph is not well enough for that extra duty.”

“Of course,” Brian nodded.  “Miami and I can split duty of the estates and armies here.  And we are in touch with Roger and Ben daily by messengers and doves.”

“And Gwilym,” John turned to him.  “I put you in charge of Joseph and Adam.  Stay with them.  Remember to head for the capital if things turn bad.”

Gwil nodded.  “I have had packs prepared already,” he said.  “We could ride out within minutes if necessary.”

“We leave tomorrow at dawn,” Freddie decided.  “If we ride fast, we can be there in less than three days.  John – do you feel strong enough?”  John seemed healthy, but Freddie knew his youngest brother might soon feel the strain again of his unblocked magic.

John nodded.  “I can ride,” he said firmly.  “Let us hope that business there will not take long.”

Joe and Adam were not happy about the lords leaving, but understood there seemed to be no choice.  “We are being split up already,” Joe said sadly.

“It is war,” John’s voice was sad as well.  “Hopefully we will not be separated for long.  Gwilym will stay with you and Adam.  Brian and Miami will be here as much as possible, as will Rami.”

“We will be safe,” Joe said firmly.  “Hurry back, my future husband.”  John gave him a gentle hug.

“I shall, my betrothed.” 

Chapter Text

Four days later, a dove arrived from the capital, confirming that Freddie and John had reached King Gabriel.  Roger and Ben had reinforced the borders, and scouts and spies were slipping into Rhye to assist solders and officials who had so far evaded capture.  A dove had reached one of the isolated posts, and Roger ordered them to hold out as long as they could, but to ultimately surrender to save themselves.  It seemed that after the night and morning of the initial attacks, the Rhye forces were quiet, surrounding posts but not attacking.  Fortunately the lords had seen to it that all posts were well stocked and could last a siege for months.

News from the Rhye capital was fragmented.  Ambassador Crystal was said to be held in prison with his staff and other Queen officials, but no one had seen them or could confirm they were even alive.  To everyone’s anger, even young families and babies had been taken prisoner – anyone associated with Queen had been arrested in the capital.  After the burst of fighting, Rami’s father seemed to have ordered troops back and to wait.

“What are they waiting for?” Joe asked nervously as he sat with Brian and Gwil at lunch in his study while Rami visited Adam.  He was recovering slowly, able to walk only short distances.  Joe claimed to not have any pain, but his body was frail from both the blood loss and the seizure from his vision.

“It is hard to say with so little information,” Brian admitted.  “It could be that it was partially a test of our forces and reactions.  With all the warning we had, we were very prepared; they may not have expected that.  None of our posts were captured and it’s likely Rhye thought they could capture at least a few.  I don’t think they expected the resistance they encountered.”

“Lord Roger says we put up a good fight,” Gwil said, looking at the latest messages from the front.  “Rhye may not dare to push right now.”

“But there will still be battles,” Joe said, his eyes glowing with understanding.

Brian sighed and nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “In war, there always are.”

Joe was preparing to go to bed that night when he heard a faint commotion outside in the courtyards.  He went on the balcony with his cane and Fada’s assistance, and saw lights and messengers coming from the tower where the trained doves were kept.  Anxious what the message by dove could be, he told the nurse and servant to stay with Adam, and made his way slowly down to the main floor library which Brian had turned into his office, a servant beside him to offer extra help, especially on the long stairs.  There were guards now posted in all areas of the estate, and the soldier outside the study bowed respectfully to Joe and quietly opened the doors for him.

“No,” Joe heard Rami say as he entered the room.  “Absolutely not.”

“I agree,” Brian said.  “It is impossible, of course.  But what message should we send in reply?”

“I say we send nothing,” Gwil argued. “We wait until we hear from Lord Freddie.”

Rami nodded.  “I agree; it’s best to not say anything.”

“What is it?” Joe asked.  The other three looked up from where they were seated at a table, all of them frowning over a small piece of paper.

“Joseph,” Brian looked at him sternly as all three stood and came over to Joe.  “What are you doing up?”

Joe shrugged.  “Couldn’t sleep,” he said.  “I saw that we received a message by dove.  What does it say?”  Brian was still frowning, as were Rami and Gwil, and Joe knew even without magic that something was up.  “What is it?”

Brian sighed, but seemed to give in.  “We received a message from Rhye,” he said slowly.

“From Rhye?” Joe looked at his brothers in surprise.  “They sent a message here?”

“My father did,” Rami admitted, his tone even.  “As I told Lord Brian, we should not waste a reply.”

Joe raised an eyebrow, now very curious.  "What does it say?" he repeated, looking at them expectantly.

There was a long pause, and Joe just glared at them.  Finally Rami spoke.  “It says that if anyone from Queen wishes to negotiate, it must be Lord John and yourself.”

“What?”  Joe just blinked in surprise.  “Why would they want—“ he broke off as he realized the answer to his own question.  “They want us because we are mages,” he breathed.

“Yes,” Brian agreed, his expression grim.  “The message says that a copy has been sent to our capital, and promises peace if only you and John go to Rhye.  If we refuse, then of course it will be asked why you would not go if it can mean peace.”

“My father is not very subtly threatening that you will be revealed as mages,” Rami muttered angrily. 

“And obviously, you cannot – will not – go to Ryhe, nor will John,” Brian said firmly.  “We will send a private message to Freddie and John assuring them that you are staying here.”

“What happens if we don’t go?”  Joe knew that there had to be more.  There was silence, and Joe frowned.  “Tell me.”

Gwil took a deep breath.  “Ambassador Crystal will be executed along with all other Queen officials and captured soldiers - even children - and full war declared.”

Joe blinked, looking at the other three in shock.  He had met Ambassador Crystal several times and the man was nothing but friendly and kind to all.  The thought of him being killed made Joe sick, not to mention all the other soldiers and innocent families.

“What are we going to do?” he asked weakly.

**********

**********

Freddie and John took time only to change clothes and send a messenger dove before they were escorted to King Gabriel.  They had arrived after three days of hard riding, and John was exhausted but determined to see the king quickly so they could hopefully return just as rapidly.  He still could see nothing of what the king could want, and bit his lip nervously as they were lead into the king’s private chamber.  No one would say anything, but the mood in the castle was grim and John sensed it was not just because of the attack.

The reason become clear the minute they looked at the king.  He was an older man, but had always been hearty and full of life.  Now he was thin and pale, looking even frailer than Joseph.  He was not even standing, but laying on a couch, a doctor and nurse beside him.

“Your Majesty,” Freddie said, bowing low, and then kissed the king’s hand.  “Cousin.”

“Cousin,” King Gabriel smiled wearily.  “It is good to see you.  Thank you for coming so quickly.  I am sorry to take you away from your estates, especially with the news from Rhye, but this could not wait.”

“Of course, my king,” Freddie said calmly.  “We are here to serve you.” 

John stepped forward and also bowed, kissing the royal ring.  “Your Majesty,” he said respectfully.

“Lord Deacon,” Gabriel nodded kindly.  The king managed another faint smile and then gestured for his doctors to leave.

“We must speak in private,” he said.  They bowed and left quietly, closing the door firmly behind them.  Gabriel waiting until the door was closed and then waved to the chairs beside his couch.  “Please sit, my lords.  Lord John, I am sorry also to take you away from your betrothed.  I was told he has taken ill again.”

“Yes, Your Majesty, but we had word awaiting us here that he continues to heal,” John said politely, although Freddie could see the tension in John’s expression.

Gabriel nodded.  “I hope he continues to mend,” he said.  “As for myself,” the king smiled wryly.  “I fear I will not last much longer.”

Freddie blinked.  “Sir,” he protested, “do not speak that way.  Surely—“

The king held up a hand, and Freddie stopped talking.  “Cousin, I have always loved your eternal optimism and love, but we must face facts now,” Gabriel said calmly, his voice steady.  “I will soon pass from this life, and it is best if we prepare now.”  He looked at John and smiled.  “Is that not true, my Lord Mage?”

John stiffened, and Freddie frowned.  “My lord—“ he began, but again the king stopped him.

“Fear not, my cousin and my Lord Mage.  Your secret is safe with me.”  He smiled at both men, his body frail, but his mind still strong.  “I am an old hand at keeping secrets.”  The king looked at John.  “I have always been sad that you never knew your father.  He was a good person, and an even better friend.”

John glanced at Freddie in surprise.  “I did not know that you knew him, Sir,” he said.

“Oh, when we were young we got into enormous troubles at times.  I was older and a terrible influence on him but he was an equally bad influence upon me.  Of course we thought it all great fun and glorious adventures, but our parents and tutors despaired of what to do with both of us.”  The old eyes twinkled at the memories.  “There was a reason I was shipped off to the forces while your father was sent to study with engineers; it was thought we could use our penchant for mischief against Rhye!  But,” the king sighed, “the truth is that there was a reason we succeeded in so many pranks, and it was not due to any of my skills.  It is easy to cause trouble when your friend is a mage.”

John looked absolutely shocked at the news, his face pale.  “My father…. was a mage?”

The king nodded.  “He claimed to be rather mediocre at physical acts of magic, but he could read minds and see flashes of the future. And when he met your mother, he knew that she was the one for him.  She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, but also deadly skilled with a sword and her fists when necessary and smarter than all of us put together.  We were all terrified of her!  But your father went right up to her at a party and asked her to dance.”  The king smiled at the memory.  “Now that I think about it, he may have been the first to ever have the courage to speak to her.”

John blushed a little, his head ducked down for a moment.  “I have been told her portraits did not do her justice,” he murmured.  Gabriel smiled in agreement.

“Oh, not at all, although her portraits were amazing.  It was said that even the King of Rhye wanted her as a wife!  He apparently saw a portrait of her and heard of her skills and was willing to propose marriage on the spot.  But a portrait could not capture her vitality and strength.  And your father was not the least bit intimidated; we were all amazed when they married.”

“I know they were considered a bit of a mismatch,” John confessed.

“Perhaps on the surface, but those of us who knew them understood they were perfect for each other,” the king assured them.  “True, she was older than your father, and the very definition of a strong warrior while your father had the breathing illness and could not even ride in a coach without sneezing with allergies at the animals.  But your father was confident and strong in his own way.  Why, once we were all at a tavern and of course a fight broke out.  Your father calmly ordered another beer and offered to hold your mother’s purse while she got ready to jump into the brawl.  He placed bets and won a very tidy sum of money.”

Freddie chuckled.  “They sound perfect indeed,” he smiled at John, glad that his brother could hear about his parents.  “Opposites do attract.”

“Indeed.  And also those who know their duty and have focus and purpose,” Gabriel said.  He took John’s hands.  “I am sorry you know so little of them.  Your father sadly saw that he would not live long, and I know he told your mother this.  But they were comforted by something else he saw; that their son would be a powerful mage who would end the war.”

Freddie placed his hand over John’s hands as well. “John did see how to end the war,” he said firmly. “His parents would be very proud of him.”

“They would,” Gabriel agreed.  “They were proud of you from the moment you were born, John.  It is sad only that they had so little time with you.  But they were confident in the future your father saw, and content to know what good would come.  They did have to send you away almost immediately after you were born for your safety, and I know they hated that, but knew there was no choice.”

John had to blink back the sudden tears that threatened to fall.  “I have wondered why I was sent away,” he admitted quietly.  “But there was no way to know; all my grandparents passed when I was still young, and my uncles and aunts refused to speak of it.”

“They did so out of love and concern for you,” Gabriel explained gently.  “We knew mages were in some mysterious danger, although your father could not see why or from whom.  It was one reason you were sent so young to Freddie and his brothers and then kept away from your family home.  They hoped it would help hide you.”

“I always wondered why John came to us when he did,” Freddie reflected softly.  “He still had a wet nurse and could not even crawl, he was so young.”

The king nodded.  “His mother was needed at the front,” he said quietly.  “Her sword and tactical skill were both necessary.  She told me once that her job was to hold off Rhye until John and his brothers were old enough to win the war.”

“My brothers?” John asked, looking again at Freddie.

“You were also sent away so you could grow up with your brothers,” Gabriel explained gently.  “Your father saw all four of you together; perhaps not brothers by blood, but by heart, mind, and choice, which are often stronger bonds than mere blood.”  Gabriel nodded at Freddie.  “All of you were essential to what Richard Deacon saw, and his wife knew it. Sadly, she did not live to see the peace, but the strategies she devised and the plans she made did help Queen endure the war for years.”

“I—“ John shook his head, not knowing what to say.  “Thank you, Sir, for telling me,” he finally whispered.  It answered some of the many questions he’d always had.

“Why do you tell us now, my cousin?” Freddie asked softly.

“Because I am dying,” Gabriel said honestly.  “I must tell you the truth of everything, and then you, my cousin, must take your place.”

Freddie glanced at John.  “My place?”

“Your crown,” Gabriel answered firmly.  “It is time, cousin.  I will not last long, and our mutual cousin is now in her convent; she has prepared abdication papers stepping aside and making you the heir.  All that remains is for me to abdicate now.”

“You abdicate?”  Freddie was shocked.  “But—“

“No,” Gabriel said, his eyes determined.  “I will not last long, but even so we cannot now in a time of war wait for me to die.  You will take the crown tomorrow, Frederick, as soon as the formal papers are witnessed.  I will then retreat to our cousin’s home to die in peace, knowing that our land is in the best possible hands.”  The king took Freddie’s hand.  “You must promise me, cousin, that you will do this.  It is for the good of our country.”

Freddie shook his head.  “But to take the crown when you and our cousin yet live – it is unseemly.  And not necessary.  I am your general and can command troops in your name.”

“I can name you anything I like - grant you all powers as was done two decades ago – but this threat we now face is different.”  Gabriel looked again at John.  “It is magic, is it not?”

John hesitated, and then bowed his head in quiet acknowledgement.  “A greater threat than we have ever encountered or even heard of before,” he said softly.  “It is not just a country with a history of war with us; it is pure evil intent on destruction of all kingdoms in our known world.”

“And you need the full power of the throne to face it,” the king told Freddie.  “You need every possible advantage, as do your troops.  We must have a monarch who is anointed, and not just appointed.”  The older man sagged back against the cushions of the couch.  “You will be crowned tomorrow morning.  If I could make it happen this hour I would, but even in war some legalities must be followed.  The ministers will be gathered by early morning and abdication papers read.”  He pulled Freddie’s hand to his lips, and kissed the signet ring of House Mercury.  “My cousin; my soon-to-be king.  I know this is a great burden I place on you, but it must be done.”

Freddie dark eyes filled with tears but he nodded.  “We will win,” he promised his cousin. 

Gabriel signed, closing his eyes.  “And there is yet more I must tell both of you,” he admitted.  “It will not be easy to say or hear, but it must be done.” 

**********

**********

Gwil sighed, putting aside the book he had been trying to read without any success.  Restless, he got up from the couch and went to the doorway to check yet again on Joe and Adam, asleep in their bed.  He, Ben, and their husbands were taking turns staying with the young mages at all times.  Not only did they need to watch in case there was a vision, but they also had to watch Joe.

“You are not leaving this house,” Brian had rumbled when Joe said he would run away if not allowed to go to Rhye.  The message from earlier that day upset him greatly and Joe had been ready to crawl out the door.

“But—‘

“No!” Brian said sternly.  “You and Adam are now confined to the house with guards, servants, and one of us with you at all times.  You are both weak and we will not put you at risk.”

“You can’t keep me prisoner!”

“We can indeed,” Ben snapped, glaring at his younger brother.  “What in the gods names do you think you can do, Joe?  You know they will either kill you or overtake your mind!  Or use you for even more blackmail to make Lord John go to them!”  He paced about the room, practically yelling at Joe.  “I will tie you up myself if I have to!”

“Go to hells!” Joe screamed back.  He was so furious he was crying.  “It is something I can do!  They will kill people if I don’t go!”

“And they will kill you!” Ben was ready to punch the stone wall and Brian had to pull him away.  Since then, they kept a sharp eye on Joe, who was completely furious at everyone.

Gwil was glad that Lord John was in the capital, and he knew his husband felt the same; at the least the two older mages were separated enough so that they could not try to hatch a crazy scheme to do as the The Dark had ordered.  They were all glad that Adam had not been mentioned, and hoped it meant that the child was thought dead now by his former captors.  It was a small comfort for them to hope that Adam was still hidden.

He went back to the couch and turned down the lamp, trying to sleep.  He had actually managed to doze off for a time when there was a shout from the bedroom.

“Gwil!”

Gwil jumped up and ran to find Joe and Adam sitting up, both rubbing their foreheads.  The night nurse was checking them quickly, and Joe managed a small smile after a moment to get his breath.  “I am alright,” he finally said.  “A bad dream.”  Adam just leaned against Joe, his small face pale.

They knew what the code was, and Gwil smiled at the nurse.  “I will stay with them,” he said.  “Would you please go to the kitchens and ask for some warm milk to be sent up?  Oh, and please send for my husband.  We will keep them company, and you can go get some rest.”  The nurse frowned a little, but curtsied and hurried to do as asked.

Gwil sat down on the bed and handed Joe a glass of water.  “Vision?” he asked quietly.

“Message,” Joe said, still blinking as he woke up.  “From Lord John.”

“I heard it too,” Adam said softly, and Gwil pulled the child into his lap, holding a glass for him to sip from.

“Should we send for Lord Roger as well?”  At Joe’s nod, Gwill put Adam back down carefully after his drink and went to the door to send a servant to fetch the blond lord.  Ben was back in the field, but Roger was staying with them for a few days. Soon, the kitchens had delivered milk for the boys and the lords were in the bedroom, dressing gowns pulled on.

Joe’s hands were shaking as he sipped his milk, Adam back in Gwil’s lap to drink his cup.  He took a deep breath and then looked at the lords.

“Lord Freddie will be crowned king tomorrow,” he said quietly.

“What?” Roger looked at Joe sharply.  “Did something happen to King Gabriel?”

“He is alive, but abdicating, as did his cousin.  The king is ill, and he summoned Lord Freddie to have him take the crown,” Joe said weakly.

“Gods,” Brian sighed softly.  “It is all happening now.”

Roger nodded and sat down on the bed to join everyone.  “Have they received the message yet from King Said?”

“I don’t know,” Joe shook his head.  “I can’t see anything, and Lord John didn’t say in his message.  He could send only a few quick thoughts.”

“If they have not received it, they will soon,” Brian reasoned.  “We must assume that they will return as quickly as they can, but if they are leading the king’s army – Freddie’s army - it will take time.”

Gwil looked worriedly at his husband and knew what he was thinking; they might not have time.  Ambassador Crystal and the other captured Queen citizens might not have time.  Children’s lives were at stake.

“It is still a few hours until dawn,” Roger said suddenly, looking at Adam who was falling back asleep.  “Joseph, you and Adam get some more rest; we will send in a nurse.”

Joe blinked at them angrily.  “I know you are going to plan,” he said.  “I should hear it.”

“In the morning,” Roger said a bit vaguely.  Joe was ready to protest but when he tried to get out of bed, he slumped back weakly.  Roger snorted and pulled up the blankets over both boys, tucking them back in.

“Fada,” Gwil called.  He hated to do it, but he and the hound seem to be of a similar thought.  Without direction, Fada jumped up on the bed and simply laid down on Joe, keeping him in place.  Gwil picked up Fada’s pups, adding them to the bed, and they quickly covered Adam.

There was a fifth wolfhound with the boys now, a young male named Stelen who had adopted Adam.  Lord John had selected him to be Adam’s familiar and guard until Fada’s pups were older, and the hound took his duty seriously.  He never moved from Adam’s side, and had started to guide the child about the estate.  Adam held onto his harness and walked confidently, knowing that Stelen would keep him safe from any obstacles in their path.  Now the hound licked Adam’s face to let his master know where he was, and then laid back down on the floor beside the bed.

“Gwil…” Joe complained, but he winced and closed his eyes in an obvious headache.  Even when relatively healthy, Joe had headaches after most messages from his lord as it took strength on both sides for the magical connection.

“Joe, I promise we will tell you later what we discuss,” Gwil answered.  “Just get some rest now; it’s no use if you fall asleep during a talk.  I will come back after we talk and as soon as you wake up I will let you know if anything more has happened.”

“I’m more likely to tell you if something has happened,” Joe muttered, but his eyes were closing suspiciously fast and Gwil glanced at the cup of milk that Lord Brian now held, his husband’s face a little guilty.  When the nurse arrived, Gwil went down to the library to join Brian and Roger and looked meaningfully at his husband.

“John insisted we have it ready if he had to send Joseph a message, or he had another bleed,” Brian confessed, holding up a small vial that he had slipped into the milk for both boys.  Gwil hugged him in understanding.

“It was warranted,” he admitted.  He disliked the idea of drugging his little brothers, but knew there were times it could be necessary to keep Joe quiet and to get the rest he desperately needed.  

“Especially when he hears this one’s insane plan,” Roger muttered, not looking at all happy.

“What?” Gwil looked at both men in alarm.  “What plan?”

Brian took a deep breath.  “I am the eldest of the lords here,” he said calmly.  “The most senior Queen official outside of the capital.”  Gwil started to nod, but then jerked his head a bit as realization hit.

“You—“ he began, and Brian nodded.

“The Dark claims he will negotiate; that if John and Joseph come, it can prevent war.  Well, John is not here, and Joseph is far too ill.  I will go in their place.”

“But we know what he is!” Gwil exclaimed.  “Evil!  He wants Lord John and Joe for their magic and will never accept you!”

“Our spies tell us there are many in Rhye who are horrified at this attack, and that entire families are being held captive and threatened with death,” Brian explained.  “John saw once that we would have allies in Rhye.  If I go, it shows good faith; I cannot believe that the common soldier would attack an honest peace delegation.”

“He is threatening to kill children!” Gwil snapped.

“The Dark, yes, but not the soldiers I will encounter for most of my trip.  It will appear that Queen is making an honest effort to reply.”  Brian’s hazel eyes looked at Gwil calmly.  “If nothing else, I can buy time.  Time for Freddie and John to return, and we can muster all our forces to attack the Rhye capital.  And if I am there, I may be able to prevent the murder of innocent children and families.”

“No!” Gwil looked at Roger, who had a grim expression on his face.  “Lord Roger?”

Roger sighed, looking steadily at Gwil.  “It is insane,” he said.  “And it may be the only chance for both the families and to buy time for Freddie and John to return.”

“The only way for us to succeed against The Dark is together,” Brian reminded his husband.  “I am a diplomatic envoy, and we will make sure all know that I am going to help obtain the release of children.  They will not likely object to this or try to stop me.”

“Not likely?”  Gwil was horrified.  “No!  You cannot go!”

Roger cleared his throat.  “If he does not, if we do not give some response, then new messages say that families will be executed in two days.  We have one day to respond.”

Gwil just starred, aghast at the news. “We must work together,” Brian said again, his voice calm.  “This is my task now.  Freddie and John will return from the capital with the main army; Roger, Rami, and Ben will lead our forces here.  You must stay with Joseph and Adam, my husband.  And I will go to buy time for us all.  I am the negotiator in the family and the ranking lord present.  It is my duty.”

Roger sighed and came forward to lay a hand on Gwil’s shoulder.  “Your husband is the most stubborn man I know,” he said a little gruffly.  “Even more stubborn than John, if you can believe it.  If anyone can buy us time, it is he.  Brian knows what to do.  I would trust no one else with this task.”

Tears filled his eyes, but Gwil finally nodded slowly, knowing it was the best chance they had.  Logically, he could not argue with the plan although it tore his heart to agree.  Roger nodded at them and then left, giving the couple some privacy.

“When?” Gwil managed to ask.

“I have already sent a dove to Rhye,” Brian said gently.  “I leave at first light.”  He smiled.  “Naturally, I did not say that it is I who is coming; only that their request for a meeting was being accepted.  The first step in negotiation, my love, is to be vague.”

Gwil managed a chocked sob of laughter.  “The second step is to return to me,” he said.  “I will accept nothing less.”  He looked at his husband.  ‘Promise me, husband.  You must succeed and then return.”

Brian pulled him close, a kiss to his lips.  “I accept your orders,” he said.

**********

**********

Everyone possible squeezed into the royal hall for the coronation.  The abdication papers of both Gabriel and his cousin were read aloud and confirmed by the councilors and parliament.  Moments later, Freddie entered the hall.

The lord was resplendent in the red and yellow colors of his house, followed by John in the tan and aqua of House Deacon.  The brothers made their way to the dais and Freddie accepted the specter and ring of the monarch.  He sat in the throne chair and a moment later the crown rested on his head.  John was the first to step forward and kiss his ring and led the cry of Long Live the King!

“A quick ceremony,” Freddie had ordered the ministers the night before.  “We have no time to waste.”  He had everyone except John leave the bedroom they had been assigned and then turned to his brother.

“So the time has come,” he sighed.  John nodded, his eyes wide.

“I know you have not sought it,” he said softly.  “But it has come to you now.”

“And I will take it so that we will win this war,” Freddie said, his voice powerful and steady.  “As you and Joseph have seen and as perhaps your father saw as well.  It will take all of us to defeat this evil.”  John nodded, but kept his head down, his eyes troubled.  “What, Deacy?” Freddie asking gently.  “Do you see something?”

“Only my own doubts,” John said.  “I have demanded so much and now it is time for all things to happen.  What if I missed something?  If Joseph did, or my father?”

Freddie put his hands on John’s shoulders.  “You are my lord mage,” he said forcefully.  “Your father served kings as well we now know, and your fiancé serves a future king of Rhye.  There is no one more that I would now trust.”

John bowed his head.  “I hope I prove worth of that trust, my king,” he said quietly.

Freddie hugged his brother, sighing a little.  They stood for a moment, just taking comfort in familiar embraces, when there was a knock on the door.  John smiled at his brother and went to answer it.  One of their own guards hurried in with a small paper. 

“My lords, we have received a message by dove from Rhye,” he said, quickly handing it over to Freddie.

“From Rhye?”  Freddie read the note, and his face turned dark in anger.  “Does King Gabriel know?” he asked sharply.

“I do not think so, my lord.  There was only one message, addressed to you.”  Freddie nodded shortly.

“We will return home tomorrow at noon,” he said.  “Order our troops to be ready to ride fast.  Send a message to Lord Deacon’s estate that we will be on our way.”

The guard nodded and bowed.  “Yes, my lords,” he said, hurrying from the room.

“What is the note?” John demanded, seeing his brother’s face.  Freddie wordlessly held it out and John took it.  A moment to digest the words and he drew a sharp breath.

“The Dark wants us,” he said simply.

Freddie nodded.  “I know that Brian will not let Joseph go.  And I, my brother, will not let you go.  Do you understand?”

“But if I—“

“No!” Freddie was not that much taller than John, but he was far broader and much stronger, qualities that he had never used on his baby brother before.  But now Freddie took hold of John’s arm for emphasis as he looked at him fiercely.  “This is my first order as your king, Lord John.  You will stay at my side at all times until I give you leave.  You will not attempt at any time to go to Rhye without me with you.  Do you understand?’

“Freddie—“

“Do. You. Understand?” Every word was snapped out.  “I will put in you in chains if necessary!”

Anger flared in John’s eyes, but then faded, and he finally bowed his head.  “I will do as you order,” he said quietly.

Freddie squeezed his arm gently.  “Keep your anger, but focus it at our enemy, my brother,” he advised.  “Tomorrow we will head for home and finally face this once and for all.”

Now, Freddie stood in the throne room, accepting the cheers of the people for a moment, and then raised his hand to quiet them.

“My lords and ladies,” he said, his voice strong and steady.  “I accept this crown with humility and honor, knowing we face a dangerous time again.  Two decades ago, we thought we had made a peace, but now it is threatened again.”  There were shouts of anger at Rhye and calls to battle, and Freddie raised his hand to quiet them again.

“We face a danger and must take action, but only with facts,” he said sternly, causing some to frown and murmur.  “We have had a strong peace with Rhye for twenty years, and there has never before been a break of the treaty.  What has occurred to our people is without precedent or cause, yet we must be cautious.  No one will be allowed to harm our people, but we must be sure who the enemy is.  I do not believe it is the common people of Rhye, who have worked with us for two decades.”

“Death to King Said!” someone shouted, and John was glad that the man was quickly shut down and removed.

Freddie frowned at where the man had stood.  “True, King Said has sent word of demands and he is as monarch responsible for the actions of his army.  He must be addressed, and he will be.  But we will not take up arms against innocent people.  My brother and I will leave this afternoon to go the front and address what has been done.  Until then, I beg you all to continue as best we can, for there may be other enemies we must face.”

There were murmurs at Freddie’s cryptic words but everyone bowed to the new king and his brother.  Freddie bowed in turn, accepting their honor, and then returned to the monarch’s council room with his ministers.

“We must destroy Rhye now, Your Majesty,” one of the ministers said once they were settled.

“We will destroy the enemy,” Freddie agreed.

One minister cleared her throat.  “You have our loyalty and service, Your Majesty, and all are glad to see you on the throne.  But I must speak of one matter so it is in the open before it is allowed to fester in silence.”  Freddie raised an eyebrow, but nodded for the lady to continue.  “We all here pledge our loyalty to your husband as well as to you, but there may be some concern about him leading troops as he is of Rhye.  We here do not question his ability or his loyalty, but there are some who feel it is not appropriate for him to lead forces.”

Freddie nodded calmly.  “My husband and I had this discussion when we heard of the attacks,” he said.  “My brother John’s intended is ill and too young, but our other brothers have spoken with their husbands as they also are of Rhye. We will not ask them to face battle against their parents or forces from their family houses.”

“But against other houses of Rhye?” the lady asked delicately. 

“They are soldiers,” Freddie answered, his expression steady.  “We may be in a position where no soldier can be removed, my lady minister.  If there are doubts, we shall honestly address them, but I would ask ones with doubts speak to the soldiers that our husbands have trained with.  They have no doubt of their loyalty or skill.”

The lady bowed her head.  “They have my support, Your Majesty,” she agreed.

John suddenly stiffened, and Freddie saw his face turn pale.  He quickly stood up and took John’s arm to guide him to sit.  “My lord and ladies, my brother has taken ill; may we have a moment?  I will resume speaking with you shortly.”  The ministers all bowed and took their leave.

“What has happened?” Freddie asked quietly, kneeling beside John when they were alone.  John was rubbing his forehead and sighed.

“Brian has left for Rhye.”

Freddie cursed at the news.  “Knowing he is not who they want?  He is buying us time.  We must hurry.”  He stood, shaking his head.  “I will send for your medicine, my brother, and then we will leave.  Prepare to ride as we never have before.”

John pressed his lips together, his expression fiercely determined and Freddie saw John’s formidable mother in his face and manner.  “I am ready,” he said.

**********

**********

Ben clenched his hands, his warhorse sensing his unease and sidestepping a little.  Part of Ben wanted to punch Lord May unconscious and toss him over his horse to send back to the estates, but he knew this had to be done.  But it was hard for Ben to wait calmly while Gwil struggled to even breathe.

“We have sent signals,” the scout reported.  “And received acknowledgement from the Rhye forces.  No one will attack when Lord May’s party crosses the border.”

We hope’, Ben thought, but he knew he had to be positive for his brother.

“Then it is time to go,” Lord Brian said calmly.  He reached over to clasp his brother’s arm and Lord Roger looked like he also wanted to pull his brother away.

“Freddie is on his way,” Roger said, his voice tight, but looking at his brother steadily.  “And we are ready for any signal.” He managed a smile.  “Try not to get in trouble.”

Brian chuckled.  “I will do my best,” he promised.  He smiled at Ben and clasped his arm as well.  “Look after my brother, Benjamin.  He needs all the help he can get.”

Ben tried to smile.  “Don’t make us have to come and get you,” he said.

Brian nodded again and then turned to Gwil.  Ben knew they had said their goodbyes in private, and each was being strong for the other. “Remember,” Brian said to them all.  “Do not allow Joseph to leave under any circumstance.  You all swear this to me, now.  He must stay here.”

“I swear, my brother,” Roger said.

Ben nodded.  “I swear.”

Gwil bit his lip but also raised his chin.  “I swear our mages will stay safe.  As I promised Lord Freddie and Rami, I promise you, my husband.”

“We will keep them all safe,” Roger promised.

“Good.”  Brian leaned over and kissed Gwil one last time and then turned to the most loyal and skilled guards who had demanded to accompany him.  “We ride,” he said simply.  He clucked to his warhorse and they off across the field to the river that formed the border. 

Gwil held his breath as his husband and his guard made their way to the bridge.  The Queen soldiers holding their end of the bridge bowed respectfully to the lord as Brian led his group across wooden structure.  He paused at the halfway point, pointedly waiting until he got an all clear from the other side and permission to proceed.  Not looking back, he steadily moved forward.  An emissary from the Rhye guard stepped forward and all could see them speak for a few minutes.  Whatever was decided it seemed agreeable to both sides, and the Rhye guard parted to let Brian and his aides and guards through the lines.  Gwil watched as a group of Rhye soldiers formed around Brian, and then his husband disappeared over the hills on the road to the capital.

“He will be alright,” Roger said with conviction, nodding his head.  “Did you know that he negotiated with Rhye before?  To end the war?”

Gwil forced himself to blink back tears that threatened his eyes.  “No,” he admitted.

“It was after the Battle of River End,” Roger said, still starring at where his brother had vanished from sight and perhaps lost in memories.  “Even without John’s visions, all knew that the end of the war was in sight.  But still, we knew with reason that many in Rhye would rather die than admit defeat after over a century of constant warfare.  Every time before that Queen had sent offers of surrender to Rhye, they had been rebuffed and some of them quite forcibly.  Many were arguing that the time for negotiation was over, and on the heels of victory at the battle, we should just march into Rhye and sack the capital.”

“But you knew Rhye could not be destroyed,” Ben said quietly. 

Roger nodded.  “We needed Rhye.  Intact.  John was ill, and I am no negotiator.  Brian said he had to go as we could not risk Freddie, and besides, he had indeed taken on the duty as negotiator.  He took off with just a small personal guard from his estate before we even knew what was happening.  We were terrified, but two days later he came back to the border with his new best friend, the High Lord Councilor of Rhye.  And throughout all the negotiations - which took months – they were thick as thieves.  Even we when presented the terms of you boys having to come as hostages, the High Councilor simply nodded and when the king came to the negotiations, he gave Brian presents and toasted him as a true friend at all the banquets.” 

Roger smiled at the younger lords as the guided them back behind the front lines.  “Brian can take care of himself,” he continued, assuring them.  “He has the high ground and full control over the situation in most people’s eyes.  He knows how to make all think they are on the same side and are not enemies. King Said may think he has control, but Brian will put him in his place, trust me.  He will act as a benevolent friend of Rhye, and most will end up thanking for him for the privilege, no matter what The Dark may want.  He knows how to buy for time, and we must let him do his job.”

Gwil nodded as they returned to the tents.  “He just better keep his promise to me,” he said softly.

Gwil and his guard rode hard the rest of the day and into the night to return to Lord John’s estate.  He made his way quietly up to Joe and Adam’s bedroom to check on the mages, giving the nurse and servant on duty a tired smile.  They both bowed respectfully to the young lord and went to the study, giving Gwil some time alone with the boys.  All the wolfhounds quietly greeted Gwil; Fada and her pups in their special large basket and Stelen on his blanket by Adam’s side of the bed.  Joe was sound asleep, but Adam stirred at the sound of the door closing.

“It’s Gwil, Adam,” Gwil said gently, touching the boy’s shoulder to let him know where he was. 

“Lord Gwil,” Adam yawned.  He had stopped addressing Ben and Joe formally, but nothing could make him cease calling the older men by their titles.  Gwil just chuckled and carefully drew the child up into his lap, snagging a soft blanket to wrap around him.

“Did you have a good day?” Gwil asked.

The child nodded happily.  “We went to the bathhouse, and then I got to ride a pony.  And I worked hard at my lessons.”  A special tutor had been found to teach Adam how to use a cane to navigate around on his own, and he was proving to be a quick study at memorizing the layout of rooms and hallways.  Of course he also had Stelen, who was suspicious of the cane at times, obviously feeling that he did a far better job at guiding his young master.

The tutor was also teaching Adam other things to help him be more independent, and the child was learning fast, proud of every accomplishment.  He was a far cry from the terrified waif that Ben had rescued; still quiet, but grateful for every small kindness and eager to please and to learn.

“And I think I saw some light again today,” Adam reported excitedly.

“Really?” Gwil hugged him.  “That is marvelous news, my dear.”  As Adam healed and rested from use of his magic, he was reporting more and more blurry flashes of light.  John was hopeful now that Adam might in time regain a little bit of sight; if so, he would always need thick lenses, but there was chance he would have some limited vision.

“Lord Brian went away, didn’t he?” Adam suddenly said softly.  Gwil had to blink a little; they had been careful to not say much around the child.

“Yes,” Gwil admitted after a moment.  “He is going to…to help us.”

Adam nodded.  “He will,” he said firmly, the same expression on his face that Joe and Lord John had when they knew something through magic.  “And Lord John and Lord Freddie will be back soon.”

Gwil hugged the child.  “Thank you,” he whispered.  He sat with his brothers for the rest of the night, needing their closeness.

**********

**********

It took a full day to reach the border fortresses where King Said had set up his battle court.  Brian smiled graciously at all he met, calm and acting completely at ease with the situation.  He noted the Rhye soldiers who bowed politely to him and even overheard a few murmurs about ‘this madness’ being settled.  When they stopped to water and rest the horses at a small outpost, a farmer discreetly approached Brian under the guise of offering him some fruit to eat, and whispered that they were grateful to see the lord.

“Bless you for coming, my lord,” the man murmured.

Brian filed all this away carefully, his guards also on alert for any tidbits of talk they might hear.  Every word was a possible source of information and thus a great weapon to Brian.

Information gives us Advantage, he had often lectured his brothers and then their future spouses in turn.  Never forget that.

By the time they reached the fortress and Brian was met in the courtyard, he already knew a great deal.  One of his guards gave a quiet signal to Brian that they too had been quietly approached or had overheard whispers of cooperation.  There were indeed many in Rhye unhappy or at least confused and puzzled at the attacks.  Brian knew that his staff would be hard at work that night to learn more from all sources.

A servant approached Brian and bowed respectfully as his warhorse was handed off to a groom.  “Lord May,” she said.  “Welcome to Post Pierren.  It is good to see you, my lord.”

“Thank you,” Brian smiled.  “It is good to be here.”

The servant nodded, looking now at the ground just a bit hesitantly.  “I have been ordered to take you immediately to the council chamber to meet with King Said,” she said, not looking at all comfortable with her orders.   

Well, time for his kind of battle.  “Thank you, but if you could, please tell His Majesty that I am quite tired about this long journey and wish to rest.  I shall be most happy to meet with His Majesty first thing tomorrow.”  Even at the height of the last war, common courtesies had been observed in letting traveling delegations rest.  And besides, Brian was already stalling for time.  “Now, of course, if His Majesty feels it is urgent, he is very welcome to come see me.  May I now please be escorted to my lodgings?  It has been a very long day of travel.”  He handed the woman a few coins in thanks.

She blinked a little, but then bowed her head.  “I am steward of this Post, and am glad to show you to your lodgings as our honored guest,” she said formally, clearly glad to be able to offer the expected hospitality.

“You are most kind, my lady.  Please, lead on.”

An hour later, Brian was settled in his room, enjoying a hot meal.  One of his staff came to report that all were comfortably settled and casually spoke the code words that indicated they too were hearing of discontent among the Rhye forces and people.

“It is indeed puzzling why Queen officials are being held,” the aide said openly.  They knew there was always a possibility of being overheard and the need to usually speak in code, but this was a reasonable statement and if they were being listened to, well, all the better.  Brian’s strategy was to be friendly and act as if it were a misunderstanding.  He did not intended in any way to ignore the fact that Queen soldiers had been killed and children imprisoned, but he knew he had to be calm and treat it as something to be quickly settled.

“I am confident we will settle this matter easily,” Brian agreed.  “Queen and Rhye are allies and friends, and surely this has been a sad and dreadful misunderstanding.”

He kept the same attitude the next morning when he was shown into the audience chamber.  He had taken his time getting ready, claiming fatigue from the journey, and it was late when he made his appearance.  Brian was truly not surprised to see all the parents of the four boys assembled, although he did a good show of being delighted at a surprise.  “My dear lord and lady,” he said, stopping to warmly greet his in-laws.  “I was hoping I might see you!  I have letters from Gwilym and a small gift he asked me to have sent to you, Lady Lee.  How nice that I can deliver it to you in person.”

“Lord May,” the lady said stiffly.  Her husband just starred.

Brian smiled broadly, chatting for a moment as if he had all the time in the world and carrying on a conversation practically with himself.  Finally, King Said entered with his wife and Brian bowed to them, although not nearly as low as others might.

“Lord May,” Malek said, his voice tight.

“Your Majesty,” Brian smiled.  “May I offer my congratulations on your crowning?  I have told all in Queen how good it is to have the father-in-law of my eldest brother on the throne.  Surely this heralds a new age of closeness and friendship between our countries.”

The king did not even acknowledge the greeting.  “We asked for others to come.”

Brian blinked.  “Did you not get my reply?  I do hope nothing happened to the dove; it would be dreadful if the message did not reach you.”

“I received no message,” the king snapped.

“Well, I must send a message later to my warden and see if the dove by chance returned.  I hope it is alright; my doves are quite special to me.  Such magnificent and loyal creatures.”

Malek’s eyebrows were drawn in anger.  “What was your message?”

“It was sad news, I fear.  Lord and Lady Mazzello, I assure you it is not dire, but young Joseph is ill again.  He had a fall and while he is healing, it is slow and he is quite unable to leave his bed.  I am sure you understand that he could not travel.  He is so very sorry that he missed a chance to see you.”

“And Lord Deacon?” It was Lord Hardy, his eyes narrowed as he glared at the Queen lord.  “Why did he not answer our summons?”

“Oh, did you not hear that news either?  I know doves were sent to each of you, but you especially, Your Majesty.” Brian cleared his throat.  “I regret that King Gabriel decided to abdicate due to ill health; he has served his country long and well in many capacities, and felt he simply could not continue.  Lord John accompanied our brother Lord Freddie to the capital and I am honored to say that my oldest brother is now King Frederick.”

All the parents glanced at each other, and Brian did not miss the tension rise in the room.  He smiled.  “So, really neither Joseph nor John could possibly come.  And of course now my brother the King Frederick wishes that you and he have personal discourse.  I am here to assure you that my king wishes to meet with you at your earliest convenience, Your Majesty.  I will help arrange a date for your meeting.”

Malek actually hissed a little in anger.  “I would speak now with one of the two I named permissible.”

“Well, surely you understand that Joseph cannot travel and we don’t know how long John will be needed with our new king.”  Brian gestured for one of his aides to come forward and the woman cheerfully presented a huge calendar book to one of Said’s aides.  “Now, we should talk dates, but first we must address the events in your fair capital.”  He narrowed his eyes at them, certain he had the attention of everyone in the room.  “I speak of course, of the dreadful misunderstandings that have led to false imprisonment of Queen officials and even children, I am told.  I’m sure we can get this all sorted quickly.”

*****

Brian was exhausted from smiling when he returned to his quarters that night.  He had felt less weary after a day of physical combat than he did now, worn by the endless demands from Malek and the other parents.  They kept insisting on John and Joseph coming and of course Brian would never agree to that.  There had been some exchanges about the attacks in the Rhye capital, but nothing satisfactory and Brian knew the hostages were all in danger.  He had to walk a balance of stalling for time and learning all he could.  Being very public and seen by many was his own personal best security.

But he still needed the night alone.

Had it really been only two nights ago that he was with his husband?  Brian sighed, staring at the strange bed.  Gwilym at one point had suggested that he accompany his husband, and Brian had allowed absolutely no discussion on that.  Freddie would need everyone possible in Queen to rally forces.

He opened a window for fresh air and to his surprise a moment later there was a soft sound.  He turned back to the window and saw a small dove sitting on the windowsill, a tiny flower clutched in one claw.  The dove cocked its head, looking at Brian, and then flew away, leaving the flower behind.  The lord went to it and saw that it was his favorite flower – even in his favorite color of the blossom.

Brian picked up the flower and starred at the tiny offering.  He was no mage, or even a familiar, but he knew in his heart that it was from Gwilym.  His husband was very private about it, but he had admitted to his lord that he could now communicate with even some wild animals.  Birds in particular seemed drawn to Gwilym, and he in turn loved them. 

The lord looked at the sky where the dove had disappeared.  ‘Tell him you saw me safe,’ he silently asked the bird.  ‘And that I will return to him.’

*****

On the morning of the second full day, Brian was arrested. 

He sensed it was coming, and had arranged for secret messages to be carried out.  By his estimation, Freddie and John could be within two days of the border now with the new army, and he knew Roger and Ben would have things ready.

Brian knew that he and his aides were skilled warriors, but they were also hopelessly outnumbered.  And if they tried to fight, it might undue the quiet efforts he had put in place making allies at the Post and emphasizing to all that he was peaceful.  He ordered his entourage to protect themselves, but to not draw weapons first, even if Brian was taken.  None of them liked the order, but obeyed.

Even when Brian was dragged from his bed in the early dawn.

He heard the commotion of course outside his door as his guards were confronted and for a moment he looked at his sword, knowing he would likely take down at least a few of the Rhye soldiders.  But he especially could not been seen to draw his weapon, and instead put on his boots and dressing gown and opened the door.

“What is going on?” he exclaimed.  “Is something wrong?”  He looked at his guards who were standing with weapons drawn, and gestured to them.  “Put down your weapons, my friends.  There is no need for this.”

A man dressed in the uniform of a captain of Rhye stepped forward.  “Lord May,” he stated formally.  “By order of King Said, you are under arrest.”

“Arrest?”  Brian looked appalled.  “My good man, what is this misunderstanding?”

The captain had the grace to look uncomfortable.  “There is no mistake, my lord.  We are to escort you to the dungeons below immediately.”

Brian knew by now that a number of people were listening.  “The dungeons?” he exclaimed loudly.  “What ill have I done to your king to be arrested and sent to the dungeons?  I am a free diplomatic envoy from a land long friendly to Rhye.  I am here to negotiate the release of children mistakenly jailed and now I am being jailed?”

Another man stepped forward, clearly uncomfortable.  “Lord May, I am also to inform you that by the command of King Said, you and Ambassador Crystal, who has been brought here, will be executed tomorrow afternoon.”

“Executed?” Brian didn’t have to work hard to raise his voice.  “For what cause?”  This was his time to make sure all possible heard it, knowing that word would spread quickly. 

The man could not meet his eyes.  “For being of Queen,” he said simply.

Chapter Text

Gwil was sleeping uneasily in the large bed in his and Brian’s rooms when there was a loud shriek outside his window.  Startled, he got up and opened the shutters, completely confused as to what the sounds could be.  To his surprise, it was a raven.  As soon as Gwil opened the shutters, the bird flew right at him, peeling away only at the last moment.

It hit him suddenly.  Brian was in danger.  Gwil didn’t pretend to understand everything about his connection with animals - even Lord John had been puzzled at the extent of Gwil’s growing ability to communicate with them – and the message he now received was vague.  But he knew without any doubt that his husband was in danger.

He didn’t hesitate to dress, taking his sword and bow, and raced down to the stables.  The guards and grooms were startled at his sudden appearance, but Gwil had not been ordered to remain at the estate and none could stop him when he saddled his warhorse.  He was about to mount when a hand fell on his shoulder.

“Where the hells are you going?”  It was Ben, starring at his older brother.

Gwil cursed but knew he had to be quick and the truth was the best way to get Ben to cooperate.  “Lord Brian is in danger.  I have to go to him.”

Blond eyebrows shot up.  “What?” Ben practically yelled.  “How do you know this, and what do you mean go to him?”

“The animals told me,” Gwil snapped.  “Now get out of my way.”

Bless him, Ben didn’t ask questions but instead got on his own horse.  “Explain on the way,” he ordered, and led them out of the estate and toward the borders.

“You are insane!” Ben yelled after Gwil explained briefly as they rode hard, taking shortcuts known only to their best scouts.  “You were told to stay with Joe and Adam.”

“No, I was told to keep them safe,” Gwil countered.  “They are safe.”

“Just what do you think you can do?”

Gwil was wondering a bit of that as well, but shrugged and concentrated on riding.  They reached the border that afternoon and Ben led them through the camps to his tent.  Gwil was ready to ride right across the bridge to Rhye but Ben managed to get him to stop long enough for some sort of plan to be developed.

“You can’t just go in there!  You’ll be captured like Lord Brian,” Ben argued.

“Then what?” Gwil demanded.  “I am not going to just wait around!”

Ben let out his breath in a huff.  “I didn’t say you should wait around,” he snapped.  He went to a trunk and threw it open to pull out uniforms that looked very familiar.  “I am just saying if you plan to go into Rhye, you better have a plan….soldier.”  He handed Gwil a Rhye uniform.  “Now hurry up before I change my mind, realizing what a heart attack Roger will have when he learns I’m helping you.”

Twenty minutes later, Gwil and Ben approached a quiet area of the river.  A duck on the bank quacked, and Gwil nodded.  “We can cross here,” he told Ben.  “No one is watching.”

A million questions went through Ben’s mind, but he just nodded, knowing there was no time to waste.  They swam their horses across the river, the duck beside them, and quickly disappeared back into the trees just as the duck quacked a warning.  When a scout came by on patrol two minutes later, he found only a family of ducks in the river and two fellow Rhye soldiers in dry uniforms watching the banks.

“Anything happening?” he asked wearily.  He had been at the border for nearly two weeks with no answers on anything and it was becoming a strain on everyone.

“Not a damn thing,” Ben sighed.  “What about you?  Any news?”

The guard laughed a little.  “As if anyone knows anything nowadays.”

Gwil glanced at Ben and his brother gave the faintest of nods.  “Well, at least out here we’re away from the capital.  Bit more freedom, I’d say,” Ben answered.

“Unlike those in prison,” the man agreed.  He bid them farewell and left.

“What the hells is going on?” Ben muttered.

“I don’t know; only that we have to keep moving,” Gwil said.  He gestured to the east.  “We go that way.  We know the way from our maps and earlier scouts, but the birds will keep us away from sentries.”  Ben could say nothing to argue with that.

They travelled hard for hours, the birds skillfully guiding them by short cuts.  When night came, they were joined by owls and continued on a rapid pace.

“Do the animals speak full sentences to you?” Ben finally asked when they stopped to water their horses.

Gwil ducked his head, rubbing his neck.  “Not really,” he said.  “It’s more like thoughts and pictures.  But I know what they mean and I suspect it’s the same when I give them a message.  It varies; I can usually communicate better with animals that I know, although birds are always easier.”

Ben pondered that for a minute.  “Maybe because some of them can already talk,” he mused.  A travelling magician had stopped by Roger’s estate years earlier and entertained the boys with a talking parrot.  Ben had been quite taken with the creature, especially when it got mad and started cursing.

“I suppose?” Gwil guessed vaguely.  He was focused on his husband and trying to learn all he could from the animals that guided them.

It was nearly dawn when they reached the Post, and stopped at the crest of the hill over the flat meadow below them. Ben had to blink as an eagle landed majestically on a nearby tree and regarded them all with the air of a commanding general. 

“So,” Ben said, looking between Gwil and the eagle.  “What’s the plan?”

**********

**********

Brian had been glad one of thing in the jail; he had been able to speak with Ambassador Crystal and told that so far the families taken prisoner in the Rhye capital were being well treated.  And as he had suspected, people were shocked at King Said’s actions. 

“There is great malcontent among the people,” Crystal confirmed.  “I saw two Rhye soldiers refuse to obey orders to harm children of Queen families, and no one punished them.  The jailors are treating the families with kindness and people are whispering of revolt against Malek.”

“That is good, I think,” Brian said.  “We will have some allies when our forces arrive.”

Crystal nodded.  “We will, but I fear we may not see it, my lord.”

Brian sighed, nodding as well.  “We always know that is a possibility, even though we have been fortunate to have this past time of peace,” he said.  “I am sorry that you have been pulled into this, my friend.”

“I have been honored to serve Queen,” Crystal said firmly.  “If this is to be my fate, then I accept it with courage.”

The lord managed a smile and then closed his eyes for a moment as he gazed out at the morning sky.  He had at least been brought his formal dress and allowed to die as a lord and gentleman and not in his nightshirt.  ‘I am sorry, Gwilym,’ he thought sadly.  ‘I do not regret that I have bought some time for the armies, but I do regret our time together was so brief.’  He saw a group of birds by the hastily constructed scaffold and shook his head.  ‘Do not tell Gwilym what you see,’ he silently begged the creatures.  He did not want his husband to remember him on the scaffold.

There was the jangle of keys behind him, and he turned to see the jail warden and the guard assembling to take him and Crystal to their death.

**********

**********

Freddie and John led the army at a breakneck pace, stopping only to change horses and catch a few hours of restless sleep to stop them from falling off the saddles.  As they travelled, they picked up other small local militias eager to come to the new king’s banner in a show of support and Freddie welcomed them all.  They needed all the allies they could find.

A dove found them on the second day with a message from Roger, saying that Brian had been imprisoned.  Freddie stopped cursing only long enough to catch his breath and they continued.  They were fortunately stopped to water the houses when John doubled over and only a nearby guards quick reflexes prevents him from hitting the ground.  Freddie quickly took his brother and John looked at him with blazing eyes.

“Gwilym and Benjamin have gone after Brian,” he whispered.

Freddie cursed again, and took John in front of him on his horse, holding his brother as John fell asleep from the strength of his visions.  They could waste no time.

**********

**********

“We must go to the border,” Joe told Roger and Rami.  Adam was standing at his side, and both young mages were practically vibrating from some power in the early morning light.  Even their wolfhound familiars were tense, pacing a little and clearly on alert.  “It is time.  And Adam and I are going with you.”

Rami frowned a little, but sensed there was no chance to argue with whatever vision was telling them to act.  He looked at Roger, and the lord nodded.  “We march,” he agreed.  “The time for waiting is over.  War has begun.”  He also needed to get to the border so he could kill his husband for taking off on a crazy scheme.

“Adam will ride with his governess,” Rami said.  “Joe, can you ride or—“

Joe smiled darkly.  “Phae is already waiting,” he said calmly, his eyes focused on some sight.  “She will carry me without a saddle or bridle if someone does not get her tack ready now.”

Sir James sounded the signals and within an hour everyone was ready to leave Lord John’s estate, leaving behind only a few servants to maintain the house.  The brisk autumn wind had picked up, and Adam’s governess made sure he and Joe were dressed warmly in heavy clothing before she mounted her horse and the child was lifted up to her.  Joe was boosted into Phae’s saddle and the warhorse shook her head, clearly eager to leave.  Fada and Stelen took up places beside the horses, Fada’s pups left behind. 

“You will stay in the middle of the group, and beside Lady Louise at all times,” Rami ordered Joe, gesturing to Adam’s governess.

“We will ensure it, my lord,” promised a man who had been specially assigned to Joe and Adam.  Indeed, there were over a dozen heavily armed soldiers who compromised the new guard for the boys, along with Sir James.  There was also a doctor and several nurses assigned just to Joe and Adam.  Gwil had taken Freddie’s naming him the head of the guard for their secret mages very seriously.

Rami nodded in thanks at the guard.  “We must ride hard,” he told them.  “Sir James will take Joe to ride with him if necessary.” 

“Phae won’t let me fall, no matter what,” Joe said confidently, patting the warhorse’s neck.

“Then let us leave.”  Rami rode back to the front to be beside Roger and the older lord looked at him. 

“Time to get this going,” the blond lord smiled grimly, gathering the reins of his warhorse and raising his hand to signal the troops behind them.

Rami nodded.  “Time to fight my father,” he said.

**********

**********

Roger and Rami rode fast with an advance group and reached the border that afternoon.  Their generals met them and they moved all forces into full battle positions, eyeing the gathering forces on the other side of the river.  “They are gathering, my lords,” a scout reported to them.  “We all sense that they will attack soon; they just seem to be waiting for orders.”

Roger nodded thoughtfully.  “We do have orders to attack at any time if we are threatened or if we hear of any executions,” he said, holding a note from Freddie that had reached them.  His eyes were dark with anger, knowing a possible execution was Brian.  He looked at Rami and drew him aside.  “Do you think Joseph or Adam will know if an execution takes place?” he asked quietly when they were alone.

Rami bit his lip and nodded.  “I am afraid so,” he said.  “Sir James is staying with them, and has a dove to send as a special signal to us if they see that.”  He hesitated and then lifted his chin.  "He has their medicines.” 

They were all prepared to give the boys sleeping draughts and keep them drugged if they began to see things they should not.

Including the death of Lord Brian.

Roger nodded sharply.  “Do whatever is necessary for them,” he said gruffly.  “Their guard has a special tent set up in the safest section in the center with numerous escape routes available.  They know the signal if we want them to leave the area and retreat.”

Rami clucked to his horse and headed back to check on the rest of their group as they arrived.  Joe and Adam arrived with Sir James a few hours later and Rami was relieved that so far they were seeing nothing new.  He took them to their tent and sat with them as both mages fidgeted nervously, their wolfhounds still pacing.

Joe sighed and pulled at his short curls in frustration.  “I wish I could see what is happening,” he complained.  Rami smiled and handed his brother a cup of tea.

“You do complain, don’t you, if you can’t see everything,” he teased, trying to lighten the mood a bit.  Joe huffed in reply.

“Well, I should see everything,” he argued. 

No, you should not,’ Rami thought.  He looked at Sir James and saw the guardian flick a finger toward a pouch on a nearby table and nodded.  They would keep the medicine close.

**********

**********

Ben moved quietly among the assembling crowd, his face down, pulling up the cloak around him more.  He had been rather shocked when the eagle had led them to a clothesline, of all things by an empty hut, but he hadn’t questioned the availability of the humble clothing as a disguise.  He and Gwil had hastily donned jackets and cloaks.  Gwil had also put some extra homespun cloaks in a bundle to use to disguise Lord Brian and Crystal.

If this plan succeeded.

Ben had never really cared about being the academic that Gwil was, or the serious example Rami always set.  Learning was actually quite easy for Ben, and he never had to work at it.  He was content to learn just enough in most studies to do well on examinations so tutors would give him passing marks, and then it gave him more time for subjects he was interested in.  He did rather pride himself on his military history and skills.

He never thought he would get instructions from an eagle.  But he was always willing to learn new things about warfare and military tactics.

While pilfering the clothing, a small brown titlark bird had perched on Gwil’s shoulder.  The tiny thing sang and apparently gave a perfect report on the layout of the Post and the courtyard because everything Gwil had translated had proven to be accurate.  There was indeed a large cart of hay in a side alleyway, just asking to be set on fire.  The two enormous oxen attached to the cart were very willing to have the harness cut apart and then they took the straps in their mouths to pull the wagon, able to drop it and run free whenever they wished.

All Ben had to do right now was wait for the signal and then set the hay on fire.  The oxen would charge and pull the cart directly under the scaffold and then drop the harness to let the wagon and scaffold blaze while they scattered the rest of the crowd.  In the chaos, Gwil would find Lord Brian and Crystal, and horses would come for them.

If this plan worked, Ben made a note to press his husband to institute a new cadet animal corps in the military.

He was fingering his fire making tools when he was aware of a shadow coming up behind him.  Ben cleared his throat, ready to just quietly acknowledge whoever it was, but the person stopped beside him and Ben had to look at the man, an old and seasoned looking soldier.

“My lord,” the man said quietly, bowing his head slightly.

Ben froze, his hand going to his knife.  “A fine joke,” he said lightly.

“Not at all, my young Lord Taylor.”

Only the fact that the man had both hands in plain sight kept Ben from using his knife.  He knew there was a chance of allies in the windows from the buildings and his best chance was to someone bluff his way out.

“You are most definitely mistaken,” he said a bit harshly.  “And that is a most dangerous House name of Queen to bander to anyone these days.”

The man looked at Ben, his eyes calm and focused.  “You have allies, my lord, both high and low.  There are many who remember the sacrifice you and your brothers made to keep the peace, and honor you.”  The man’s eyes narrowed.  “A few years ago, I would have said we also honored your Rhye houses also for their sacrifice, but no longer.  What they have ordered is insanity with no cause.  We cannot act in open yet, but we follow you and your lord husband.”

Ben glanced around them carefully.  “How would you know a Taylor?” he asked, still not ready to admit who he was.

“I have served Queen for many years, here in the border lands.  I once delivered a message to your high lord, from the young prince of Rhye.  A young prince who is also loyal to his twin.” The man smiled a little.  “I assume that you have some distraction planned.  Know that when it begins, your allies will release Lord May’s aides and help them to safety.  I will find you later, young Lord Taylor.”  He bowed his head again, and then slipped back into the shadows on the alleyways.

Well, Ben thought.  Some welcome news indeed. 

Ben waited until the first groups of guards came out and then started the fire, thanking all the science experiments and practice lighting flame even in pouring rain.  He lit the straw and the oxen waited a beat until the flames were good and strong and then took off into the crowd.

It was chaos, to say the least; people screaming at the fire and the oxen.  More screams started when other animals suddenly began what seemed like an organized revolt; horses and donkeys rearing, dogs howling and cats screeching.  Even a few birds, including the eagle, swooped low and sent people scattering.  People ran in all directions, and the sudden arrival of four warhorses just added to the commotion.  Some of the archers on the battlements tried to rally, but birds attacked them and no arrows could be shot.

Brian and Crystal were quiet, determined to act with dignity as they were led out of the prison and to the courtyard.  Crystal was the lower ranking prisoner and as such would be executed first and he just raised his head proudly.  They were about to mount to scaffold when screams sounded and two runaway oxen barred into the area pulling a burning cart. 

Brian had learned over a lifetime of fighting how to take advantage of an opportunity.  Without hesitation, he punched out the nearest guard, and saw Crystal doing the same.  In a practiced move he pulled a sword off another guard and stuck down the executioner who came running off the burning scaffold.  Beside him, Ambassador Crystal deftly took a knife off one guard and threw it at an archer who had notched their bow.  The two men instinctively went back to back, ducking away from the guards around them.

“Brian!” The lord turned, shocked to see his husband running toward him.  A dozen questions flashed through the lord’s mind, but he knew this was not the time for them.  He grabbed Crystal and started running toward Gwilym.

Gwilym crashed into them and then ducked behind a barrel for a moment.  Then four riderless warhorses galloped into the center, creating additional havoc.  Brian saw Ben jump out of nowhere onto one of the horses and Gwilym pushed him and Crystal toward the steeds.

“Get on!” Ben yelled, his horse happily rearing and charging people.  The other three horses stood still only long enough for the men to mount and then took off. 

The men just let the horses run, trusting them knew what directions to go.  They were out the Post’s gates within a minute and it seemed there was an equal amount of distractions occurring on the roads as farm animals seemed to panic with no cause.  Brian managed to look over at his husband and Ben.  “My aides!” he shouted.  He would not leave any of his people behind.

“They are safe!” Ben shouted back.  Brian could only nod and hang onto the horse.  He would get answers later.

They continued at a breakneck pace for at least 30 minutes, the horses skillfully dodging any sentries.  Gwil was in the lead, and Brian was started to see a tiny bird on his husband’s shoulder, clutching firmly to Gwilym’s jacket.  Ben was bringing up the rear, ready for battle, but they were not pursued.  Finally, the horses slowed and pushed their way into a secluded grove.

“Brian!” Gwil jumped off his horse and into his husband’s arms almost before Brian had tumbled off his own horse.  The bird – a titlark, Brian vaguely noted – flew up to perch on the horse’s saddle.  Then all Brian could do was kiss his husband.

“Gods, they were going to kill you!” Gwil was exclaiming, frantically hugging and kissing his husband.  “What insanity was this?”

“War,” Brian said simply when he could catch his breath.  Ben was offering Crystal a flasket of water and grinning as the two men caught up.  Gwil handed Brian a canteen and the lord gratefully drank the water.  “What in gods names are you doing here?  How did you know—“

“General of the animal corps,” Ben said cheerfully before Gwil could answer.  “I took orders from an eagle and am damn proud of it.  It was incredible!” He beamed at Brian.  “I have it on good authority that your aides were freed during the distraction and are being escorted to safely, my lord.”

Gwil was now blushing a little.  “I knew you were in danger,” he said simply.  “And before you say anything, Joe and Adam are safe.”  He looked at Brian a bit sheepishly.  “I was never ordered to stay behind,” he pointed out.

Brian sighed, but clasped the younger man’s arms.  “I will address this later,” he said simply, but was also full of pride for his husband.  “Ambassador, may I introduce my very reckless husband Gwilym, and his equally crazed brother, Benjamin Taylor.”

“An honor to formally meet you both,” Crystal said with a broad smile.  The ambassador seemed not at all bothered by the recent events.  “I must thank you for the very entertaining and useful distraction, my lords.  Not at all what I was prepared for this morning, and I am most thankful for it.”

“Anytime,” Ben laughed.  “But with that, I do think we should continue moving.  Lord Brian, your aides were also freed and are making their way through various paths to our border.  Gwil – do we have our usual scouts?”

The titlark trilled a few notes as a dove flew out of a bush, circled the men and horses, and then took off.  “A message is going to Lord John and Joe,” Gwil said, his eyes a bit unfocused in some thought.  “Yes, they will show everyone a clear path.”

“Er, who is ‘they’?” Crystal asked politely.

Ben grinned and pointed to the sky.  “Gwil’s friends.”

**********

**********

The battle started within two hours of Lord Brian and Ambassador Crystal’s escape.

Roger was watching the Rhye forces carefully, aware that doves had been spotted headed for the troops.  A short time later banners were raised and a round of arrows came across the river.  Fortunately, Roger’s troops were well protected and there were no causalities in the first round, but it was clear the war was in force.

“Protect our borders!” Roger ordered.  “Advance to secure the bridge and river, but no further yet.”  He raced his horse up and down the lines and drew his sword.  “To the bridge!”

Rami, Joe, and Sir James heard the war trumpets and raced outside the tent to see what they could.  Lady Louise picked up Adam and brought him out, quietly whispering vague descriptions to the child so he would know just enough to understand what was happening.  Rami turned to Joe and Sir James.  “Sir James – I put you in charge of my brothers.  Do not let them leave.”  He clasped arms with his former guardian.  “As you once guarded Lord John, I ask you to guard them.”

“To my last breath,” Miami promised solemnly and Lady Louise also nodded.  “We will remain here unless we are signaled to retreat.”  Fada and Stelen were clearly on alert and both stood protectively by their young masters, seeming to understand Rami’s words as well.

Rami nodded and hugged Joe, kissed Adam’s forehead, and then ran to his horse.

To Rami, the first day was a combination of charges and endless waiting.  Only Lord Roger and his personal forces on the bridge engaged in close combat; the rest of the exchanges were by arrows.  Here and there a few Rhye soldiers tried to cross the river in small boats and they were also fended off by the archers.  Rami went up and down the lines, making sure the flaming arrows set no dangerous fires to tents or supplies and then covering Roger’s group as some returned from the bridge.

“We have taken the end of the bridge, my lord!” a captain reported to Rami late that night, her face proud.  “Lord Taylor wishes you to join him and bring your engineers.”

“Lead on,” Rami ordered, and followed the woman and her sergeant across the wide bridge.  Roger had his troops spreading out, and gestured for Rami to take command of the end of the bridge.  The young lord set his engineers to survey what Rhye supplies could be used and set up their own defenses on the bridge and road while also arranging space for tents and personnel.  Fresh torchers were lit to light the area, and Rami found Roger inspecting papers that had been found in a captured tent.

“Insanity,” Roger muttered, thoroughly disgusted as he pointed at some ledgers.  “You can tell that the generals had very sound plans, but no support from the capital – requests for reasonable supplies were not honored.  It’s a wonder that the forces here lasted as long as they did.”

Rami looked over the documents and shook his head as well.  “I don’t understand why the king would order an attack knowing the troops were not supplied.”  It was not a conscious decision, but Rami could not refer to the king of Rhye as his father.  Said Malek was in a way no longer his father.

“It happens,” Roger sighed.  “They want results, but not willing to put the effort into it without a strong advocate.  Brian’s chief job with supplies is to make certain we have what we need.”

The mention of the lord made Rami wince a little.  He knew Brian was in danger from his own father.  He nodded to Roger, and went back to the headquarters he was setting up by the bridge and threw himself into work organizing the rest of the Queen forces that came across the bridge.  Rami was discussing the latest scout information with Roger when a messenger came across the bridge at full speed.

“My lords!  Sir James requests both of you to come; they have received a message about Lord May!” Without hesitation Roger and Rami mounted their horses and rode to the tent were Miami was with the boys.

“Rami!” Joe threw himself at his eldest brother.  “Lord Brian is alive!  Gwil and Ben found him and Crystal and they are on their way back!”

Roger sagged in relief into a chair for a moment, and then regained his usual spark.  “What the hells happened?” he demanded.

Joe gestured to a dove that was resting on a perch.  “This fellow arrived with a special message from Gwil.  We don’t know the details, but everyone is safe and making their way back.”

“Special message?” Rami peered at the dove who cooed at them as Adam gently stroked its feathers.

“I can’t explain it, but the dove sent some knowledge to Adam and I.  We know they are all safe.” 

“We will send out scouts to look for them,” Roger said immediately.  “Do you have any idea from what direction they are coming?”

“West,” Adam said with certainty.  “Something about a pine wood.”

Rami nodded.  “There is a section of pine forest near the river border,” he said.  “We secured it this afternoon.  I will send out troops to be ready to assist them.”  Roger nodded agreement and Rami hurried back to his captain.

Rami spent most of the night up with Roger, patrolling with their captains and making sure everything was secure.  He finally returned to the tent and fell into a small cot just as dawn was breaking.  A few hours later, he was awakened by Fada and Stelen barking and he sat up quickly to see Adam and Joe waking up.

“Lord Gwil is here!” Adam said excitedly.  Rami scooped up the child and he and Joe went outside with the hounds to see a pocket of activity down by the river.  Sir James came to them, smiling broadly.

“They are returned,” he said simply.  Rami and Joe grinned at each other and hurried off toward the front lines, Miami helping Joe while Rami carried Adam.  They could see Lord Roger riding rapidly toward one area and they found their brothers with Lord Brian and Ambassador Crystal, all looking tired, but well.

“Benjamin!” Roger fairly roared as he ran toward Ben.  He looked like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to hug or punch his young husband but they settled on a fierce embrace and kiss.

Rami hugged Gwil and his brother took Adam from him, kissing the child as Brian kept an arm around his husband and also kissed Adam’s forehead.  After hugs were exchanged, Rami smacked his tall brother lightly on the head.  “What were you thinking?” he couldn’t help but blurt out.

“That is what I want to know,” Roger growled, still holding Ben tightly, but also glaring at him.

“It’s my fault,” Gwil said quickly.  “I know I should have notified you, Lord Roger, but there was no time.”

Roger ran his hands through his long hair.  “We will talk later,” he finally said, clearly upset at both Gwil and his husband, but knowing this was not the time or place.  He pulled Gwil and Brian in for a quick kiss.  “Thank gods you are all safe,” he said gruffly.

A short time later they all gathered back in Joe and Adam’s tent, and Rami hoped that both his brothers had had a stern lecture from their husbands.  He was waiting rather impatiently to give his own lecture, but decided he could wait a little bit.  For now, they had to all concentrate on the battle.

Rhye forces had retreated a bit, but then had turned and set up defensive lines.  Roger had ordered their troops to hold for now but still protect the border areas, and small skirmishes were breaking out along the lines.  A dove had arrived from the royal army – Freddie’s army – and they were still over a day away.

“We can hold them until Freddie arrives,” Roger said as they studied maps.  “But should we hold or take this opportunity to advance?”  He looked at Gwil and Ben.  “Did you get any sense of the size of the Rhye’s forces?”

“The amount on the lines are smaller than what we have,” Ben said confidently.  “But if they bring the troops from the various posts then it will be equal size, I think.”

Joe cleared his throat softly from where he and Adam were sitting together on a camp chair.  “And The Dark can use magic,” he reminded them.  “I sense that something is being planned that may not need human troops.”

Brian and Roger nodded thoughtfully.  “Then we may need Freddie’s troops before we can advance,” Brian said.  “But if we are attacked as yesterday, then we must be ready to hold the border.”

“We need to ride out,” Roger decided.  “The most important thing now is to hold until Freddie and John arrive.  We have an advantage of knowing where The Dark is right now.” 

“We must fight him now,” Rami said quietly.  Everyone had been very careful to not refer to their enemy as his father, but Rami knew the time had come.  “By ordering Lord Brian and Crystals executions, he has shown what he is willing to do, and we cannot allow this.  He will be even more angry now that they and others have escaped.”  Both Joe and Adam had seen glimpses of Brian’s aides being helped to safety and families who had been held in the capital also being given shelter and guided to safe havens.  “The time for negotiation is over.  We need to attack now.”

There was silence for a time, and then Roger nodded, looking at his older brother.  “Rami is right,” he said.  “We are done waiting.  The time has come for what we have prepared for.”

Brian took a deep breath, and nodded.  “Keep some forces back on this side of the river, but move the bulk to our lines tonight.  We will ride out at dawn and prepare for battle.”

That night, they gathered for dinner, all quiet and thinking about the day ahead.  Adam was tucked into bed early with Lady Louise and Stelen watching him, and the others sat outside the tent, just spending time together.  No one needed to speak of the seriousness of the upcoming battle.  Brian finally took Gwil’s hand and led him away and Roger and Ben soon said their goodnights as well.  Rami led Joe inside their tent and he dismissed Lady Louise for the night so she could go be with her fiancé.  Adam was sound asleep and Rami and Joe settled into a large cot together.

“Just like when we left Rhye,” Joe said softly as he snuggled against Rami.  “I was so glad we were together.”

Rami smiled against the auburn curls.  “We were so worried about you,” he admitted.  “How dare you be taken away from your family so young?  Ben was ready to kill anyone who would hurt you.”

Joe chuckled a little.  “I know,” he said smugly.  “I felt sorry for Lord John because Ben hated him so much at first.  But he realized Lord John was nice pretty soon.”

“I think it was the day you got Hadar and we got our first warhorses,” Rami reflected.  “Gwil and I weren’t sure what to do at first – it felt like bribes.  But Freddie said our parents knew and that it was our betrothal presents.  Ben would never admit it, but he started to like the lords that day.” 

“I was glad,” Joe yawned.  “I liked them, even though I understood that they were the ones who had taken us from our families.  They weren’t going to every hurt us.”

Rami nodded and hugged his brother.  “We just wanted you to be safe.”

“I am.”  Joe looked up at Rami.  “And I am proud to be here with you, my king.”

The older brother smiled a little sadly.  “I fear it will be a title taken by force,” he said.  From his own father.

“It will be given if we win,” Joe said, his eyes clear.  “And I will be with you when it happens.”

Rami considered Joe carefully. “Given by who?” he asked.

Joe blinked and his eyes were back to their usual hazel.  “I don’t know.  I’m sorry, Rami.”

“No, never be sorry, Joe,” Rami told him firmly.  He looked at his brother steadily.  “Tomorrow, I will ride out to face whatever fate is in store for me.  You and Adam will remain here.  We may need you later to battle The Dark with your own skills.”

“Yes, my king.”

**********

**********

They left a few hours before sunrise, Gwil staying back with their young mages.  Lords Brian and Roger, Ben, and Rami donned their strongest armor and bid goodbye to the others, silently leaving.  They went across the bridge and moved to the front lines of the forces, troops lining up behind them.  When the sun rose, they could see the war banners of Rhye marching toward them, and Rami calmly lowered the visor on his helmet at the general’s commands.

“For Queen!” Lord Roger shouted.

“For Queen!” the troops roared, and they advanced.

Chapter Text

“Stay close,” Roger ordered as they rode out.  “Benjamin – you are with me.  Rami – stay with Brian.”

Rami nodded as he looked over at his blond brother and saw Ben nod in return.  Ben was unusually quiet, and Rami knew he was focusing on the battle at hand.  They had practiced and sparred for years, but now it was very real.

“You know what to do,” Roger continued, his voice firm and confident as they lined up in front of their troops.  “We have trained you over 12 years for this moment.  Stay focused on each opponent and then turn to the next.”

Brian patted his horse’s neck.  “Remember that you and your horse are a team.  They know what to do.”  Rami took a deep breath and lifted his sword, adjusted his weight one last time in the saddle and he saw Ben raise his sword in return.  Then Roger gave the signal to advance and the horses leaped into action.

The archers had already cleared a path, and within a minute Rami and his horse encountered attacks.  As he had often been assured, his training kicked in and without hardly realizing it he engaged his first opponent.  It was all a blur, and then he was facing off against another soldier.  He didn’t think; just reacted as he had been taught.

There was nothing glorious or exciting; it was war, plain and harsh.  Rami had never wanted this moment, but he knew that the time had come to fight for his life and for his brothers.  Beside him, Lord Brian struck down his opponent and turned to another, giving Rami a second’s smile of encouragement.  Their horses stayed close, protecting themselves and their masters.

A short distance away, Ben focused on his own training and moved from one soldier to another.  He and Roger battled beside each other, both of them watching their area.  Roger gave the signal for the trumpets, and as one the warhorses ducked down as trained so the archers could fire another volley.  As his horse stood back up, Ben dispatched a Rhye soldier and spared a second for remorse that he was fighting people from his own country.  It was not what they wanted, but he knew they had no choice.

A strike from a sword hit his leg, and Ben cursed, spinning his horse around.

**********

**********

“What do you see?” Adam asked worriedly.  Joe might have considered fibbing a bit, but he knew it was pointless against a fellow mage, even one as young and weak as Adam.

“We are at full battle,” he said honestly.  “I can see the banners of our lords; they are holding strong.”

Sir James nodded.  “Do you hear the horns, Adam?”  The youngest nodded.  “Do you remember what this latest signal is for?”

“Advance?” Adam ventured after a moment's thought.

“Yes, very good,” Miami told the boy.  “It is how we send messages to each other.  We can know what is happening just by the trumpets.”

Gwil was pacing a few feet away, clad in his own armor and his warhorse nearby.  He would not leave his duty, which was to guard his younger brothers, though he still itched to join the battle.  He tensed at every signal from the trumpets, terrified that one would announce a disaster.  Miami came to join him and laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Waiting is often the hardest duty,” he said quietly.

Gwil managed a small smile.  “I never knew it would be so difficult,” he admitted.

Miami shook his head.  “The ones who fight do not know the burden of those behind.  It is one we must bear by ourselves.”  He looked over to Joe and Adam, who were sitting on soft camp chairs, talking softly, their wolfhounds beside them.  “Are the horses ready?”

“Yes,” Gwil nodded.  They had checked and rechecked that their warhorses were saddled and ready if they were given the signal to leave, the special guard assigned by Freddie and Brian gathered close.

“Then all we can do is wait,” the guardian said calmly.  “Come sit while we can; we may be busy later.” 

Gwil sighed and went to sit beside his brothers.  As he sat down, a small bird flew from a tree to land on his shoulder and trilled a soft song.  Since their return, the titlark bird had stayed with Gwil, which had made Brian just shake his head.  Adam turned his head at the sound, his ears attuned.

“What did she say, my lord?” he asked politely.

“That her fellow birds are watching the battle, and will let us know what is happening,” Gwil said honestly.  He gently took Adam’s hand and guided his fingers to gently stroke the soft feathers.  As he did, the bird chirped again and jumped onto Adam’s shoulder, making the child smile.  “She likes you,” Gwil smiled.  “Maybe you have another familiar.”

“A tiny one,” Joe observed, smiling a little as well.  “Can titlarks talk?”

Gwil considered that for a moment.  “I don’t think so.”

“Then you will have to teach Adam what she is saying,” Joe decided. 

Gwil smiled, ruffled Adam’s hair, and then they all silently prayed for their lords. 

**********

**********

Rami followed Brian as they retreated temporarily back behind fortifications, letting fresh soldiers move forward, and pushed up the visor on his helmet as he slid off his horse.  “How are you?” Brian asked, pushing up his own visor.

“Good,” Rami assured him.  He had taken a few blows, but thankfully nothing had passed his armor.  Rami knew from experience that he would be sorely bruised, but there were no cuts.  Roger and Ben joined them after a moment, and all passed around canteens of water.  Ben had taken a hard blow to his leg and had paused only long enough for it to be checked.  Like Rami’s injuries so far, it would bruise, but his armor had prevented a potentially deep and dangerous cut.

“The battle is going well,” Roger reported.  “We have advanced on all fronts and secured fortifications.”

“How far should we advance?” Ben asked, gulping his water.  Rami was glad to see that his brother was also relatively uninjured apart from bruises and minor cuts; in fact, Ben looked rather exuberant at the physical action. 

“Our generals have orders to get to the next round of fortifications that Rhye had set up,” Brian said.  “That will give us a firm base of control of the river.”

Rami nodded.  “The engineers are ready to advance when given the signal,” he said.  With Gwil needed with Joe and Adam, Rami had taken command of the engineers and other supply lines.  “We also have fresh archers and calvary to move.”

“Have them move up and be ready,” Roger decided. “Our goal is to have this first step secured by dusk.” 

“Make sure we have areas ready for any prisoners as well,” Brian added.  “We will need to question all possible.”  Rami nodded at the orders, and sent a message off with his lieutenant.

A few hours later, Rami was riding back from the new front lines with a small group of his and Freddie’s troops when a woman assigned to the prisoner detail galloped up to him.  She was from Castle Mercury, and knew Rami well.  “My lord,” she said, her face tense.  “I must speak with you privately.”

Rami signed to his escort to step back.  “What is it, Miranda?” he asked once they were alone.

Miranda looked at him seriously.  “We have taken a prisoner you must…..see,” she said carefully.  “He is in the doctor’s tent in isolation.”

Rami was puzzled at her actions, but knew and respected Miranda.  She would not come for him and be so cryptic unless there was cause.  He nodded and followed her without question.  When they arrived at the medical area, she guided him to a small tent with a number of guards outside it, and opened the flap for him, staying outside.

Rami entered into the small area to see a Rhye soldier on a cot with a Queen medic beside them.  The soldier still had on their helmet, which was odd.  The medic, also from Castle Mercury and known to Rami, nodded her greetings and then quietly left.  Rami looked down at the person on the cot and then fell to his knees.

“Sami!”

**********

**********

Freddie looked at John, his dark eyes narrowed in concern.  They had pushed hard for days and even Freddie – used to the action – was tried.  John was clearly exhausted but his sheer determination was driving him as strong as Freddie’s experience was, and the youngest brother had easily kept up with the new king. 

“We will be at the river by nightfall,” Freddie said as they waited on a narrow pass for their turn on the trail.  They were taking every possible shortcut to reach the lines as quickly as possible with the calvary while other forces hurried on their own roads.

“Good,” John said, his face set in concentration.  “We are needed there.”

Freddie nodded.  “Can you see anything?”

Grey-green eyes focused on something in the distance.  “Just bits and pieces.  They are at battle.”

The new king sighed but nodded in understanding.  “Brian and Roger will hold them, I am sure, until we arrive,” he said confidentially.

“With ordinary troops, yes,” John said, biting his lip.  “But The Dark is different, Freddie.  I don’t know what magic they will unleash.”

Freddie began to guide his horse along the trail, John able to squeeze in beside them.  “Do you see Joseph and Adam?  Are they safe?”

“They are,” John said.  “Gwilym is with them, as is Miami.”  John had seen the day before that Brian and Crystal were safe thanks to Gwilym and Benjamin’s insane plan, and it had been a great relief to all.  “But when The Dark joins the actual battle…” he trailed off and shook his head.  “I don’t know what it will do.”

“Brian and Roger know this,” Freddie said.  “They will hold, together with Rami, Benjamin, and Gwilym.  And Joseph is strong, my brother.  He will not fall easily for anything.”

John nodded tersely, his face pale with worry.  “That is part of what worries me,” he said softly.

**********

**********

“Gwil!”  Gwil turned as Joe came out of the tent, Fada at his side.  His brother was tense, his eyes shining with power.  “We need to go to the front,” he said simply.

“What?” Gwil stood to his full height, towering over his brother and openly scowling at him.  “No.  End of discussion.”

Joe simply looked at Gwil as if he didn’t exist.  “Then I will go on my own,” he said calmly. 

Gwil crossed his arms.  “And how do you propose to get there without my help?” he asked sharply.

Hazel eyes blinked in slow unconcern.  “You can’t stop me,” Joe said simply. 

The hells of it was, Gwil knew Joe was right.  Even without magic, Joe was usually able to do whatever he set his mind to.  And maybe it was the familiar in Gwil, but he could feel something telling him to do what Joe wanted.  He heard another soft sound and Phae came trotting up, giving Gwil a rather expectant look as if wondering what was taking him so long to listen to their mage.

“Adam?” Gwil finally said.

Joe shook his head.  “He does not know, and he is staying here,” he promised.  “Stelen will not let him leave.”

“Miami?”

There was a small embarrassed grin.  “You are the big brother who knew how to sneak pastries from the kitchen; I’m hoping you can figure it out.”

Gwil pressed the space between his eyes, feeling the headache that was already pounding.  “Brian is going to kill me,” he muttered, but he also looked around, making a plan.

**********

**********

“They are not our parents anymore,” Sami said, his expression hard as he gripped his twin’s hand. “They have not been for several years.  None of them have been. They are….not the people we knew.”

Rami shook his head as he listened to his twin recount the past years with their families.  Since his wedding, it seemed that their families had changed completely.   It was hard news to hear, but he was grateful to be able to speak with his twin, and also grateful Sami was only lightly injured on his right leg.  “I wrote you,” he said, his voice small.  Sami nodded.

“And I wrote you.  But since Gwil’s wedding, I have not heard a thing.  I was told again and again that there was nothing.  I never believed it, but nothing I said was heard.” Sami took a deep breath, looking down.  “May the gods forgive me, Rami, but we felt we had no choice but to repute you before everyone when it was demanded.  Illene and I were made to stand before the entire council and everyone else who could pack into the palace and state that you were dead to us and a traitor to Rhye.”

The older twin took his brother’s hand and squeezed it tightly.  “You did what you had to do,” he said sternly.  “I cannot you blame you for that.  When I heard nothing from you or our parents after years of faithful correspondence, I knew something had happened.”

“It was insane,” Sami said, his eyes hard.  “I never thought it could happen, but it did.  None of the parents are the same people.  Illene and I….” Sami paused, gathering strength.  “Illene and I sent our children to her parents last year, who live on the near borders to Queen.  They had orders to take them across the border if war was declared.  They may already be in Queen.”

Rami swallowed hard at the news, knowing how much his twin loved his family.  Their two children were greatly loved and cherished.  “I had no idea,” he said quietly.  “Where is Illene now?”

“We have been kept close to our parents,” Sami said.  “When I rode out yesterday, I asked my most trusted guards to take her to her parents, and said she was to be with our children.  I have no idea if she was able to leave Port Pierren or not.”  Sami looked at his twin with meaning.  “We agreed to she would try to escape if not allowed to freely travel.  We have made our choice.  We watched from the shadows while Lord Brian was nearly executed, and cursed that there was so little we could do.”

Rami bowed his head.  “I received your message earlier,” he said.  “And Ben told me what he heard at the Post.  It was good to know that you had friends.”

“And you as well,” Sami said, his expression firm.  “I refused to call myself the heir, Rami, no matter what you may have heard.  This is all madness, and I can find to reason for it.”  He looked at his twin.  “But you know, don’t you?” he said with certainty.  “Since we were five years old, we knew our paths were widely different.  And I have accepted for years that because they were so different, we could not share everything as we did when children.  But I think the time for secrets has passed, my brother.”  Pale eyes identical to Rami’s studied him.  “I need to know.”

The older twin took a deep breath.  “And you deserve to know,” he agreed finally.

**********

**********

Gwil looked over at Joe for the thousandth time since they had set out.    Joe was clad in the armor and gear of an archer, the only uniform Gwil had been able to find in Joe’s size, but he had made sure his brother was heavily covered with extra armor.   Once they had reached the end of the bridge on the former Rhye border, Fada and Phae had led the way to the medical tents, Joe just letting his animal familiars guide them.  They didn’t speak much, trying to be unobtrusive and quiet.

Phae stopped outside a small tent off to the side, and Gwil was surprised when he saw it was guarded by those from House Mercury, including Rami’s personal guard.  He helped Joe off the warhorse and turned to the guard.  “Is young Lord Mercury injured?” he asked worriedly.  Joe was biting his lip in concern, obviously puzzled that he had not felt anything.

The ranking guard recognized Gwil and Joe, and bowed low.  “No, my young Lord May,” she said.  “Your brother is safe, I assure you.”

“We need to see him,” Gwil said, deciding to wait to ask why Rami was in the medical area.  He knew Joe would not have brought them here without reason.

The guard hesitated a second, and then nodded, stepping aside so Gwil could push the tent flap aside and held it open for Joe to enter with Fada beside him.  He then entered and had to blink at the sight.

“Rami?” Joe asked, looking back and forth at the two men.  Clearly it was Rami and his twin, but neither brother could tell who was who at the moment.

“That’s me,” said the twin wearing a Rhye uniform, pulling a cloak over himself.  The twin lying on the cot just smiled weakly and waved his hand a little.

“I’m Sami,” he said.

Gwil blinked, looking back and forth, and then nodded, satisfied.  Joe also seemed confident as he went forward to hug Sami carefully.

“Are you alright?” he asked worriedly, looking at Sami’s leg.

Sami smiled and hugged Joe back.  “I am well,” he said firmly.  “A minor injury that will heal.”  Sami looked at Joe intently.  “I should be asking how you are, my Lord Mage,” he said significantly, his voice pitched low so no one possibly listening outside the tent could hear.

Gwil froze, his hand automatically going to his sword.  He logically knew he had nothing to fear from Sami, but for over a decade now Gwil and his brothers had protected Joe at all costs.  He would never stop watching for Joe’s safety, even from family.

“I have told Sami all,” Rami said, his voice calm and firm as he looked at Gwil and Joe.  “I take responsibility for it.  It was time for him to know so we can fight this.”

Joe nodded slowly, accepting his eldest brother’s decision.  “It was time,” he agreed softly. 

Gwil looked at Rami in the Rhye uniform.  “What are you planning?” he asked.

Rami smiled tightly.  “Our father is not in his right mind. I must go and face this once and for all.”

“What?  Go to Rhye?”  Gwil glared at the eldest.  “You know our lords would not allow this.  It is madness.”

“It is necessary,” Joe spoke up.  Rami and Gwil both looked at him.  “It is time to face our parents, and I must go with Rami.”

“No!” Rami said sternly, crossing his arms.  “Absolutely not.”

“I have to,” Joe said, his face set in his stubborn expression.  “It’s why I came here.  I have to go with Rami and confront our parents.”

Gwil was horrified at the idea.  “Joe, they want you because you are a mage,” he hissed.  “We didn’t let you go earlier, and you can’t now, either.  How do you know its not a trap?  The Dark may be telling you to come!”

“I have to take that chance,” Joe said steadily. 

Rami was looking as desperate as Gwil.  “Lord John would never allow it.”  He looked at Gwil.  “How far away are my husband and Lord John?”

“Hopefully they will arrive tonight.”  Gwil ran his hands through his hair, cursing that he had brought Joe here in the first place.  No wonder Joe had not told him why they had to go here.  He was already planning to grab Joe and carry him back if necessary when there was a rustle at the flap of the tent.  To his shock, Ben entered, sword drawn and looking ready for a fight.

“What the hells is going on?” Ben demanded as soon as he saw all his brothers and Sami present.  “Joe’s horse practically dragged me off the field!”

Rami looked as surprised as Gwil felt.  Sami also frowned, starring at the blond brother.  Only Joe nodded as he saw Ben.  “I’m glad Phae found you,” he said.

“What?”  Gwil glared at Joe, and the youngest just smiled grimly. 

“I sent Phae to find Ben,” he explained.  “It will take all of us for this to work.”

“For what to work?” Ben huffed.

“I am going into Rhye with Rami,” Joe said.  He waited until Ben stopped cursing, which took a while.  “When I was six years old, you swore protection but also allegiance to me as your lord mage,” he reminded them.    “I will go, and you cannot stop me,” he said, his hazel eyes narrowed and his normally gentle voice stern. “Don’t make me make you.”

**********

**********

Adam sat on his camp bed, hugging his stuffed cat Felix and petting Stelen.  Sir James’s voice was raised as he shouted orders at the guard, and Adam could hear footsteps of running people.  Lady Louise had settled him on his bed with instructions to sit while she went outside for a moment, and Adam bit his lip nervously as he pieced together what had happened.

“Why in gods names didn’t you stop them?” Miami raged at a hapless guard.

“Lord Gwilym said he had orders,” the man protested feebly.   “And young Lord Joseph said he had permission as well.”

There was a long sigh.  “Alright,” Sir James finally said.  “Send more guards to search; make sure Lord Taylor knows, and find Lord May.”

“Of course, my lord.”  There were more running footsteps as people raced to follow commands.

“Lord Gwilym would never let anything happen to Lord Joseph,” Adam heard Lady Louise say. 

“Gwilym had orders to stay here and protect Joseph and Adam,” Sir James growled.  “There is no excuse for him to leave and take Joseph with him.”

“Unless they saw something,” Lady Louise said quietly.  Her voice was low, and Adam heard only because his ears were sharp from years of compensating for his lack of sight.  Because of her position as Adam’s governess, Louise was one of the very few who knew the truth about Adam, Joe, and Lord John.  Adam clutched his toy cat tightly, nervously wondering what Joe had seen or sensed.

There were some whispers that even Adam’s ears could not pick up, and then heavy footsteps came in the tent.  “It is Sir James, Adam,” the man said, making sure Adam knew who was with him.  Adam would have known anyway from the footsteps, but everyone was diligent about making sure Adam knew who was around him.  Adam nodded and waited until he heard Sir James sitting on the camp chair beside the cot.

“I think Joe did see something, my lord,” Adam ventured softly after a moment.  He would have never dared to speak unless spoken too months ago, but he had finally gained confidence that his new family did love him and he was secure and welcome to speak his mind.  “Lord Gwil would not have let him leave otherwise.”

Sir James sighed.  “That is what I am afraid of,” he admitted, reaching out to gently touch Adam’s left hand.  “But Lady Louise is correct that Gwilym will protect him,” he added, clearly trying to convince himself and Adam.

Adam nodded his head.  “He will protect him,” he agreed firmly.  “As will the others.”  Since the first attacks on the Queen officials, when Joe’s blocks on Lord John and Adam had been removed, Adam could sense things clearly at times.  It wasn’t perfect, but when something did come to him, he knew it was true.  “They are not alone,” he said.  “Lord Rami, Ben, and others are with them.”

James patted Adam’s hand, and squeezed his fingers gently.  “Then that is good,” the guardian agreed.  “Lord – King -  Frederick will be here soon with Lord John.   Until then, we will wait here.”

The man sounded so sad that Adam could not help himself.  He crawled over and hugged Sir James tightly, and then offered him Felix.  Sir James chucked a little, and pulled Adam to sit on his lap and graciously accepted the stuffed toy as well.  Stelen moved over to lick at Miami’s hand and then leaned against him as they settled in to wait.

Chapter Text

They moved slowly, needing to take cover often as they snuck through the battle lines.  The titlark bird returned to guide them and a robin led them to a stash of Rhye uniforms where Gwil, Ben, and Joe changed out of the plain clothes they had donned before sneaking out of the Queen medical area.  Rami kept on Sami’s uniform and they all rubbed dirt on their faces, covering their heads as much as possible; Rami especially had to be careful that he could not be recognized as his twin just yet.  He wanted to wait until they were close to the Post before he took on Sami's identity.

“What do we do when we get there?” Ben asked quietly as they watered the horses.  Fada had come along as well, always refusing to leave Joe, and she was keeping up with the slow pace they were forced to maintain.  If they were able to race the horses, Ben had no doubt that one of them would carry her on their horse.

“We need to confront our parents,” Rami said firmly. 

Gwil paused from where he was going through the small packs of supplies that they had found in the cache.  “And how do we do that?  Sami said that our parents had locked themselves away since the fighting began.”

“We have some advantages,” Rami pointed out.  “I will be Sami, a prince of Rhye, and demand to see them.  Sami says that he is respected by the guards even if not by our parents.”

Ben nodded.  “And we have our mage,” he said, squeezing Joe’s shoulder.  Joe smiled a little at the words.

“I don’t know why yet, but we have to see them,” he explained again.  “Something is driving me to them.”

“The Dark,” Gwil muttered.  Rami and Ben both glared at him, and Gwil met their gazes.  “It’s the truth,” he snapped, standing up to face them.  “And its madness to let Joe around it.”

“Gwil,” Joe stepped to face his brother, looking up at him.  “I know it doesn’t make any sense.  I’ve been terrified of The Dark since I was a baby, even before I understood what it was.  Since I was six, I’ve had nightmares about it taking me.  But I also know that we have to do this now.  And we could not wait for our lords; it is something that we four have to do.”

Gwil drew his brother into a hug.  “I know,” he whispered, his voice tight.  “But it goes against everything our lords have done since before you were even born, Joe.  We have worked to keep you away from The Dark.”

“Our lords also saw that we four were needed for a reason,” Rami said quietly.  “Lord John could not see exactly why, but we four were chosen for a reason.”

There was a soft snort and they turned to see Ben with his arms crossed, looking at them with a slightly exasperated expression.  “Mages think they know everything, until they can’t see it perfectly, and then it’s all deep and mysterious,” he sighed.  “In fact it is clear as day to anyone who just thinks about it.”

Joe blinked, puzzled.  “What is clear?”

Ben rolled his eyes a bit as he studied his brothers.  “Rami was chosen to go to Queen because he would one day be King of Rhye; our Uniter.  Joe is our mage.  Gwil is a familiar and the expert on supplies.  And I,” Ben smirked.  “I am the best military tactician in the world.  Plus, we are perfect matches for our lords.  It is really quite simple.”

The other three pondered that for a moment, glancing at each other.  “Well….” Joe finally said as he clearly thought it over.

“You have fought one battle,” Rami suddenly challenged, his eyes narrowed.  “Best military tactician my foot.”

“Jealous?” Ben shot back.

“We are getting distracted,” Gwil said, rolling his own eyes.  “Argue later, alright?  If we are going to do this, then we need to get going.”

His serious tone brought them all back to what they were about to undertake, and Rami drew them all into a hug.

“Let’s do this,” he said.

**********

**********

Back in the main Queen camp, Sir James was considering tearing out what was left of his grey hair.  Sami had been brought over by Brian and Roger to the tent with Adam and Sir James, and treated with all kindness and courtesies as a brother.  He had freely told them all of the plan that Joe had presented and that the older brothers had devised.

“They have to confront their parents,” Sami said, shaking his head.  “I am sorry, my lords, but I could not stop them, and they slipped past the guards before I could say anything.”

“Joe didn’t let you say anything,” Adam said softly from where he was on Miami’s lap.  “And he stopped the guards from seeing them leave.”  He bit his lip, huddling against the man.  “I am sorry that I did not see it until after it had happened.”

Brian sighed, gently touching Adam’s head.  “Don’t be sorry, my dear,” he said.  “It is not your fault.  Joseph is older and stronger than you, and he had Gwilym to no doubt assist him.”

Miami nodded, and hugged Adam to him.  “Thank you for telling us whatever you can,” he assured the child.  “We know you cannot see everything, and it is not your fault at all.”

“Lord John and King Frederick will be here by nightfall,” Adam said, adding all he could. 

“Thank you, Adam,” Roger smiled tightly.  He glanced at the others; his gaze heavy.  “Lady Louise, would you please take Adam out for a bit?”  They needed to talk, and not all would be suitable for a child to hear.

“Of course, my lord,” Louise said.  She picked up Adam, making her voice cheerful.  “Come, young master.  Let us see if we can pester the cooks for some meat scraps for Sir Stelen.  I swear your hound eats more than 20 soldiers put together!”  Adam giggled a bit and willingly went with his governess, Stelen following them eagerly at the prospect of another meal.

Brian sighed and ran his hands through his hair once Adam and Lady Louise were gone.  “They have at least 5 hours head start,” he said, taking stock of the situation.  “And if Gwilym’s bird is with them, we have no way of knowing what route they will take.  It will be safe; but I doubt we can track them.”

“Rami has my uniform, and I told him the passwords,” Sami said as he shifted his weight on the cot.  His leg was heavily bandaged but would heal in time.  “They made it into Post Pierren before; I know they can do it again.”

Roger snorted, shaking his head.  “Oh, I have no doubt,” he muttered.  “But to take Joseph right to The Dark?  What hells are they thinking?”

Sami closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember all he could.  “Joe said they all four had to go together, and Gwil didn’t object.  Even Fada and Joe’s horse seemed to agree.”

“Damn familiars,” Roger grumbled.  He paced for a few steps and then slumped into a chair.  “I agree we can’t track them,” he said finally.  “Our best course is to push our troops to Post Pierren.  We can advance immediately with our main force and send word to Freddie to join us as quickly as he can.”

Sir James nodded his agreement.  “I will let our captains know to begin to prepare.”

“I know of some shortcuts for troops if you can show me maps, and can provide passwords for advance team safely,” Sami offered.  He straightened, looking at the Queen lords.  “There is also a special code,” he informed them.  “One that has been devised by those who do not follow my father, but are instead loyal to Rami and I.  We cannot rise up openly by ourselves, but when Queen troops arrive, there are many who will support them.  You will know you are among friends if you see the code.”

The men raised their eyebrows in unison.  “What is this code?” Brian asked.

**********

**********

Rami regarded the sentries calmly as he and his brothers dismounted in the courtyard of Post Pierren.  “Prince Sami,” the captain said, bowing her head.  “It is good to see you safely returned.”  It was past midnight, but everyone at the post was on clear alert.

“Captain,” Rami retuned the greeting.  He saw the woman unobtrusively touch a small broach on her collar, and also noted that nearly a third of the guards with her had similar designs on them in one fashion or another…tiny jewelry, a small engraving on a pack, something etched on armor or a barrette in hair.  It was nothing that anyone would notice if not looking for it, but to Rami’s eyes it was indeed welcome.  “We must see the king immediately,” he informed her.

The captain raised her reddish eyebrows.  “I will send word, of course, Your Highness,” she said, gesturing to a page who hurried off down the corridors of the castle.

“Thank you,” Rami said.  He nodded to his brothers.  “We shall proceed there right away.”

The captain bowed and stepped aside, touching her tiny broach of a dog.

**

“We need a code,” said a sleepy voice.

Rami and Gwil both blinked in surprised as blue eyes opened and Ben studied them, sleepy, but obviously thinking.  He rolled onto his back so he could see the other two boys more easily, making sure to not disturb Joe, who was cuddled against his chest.  “Joe can’t write and read much yet, so if we *are* ever separated, someone will write his letters for him and read our letters to him.  We can’t be sure if what is written for him is true or not and if what he is read is what we really write,” he reasoned calmly.  “So, we need to come up with a code.  Something like symbols that Joe can draw and understand.  We all like to draw, so it won’t be suspected if we add pictures in our letters to each other and even to our parents.  And of course, Joe drawing pictures won’t be suspected.  We just have to agree on the symbols.”  Blond eyebrows drew together in further thought as Rami and Gwil exchanged glances.

“That is….really very good,” Rami conceded.

“Very smart,” Gwil agreed, admiration in his voice.  He had quickly come to love Ben, but had thought he was too young to be included in his and Rami’s plans.

Ben snorted.  “I know,” he said a tad smugly, but he grinned.  “How about a dog if everything is fine?  Dogs are usually happy, so they mean all is well.”

**

Rami dared a glance at his blond brother as they entered the castle, and saw Ben smiling at the use of his code.  He had told Sami of it at his wedding, thinking it a clever story of the plans the boys had made when they were on their way to Queen.  They had never needed to use it before, but all these years later it was fitting that a dog was now the symbol of allegiance to Rami, Sami, and their brothers.

It might not quite mean that all was well, but it meant that at least they were among friends.

**********

**********

A dove reached Freddie and John an hour before they arrived at the river, so they were prepared when they arrived just past midnight.  Sir James came out to meet them with fresh horses and supplies and with the contingent that had remained behind when Brian and Roger left hours earlier with the main force.

“Your Majesty,” Miami said, kneeling before his king.  As one, the troops followed his lead, and James kissed Freddie’s ring.

“Rise, my lord,” Freddie said to his former guardian as they clasped hands.  “It is good to see you again.”

Miami bowed his head.  “And you, and Lord John,” he agreed, nodding at the mage who smiled and hugged his old guardian as well.  “I know you must advance, but please come sit while you can as our forces prepare.  All of you need fresh horses and drink and food before you ride out."

“That would be most welcome,” Freddie smiled.  “And we must speak.”

James nodded, and led them to the tent where Sami and Adam waited.  Adam had quickly taken to Sami and the younger twin was happy to keep the child company, telling Adam stories of his own son and daughter who were only a few years younger than the mage.  When Freddie entered, Sami bowed as best he could from his bed.

“King Frederick,” he said respectfully, keeping his eyes on the ground and making his loyalties clear. 

“Prince Sami,” Freddie said kindly.  He went to the young man, and took his hand in a friendly grasp to make Sami look up at him.  “I am sorry to see you injured, but glad to hear it will heal quickly.”

“I plan to join you tomorrow, Your Majesty,” Sami said firmly, not caring what the physicians said. 

Freddie smiled at the pledge. “You will be most welcome,” he assured him.  He then turned to Adam who had already been picked up by John.  “And you, young man,” Freddie said, making his voice cheerful as he gently ruffled Adam’s hair.  “I am so glad you are keeping Miami and Sami safe and out of trouble.”

Adam blushed and ducked his head.  “Welcome back, Your Majesty,” he said softly, having been coached by Sami on what to say.

“We are glad to be here,” John said, hugging Adam as he smiled at Sami. 

“Yet we must leave soon,” Freddie sighed as he looked at the men.  “We have a battle to win, and reclaim our wayward spouses.”  The others nodded and sat down to a hasty meal, Sami answering whatever questions he could about the Rhye forces and plans.  They were preparing to leave when both John and Adam suddenly stiffened, John gasping and nearly falling; only Miami’s quick reflexes catching him.  Freddie quickly grabbed his brother also, and Sami held Adam, who had fortunately been sitting with the injured prince.

“What do you see?” Freddie demanded quietly, looking between the mages.

John opened his eyes and Freddie and Miami both could not hold back a soft gasp; John’s usually green eyes were now clearly the light brown color of Joe’s hazel. 

“They have reached the post,” he said.

**********

**********

Rami tried to not pace, to keep acting calm.  They had been waiting kept waiting for over three hours now, and it would soon been dawn.  Sami had warned them that he had not been allowed to see the parents since the day Lord Brian had escaped, and he had no idea of what would allow them to see their parents if refused.  At least Rami and his brothers had been able to discover one important fact that had set their minds at some ease.

“Your lady wife has gone to her parents, as you requested, Your Highness,” a servant told them when Rami inquired.  The servant wore a small charm in the shape of a dog around her wrist, which she casually displayed to only Rami’s eyes as she bowed before him.

“Thank you,” Rami told her sincerely, and the woman bowed again.  Rami glanced at Fada, who was sitting quietly in a corner, and thought again of how appropriate Ben’s old code was.

He looked at his brothers, and despite everything managed a faint smile.  At their last stop before the titlark told them that they would encounter Rhye soldiers, the younger three had done all possible to conceal their identities.  It was unlikely that any common soldier or officials would recognize them, but they could not take the chance.  Gwil had shorn off his curls with a knife and was slouching to hide his height.  Ben too had hacked off his blond locks and almost cheerfully rubbed a frightful mix of mud and ashes into what was left of his hair to turn it brown. 

For Joe, they had done the opposite, braiding his long auburn hair and – to his dismay – dressed him as a young female tracker in breeches, a faintly feminine tunic and jacket, and a cloak.  It was a simple disguise as he was short and slender and fair enough to easily pass as a young woman.  In their last lighthearted moment, Ben had even remarked that Joe sounded like a girl, his voice still having not fully changed at the age of sixteen.  Joe was embarrassed, but also so focused that he knew it was the best chance to hide his identity and allowed the dressing.  If by chance asked, Gwil would say that Joe was his half-sister, it being fairly common for teenage girls to train as trackers and scouts especially alongside an older sibling.  Fada had garnered only a few glances as dogs were also often used in the forces and kept around castles and forts.

“Hi, Josephine,” Ben whispered as they had approached the Rhye sentries.

“Benjarima,” Joe hissed back.  Then he returned to being quiet and serious, clearly concentrating on learning all he could before they arrived at the post.

Now, Rami looked at his brothers and nodded encouragement.  They had not been turned away, which he took as a good sign.  The last message that Gwil and Joe had received from a bird was that King Freddie’s forces had nearly reached the river, and all knew they would soon advance. 

‘I hope you can forgive me, my husband,’ Rami thought to Freddie.  ‘You are my king, but this is something I must do.’

A short time later, the heavily guarded door opened a crack and a soldier stepped out.  “Prince Sami,” he said curtly.  Rami saw no sign of the dog insignia and nodded briskly.

“I need to speak to His Majesty,” he said.  Eerily, just like Rami, Sami had not referred to the new king as their father from the day of his coronation. 

“You may enter,” the man said haughtily.  “But who are these…..others?” He looked at Gwil, Ben, and Joe with clear distaste.

“My aides,” Rami said curtly.  “They have information for the king.”

There was an open sneer at his words.  “They may tell it to me,” the captain said.  “And the dog is certainty not entering.”

Joe stepped forward, and for a moment Rami almost instinctively pulled his little brother back.  But something stopped him and he saw Joe straighten up to his full height.

“Let us enter,” Joe said, and his voice sounded just like Lord John.

The soldier blinked, and then moved aside.

Rami nodded to his brothers, and they entered the secure room.

**********

**********

Freddie cursed but then apologized as he pulled his horse to a stop.  It wasn’t the warhorse’s fault that she was exhausted from hours of gallop and needed rest.  “Thank you,” he murmured to the creature as he slid off her saddle.  “Rest, and we will need you later.”  He wasn’t a mage or a familiar but Freddie had always felt a special connection to animals – especially cats and horses – and the mare whinnied in response.  The new king had no doubt that the equine soldier would be back in the field as soon as she caught her breath, proud to carry any human into battle.

“We will meet up with Brian and Roger’s lines within an hour,” Crystal promised after a quick meeting with an aide.  The ambassador had taken over as Freddie’s council when Sir James had been directed to stay back at the base camp.  John and Adam were nearly incapacitated by the vision they had been seen, and something was keeping them under; Miami speculating that their energy was being sent to assist Joseph.

“Sami,” Freddie had said, his voice quiet, hours earlier as they prepared to leave.  The younger twin looked up at his brother-in-law and met his gaze steadily.

“My lord?” he asked.

Freddie inclined his head to the man and the child laid out on cots near Sami.  Stelen was lying on the cot next to Adam, and at least five cats had suddenly appeared out of nowhere and were covering John, their purring loud.  “Do you acknowledge me as your liege lord?” Freddie demanded.  It was exactly the words he had asked of Sami’s twin and his new brothers.

Sami did not hesitate and bowed his head.  “I do, Your Majesty,” he said firmly.  “You are my liege lord as the monarch of Queen, and the husband of my twin, the rightful heir to Rhye,” Sami said, taking himself out of the line of inheritance.  “My twin’s claim to the throne of Rhye is greater than mine, and I do not claim it for myself or my children.  And your crown of Queen is above any of Rhye, as Rhye truthfully surrendered to your kingdom decades ago in honest peace and truce.”  Sami kept his eyes down, but humbly held out his hand, cursing that he could not yet stand, and Freddie held out his hand in turn.

“You are my monarch, King Frederick,” Sami said solemnly, gratefully taking Freddie hand and kissing the ring.  “What are your orders for me, my king?”

Freddie nodded, clasping Sami’s shoulder.  “Protect my brother the Lord Mage John, and his royal ward, the young Lord Mage Adam.  Until Gwilym returns, I put you now second only to Lord James as their protector.”

Miami looked at Freddie sharply, and Freddie smiled tightly at his former guardian.  “You heard right, my friend,” he said gravely.  “I name you Lord James Beach, Lord of the Border Lands, Lord of my brothers.  You are now our Lord Uncle.  It is a more than worthy title in honor of your decades of service and your counsel.”  Freddie looked over at Lady Louise, the only other person in the tent.  “My lady, may I ask you to bring in any of our people?”  The lady curtsied, and hastily summoned everyone outside.  Within a minute, the tent was crowded with everyone possible; the humble young squire tending to the horses treated the same as the seasoned generals.

“My people,” Freddie said calmly, his voice powerful in the tent and easily reaching to those people packed outside.  Word had spread that the new king had arrived and many made their way to the area.  “I have accepted the title of King Frederick of Queen.  My first decree – made in our capital – is that we will ride against the evil that comes from Rhye.  But make no mistake; we attack only those intending evil, and none other.  I know that many of Rhye honor the peace we made years ago, and we will not cause harm against them.  Trust our generals, who have specific orders on who we will raise our swords against.”

Freddie paused as the growing crowed cheered, and then nodded to Sami and James.  Only those in the tent could see the gesture, but it would soon be told to all.  “My second acts are to name my former guardian, Sir James Beach, as my royal Uncle and Lord.  He is now Lord of the Border Lands, Uncle of the King and his kin, and due all homage.  I also name Sami Malek, my brother-in-law, as Lord of the River Lands, and our Lord of Rhye.”  Freddie paused and looked down at John and Adam.  “My youngest brother, the Lord John Deacon, is ill, as is our royal ward, Adam Lambert.  I name Sami Malek as their protector and head of their guard.  His orders are to be followed as if they came from me.”

The crowd bowed respectfully, and Freddie directed his gaze and words especially to three officers dressed in the colors of House Deacon.  “Lord Malek is not just my brother by marriage, but his wife is of House Mazzello, the family of the betrothed of my brother Lord Deacon.  Anyone who serves Illene Mazzello-Malek, her children and her family, serves Lord Deacon - my youngest brother - and thus myself; anyone who protects those of House Mazzello protects me,” he added significantly.  “I direct half of the guard of House Deacon to seek out the family of Lady Illene and offer them your protection to guide them safely to our lands.”

There was a cheer and soldiers stepped forward to claim the assignment.  The officers inside the tent bowed to Sami, making their allegiance clear.  Sami forced back tears as he regarded the king.

“Thank you, my king,” he said softly, taking Freddie hand again and kissing the ring.  “You are my king and liege lord.  I accept your orders, and will stay with your brother the Lord John and his ward Adam Lambert, and protect them to my dying breath.”

“I have all faith in you, my young brother,” Freddie said.  “House Deacon will find our family while you watch over our kin.”

Now, Freddie smiled at Crystal as they mounted fresh horses.  “We are about to enter battle again, my friend,” he said, drawing his broadsword.

Crystal smiled tightly, banishing his own family weapon.  “It is indeed time, Your Majesty,” he confirmed.

**********

**********

Rami had to bite his lip a little when he saw their parents for the first time in three years.  He knew he and his brothers had changed, but it was startling to see the difference in the families.  All of them looked older, pale, and worn.  King Said was arguing with Lady Hardy and Lord Lee, and no one looked up as Rami and his brothers entered, which was fortunate.  It gave them a few minutes to quietly find places in the surprisingly small room and simply observe for a time.  Fortunately, it was only the eight parents in the room now that Joe had influenced the remaining guards to leave.

Gwil thought that none of their parents looked even remotely healthy.  Even worse was the yelling taking place between all eight of them.  He watched in horror as Lady Mazzello nearly slapped her husband, and Lord Mazzello looked ready to return the blow.  It was nothing like the calm and brave adults that he had known.

‘Barricaded themselves in,’ Ben observed, his eyes darting around the small room.  The windows were bordered over, a huge fire roaring in the hearth as if to ward off anything even coming down the chimney.  There was even a supply of food in a corner as if they did not trust any food from outside the heavy doors.  He watched them all intently, looking for clues as to what had led to this behavior.  It seemed there was something even beyond the resistance that Sami had spoken of; the parent seemed terrified of being taken.

Joe sensed the power the moment the door opened.  It was more than the war, more than facing The Dark, which he was prepared to do.  Something was wrong with their parents, and it was evil.

But it wasn’t coming from their parents.

“Sami!” King Malek glared at his son.  “What are you doing here?  We told you to not come back except at the head of the conquering army.”

Rami straightened his back, looking at his father, but staying some distance away.  He and Sami were identical, but he still didn’t dare to get too close as their parents might yet be able to tell them apart.  Before he could say anything, his mother jumped in.

“We are told that your wife has gone missing.  Where is she?” she demanded.

“Our son is ill,” Rami said carefully, sticking to what Smai had told him.  “You had given permission earlier for her to leave to tend to him.”

“And then we changed our minds,” Lady Lee said.  “We ordered her to stay, but she had already left!  Bring her back immediately.”

Lord Hardy waved his hand.  “We don’t need her,” he said.  “Forget her.  We need to focus on the army.”  He looked at Rami.  “Return to the field.  We have sent orders to the generals and you are to assist them.”

Rami had to hide his confusion; whatever was going on, it seemed that all eight parents were in unison.  He looked at his father, deciding to try and test it a little.  “What are these orders, Your Majesty?”

“Don’t come back without Deacon and young Mazzello,” Said ordered. “The generals have been given orders to take them alive, but kill everyone else.  Go assist them.”

They wanted the mages, of course.  “And then what, Your Majesty?”

Lord Hardy snorted.  “We turn them over, and then we have both kingdoms as ours.”

“Turn them over?  To who?” Rami was even more confused now, but suddenly Fada growled and Rami looked behind him to see Joe straighten, his eyes flashing.  Gwil and Ben were huddling around Joe, and Rami looked at them.

“To The Dark,” Joe whispered.  “Because The Dark is not here.”

**********

**********

Freddie, Crystal and the army had caught up to the advance force and battled their way to the front lines were Freddie met with Brian and then Roger.  The fighting was difficult, but not overwhelming as a number of Rhye soldiers stopped fighting when they saw Freddie’s banners.  They did not turn on their countrymen, but did lay down their weapons to show their support of the Queen forces.  All who ceased battle had a tiny emblem of a dog somewhere on their person. 

“It is not as bad as anticipated,” Roger reported during a brief lull near dawn.  “They are well armed, but with the numbers coming to our side, we are steadily advancing toward the post.”

Freddie nodded as he looked around.  Roger and Brian were both scraped from battle, but his brothers appeared largely uninjured.  The causality rates were holding to light numbers, and Brian’s supply details were staying on progress.

“We continue,” Freddie said firmly, taking a quick drink of water as he mounted his warhorse again.  “Brian, Crystal, you are with me.  We must push through and make all haste to the post.  Roger, make a path and then protect our back.”

Roger smiled grimly.  “Give me ten minutes to create a break in their lines,” he promised. 

A short time later, horns blared the signal and Freddie raised his sword.  “To Pierren!” he cried.  Brian and Crystal fell in beside him and they raced to the opened road.  Roger’s forces had indeed created and held a path for them and they rode at full speed across the lines and through Rhye troops.  The Queen scouts and advance troops continued, driving a wedge through the Rhye defenses and Freddie led his people on their final push.

**********

**********

Ben leaped and slammed down the heavy beam to barricade the thick door to the door.  He had noted the placement of the beam the minute they had entered the room, and was satisfied it would hold for some time; their parents’ apparent paranoia was now to the brothers’ advantage.  Ben knew their parents were all skilled fighters, but at least no support for them would be coming through the door or windows.  And he had noted as well that only his father and Lord Mazzello had swords; the other parents might have weapons, but they would be small.

“What are you doing?” Lord Hardy roared.

Rami drew his sword and stepped forward. “That is a question we have for you.”

“Rami!” his mother gasped as she recognized her older child.  “Where is Sami?”

“Safe,” Rami said shortly.  He stood in front of Joe, knowing the moment all the parents realized who was facing them.

“Joseph!” Lady Mazzello stepped forward, her eyes eager.  “It is you!  Come to me, child.”

“No,” Gwil answered, his own sword now drawn as Ben came to stand beside him.

“We have one already for the master!” crowed Lady Lee, and it was then that Rami realized what was happening.

“You are not The Dark,” he said, looking at his father.  “But you are with him?”

King Said stepped toward the brothers, but Joe’s voice rang out loud and clear.

“Zůstaňte, kde jste!” he shouted.  Something like a wind blew past Rami and all the parents froze.  Joe came a step forward and Rami saw his eyes were flashing even more intently in a series of colors. 

“They are under The Dark’s spell,” Lord John’s voice spoke from Joe.

**********

**********

Sami’s head snapped up when Stelen barked.  No alert had come from the lines of defenses guarding the camp and tent, so Sami immediately looked at the two mages who had remained quiet. 

Lord John’s entire body jerked and Adam’s tiny frame did the same.  Sami quickly pulled back the warm covers so they would not get tangled if they had a fit, and Miami joined him.  The new lord had told Sami that if a vision came again, all they could do was protect their charges bodies and keep them from injuring themselves.

Both mages were suddenly still again, and then John opened his eyes.  Miami and Sami blinked at the sight at the lord’s eyes flashing his own green, then Joe’s hazel, and the bright blue of Adam’s eyes.  Beside him, Adam’s eyes opened and started the same flickering colors.

**********

**********

“The Dark’s spell?” Ben questioned.  Joe just nodded once, and then lifted his chin.

“Mārī sāthē jōḍā'ō, John.  Pridruži mi se, Adam,” he murmured, and his voice became a mix of all three mages.  “Join me.”

Gwil suddenly jerked as well, his arms going around the young mage as Fada crowded in front of Joe.  The familiars were not just protecting, but giving strength to Joe as Gwil and Fada both closed their eyes.  Rami and Ben looked and saw all their parents still frozen in place.

**********

**********

Back in the tent, Stelen and John’s cats closed their eyes.

“Tili pano,” Adam whispered, his young voice John’s.  “We are here.”

**********

**********

Ben and Rami had weapons drawn, standing between Joe and Gwil and their parents.

“Kaore he mana i a koe.”  Joe said, his voice alternating between himself, John, and Adam.  “Leave. Mka!”

There was a growl through the room, some sort of reply, and Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Mka!” he repeated.

A wind raced through the room again, nearly knocking Rami off his feet.  He swore that the very ground rumbled and the flames in the fireplace leaped.

“Jayu lobda,” Joe ordered.  “Lord and Lady Malek.”

With a gasp, Ramni’s parents collapsed to the floor.

“Lord and Lady Lee!”  Gwil’s parents sank down. “Lord and Lady Hardy!”  The blond couple joined the others on the ground.

Joe looked at his parents.  “Mummy and Papa,” he whispered, and the final couple were down.

“What is happening?” Ben whispered.  Rami just shook his head.  Gwil swayed a bit, but still held Joe protectively, his eyes closed, as were Fada’s.

“Joe is battling The Dark,” Rami realized.  “He is fighting a spell on our parents.”

Chapter Text

Freddie had dreamed of being an artist from a young age.  It was impossible, of course, but he still longed for it.  He wanted to draw castles; not destroy them.  He wanted to design the emblems and layouts; not reinforce them for battle.  But he was the first-born of his House and the eldest child of the four aligned Houses in his generation, and his duty was clear.  He would destroy Rhye castles and entire armies.  Freddie did his job well, but he never stopped wishing that one day he could look at something and not focus on its strategic weaknesses and could instead appreciate the beauty.

But that day was still not here.  As he looked at Post Pierren, all he could see was the areas for his army to attack.

After twenty years of Queen semi-rule, Brian and his engineers knew the layouts of all the Rhye posts, and Sami had confirmed that little had been changed in recent weeks.  Brian himself had not noted any changes during his short time there first as a guest and then as a prisoner.  Thus, they had a great advantage in planning their attack.  The parents had enclosed themselves in the center of the post and while it was no doubt fortified and guarded, there was also no known escape from the room.

“Stupid,” Roger had grunted earlier, and Freddie had to agree.  It made no sense why they would not have some route to leave.

“Highest alert,” Freddie ordered as they prepared to charge.  “Remember the insignia of those who are friends.”  His captains nodded and Freddie patted his horse and gave the signal to advance.

The fighting was hard, as it always was.  War was not easy, he had once lectured the boys.  Never think that it was.  No matter how well trained, the fact was that you were facing another person and you had to always protect yourself and your comrades.  It was not a simple thing to fight, and Freddie never took anything for granted.

But it was good to see so many allies siding with his forces.  They had reached the post in good time and as they entered through the gates, Freddie say many people standing quietly to the sides, not raising arms to him or his army. 

“My lor—Your Majesty,” a female captain came forward, bowing as Freddie dismounted his horse, a dog broach on her uniform.  “I saw Prince Sami and three others enter into the post just past midnight.  They were kept waiting outside, but I was told they entered the room where King Malek and his people have locked themselves away just an hour ago.”

Freddie nodded at the news, realizing that no one knew it was Rami in place of his twin.  “Lead us,” he ordered, and the captain bowed again before hurrying into the building, followed by Freddie, Brian, and their best troops.

A number of loyal Rhye soldiers were being held at sword point or even tied up along the halls as Freddie followed the captain.  He also saw others wearing the dog insignia and they bowed to him.  The captain finally stopped outside a door where a number of guards with the insignia were waiting.

“What has happened?” Freddie demanded.

A man bowed low.  “Prince Sami and those with him were granted entry not too long ago.  A short time later, guards heard a sound and attempted to enter, but the door is barred from within.”

“It is a well-built door,” added a young woman.  “It was ordered reinforced just a few days ago.  They also have supplies of food, and there is no other known way inside.”

Freddie cursed at the thought of Rami and the others trapped inside.  “Weapons?” he asked.

“Unknown,” the woman shook her head.  “We have carpenters and blacksmiths who are willing to work on opening the door, but it will take time.”

Brian looked ready to attack the door, and Freddie did not blame him.  He pondered the options for a moment, and then nodded.  “Proceed,” he told the assembled workers.  It was a risk to try and enter while the boys were inside, but perhaps even a greater risk to wait.

“Your Majesty.”  It was one of Roger’s captains, accompanied by a Rhye general who had a dog etched into her sword scabbard and hilt.  “We have taken the Post and surrounding area.”

The Rhye general bowed a bit stiffly to Freddie and Brian.  “I am Mary Bolton, the commander of Post Pierren.  We wish to put those who followed the mad king into the prisons, and release those who were unlawfully imprisoned.”

“The mad king?” Freddie raised an eyebrow at the term.

The general nodded, her expression grim.  “He is accused of a long list of crimes, as are those who followed him,” she said, looking meaningfully to the door.  “There are many who did not agree with his orders; we are loyal to our rightful sovereigns, but not when they seem to have lost their senses and order atrocities.”  She regarded Freddie a bit warily, but respectfully.  “My troops and I have pledged our loyalty to the rightful heir, Prince Rami, with the knowledge and blessing of his brother Prince Sami.”

Freddie inclined his head.  “I am pleased to hear of your loyalty to Prince Rami,” he said.  “He is the rightful heir to Rhye, and I do not intend to speak for him.  In fact, he is the twin inside this room; Prince Sami was found wounded on the battlefield and my husband took his place.”

The general raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “And those with him inside?”

“My husband and their brothers, we believe,” Brian said.

“Ah.” The women glanced at the Rhye officers behind her, all of them carrying a dog insignia, and then she nodded, making a decision and turning back to Freddie and Brian.  “Then know, my lords, that we follow Prince Rami, but you are his husband, King Frederick, and until we have orders from our prince, we acknowledge your rank and will follow your lawful instructions.”  She formally extended her sword to Freddie. 

Freddie touched the sword, acknowledging its offering to him.  “You and your army are welcomed to my banner, General Bolton, until we can speak to Prince Rami,” he agreed.  “I acknowledge in front of those from both Rhye and Queen that your loyalty is to my husband first and that he is your rightful commander.  I will ask your obedience to me only until my husband can give his own orders.”  The general and other Rhye troops bowed.  “I ask now that you secure those who cannot be trusted as loyal to my husband.  I myself speak as the monarch of Queen that my quarrel is with Said Malek and not the people of Rhye.  I wish only peace again between our lands.”

“That is our wish as well, Your Majesty,” the general agreed.  “We will secure those troops here who followed the mad king, and await word on our Prince and his brothers.”  She gestured and a young man stepped forward.  “With your permission, I will leave some of my aides here until I return and we will also send more blacksmiths and carpenters to assist.”

“I agree,” Freddie said readily.  “Thank you, general.”

Brian looked to Freddie as the two men drew aside in a corner of the hallway, both of them watching in growing worry as work on the door began.  “They are in there with The Dark,” Brian whispered, his voice anguished. 

Freddie nodded and took his brother’s hand.  “They are strong,” he said.  “Chosen by the gods and fate to be here this day.  All we can do now is wait.”

They looked back at the door, willing it to fall.

**********

**********

Inside the room, Rami held Gwil as another wind shrieked around them, nearly forcing them off their feet.  Joe was staring into space, still batting The Dark.   He was quiet now, long minutes after the spell had started, but his lips still moved, and Rami knew his brother was fighting with help from Lord John and Adam.  And their familiars, he thought, looking at Fada and Gwil.  They had Joe tight between them, and were also unmoving, their eyes still closed.

Ben had searched their parents and taken any weapons he found and he and Rami stood by their brothers, swords drawn.  All they could do was wait.  Joe would either win and break whatever spell was on their families, or he would lose…and they would die.

The wind blew the flames of the fire higher and Ben looked at the hearth worriedly.  “Shit!” he cursed, running toward the fireplace.  Rami saw to his alarm that the flames had somehow left the deep hearth and leaped out.  Lady Lee was closest to the fireplace and the flames nearly reached her dress before Ben dragged her to safety.  Rami hurried over and they pulled all the parents to the far side of the room. 

“We should put out the fire--” Rami stated to say, but then he saw Joe and Gwil trembling with some silent effort.  Fada began to growl and then all three of them moved as if blown over by wind.  They fell to the floor, rolling at the invisible force that also took down Rami and Ben.  Rami felt something rush past him again and had to cover his ears at a screeching sound.  The floor underneath him shook—

And then all was silent.

It took him several moments, but Rami managed to get to his feet and saw Ben crawling toward their brothers.  “Joe!  Gwil!” he gasped, rolling them over, checking them for breathing.  For an awful moment both remembered Lord John stopping breathing, but it seemed that both their brothers and Fada were merely asleep.

Assured that they were well, Rami checked on their parents and found them heavily asleep as well.  He made sure his sword was ready in its scabbard, and saw Ben do the same.  There was no way to know if the spell had been broken or not

“What happened?” Ben asked as he found a small cushion to put under Joe’s head.

“I have no idea,” Rami admitted.  He looked around the room.  “Everyone seems just asleep.”

“Damn!” Ben growled.  “What—“ A soft groan woke him.  “Gwil!” Ben cried, leaning over his blond brother.

Rami quickly knelt beside Gwil on the floor and saw the hazel eyes flickering open.  “Gwil, wake up,” he urged, gently patting his check.  “Come on, you can do it.”  Joe and Fada were still unconscious, as were their parents, but Gwil was definitely coming around.

Gwil lips were moving, and Rami put his head close to could hear.  It was faint, but clear.  “Open…door,” Gwil managed to say.

Ben heard as well, and they exchanged worried glances before Rami nodded.  Ben quickly went to the massive door and Rami had to leave Gwil and Joe to help his brother raise up the barricade.  As they did, they could faint noises on the other side, as if from axes and saws.  Rami drew his sword, ready, and Ben nodded and then unfastened the locks and stepped back quickly to stand beside his brother.

“Your Majesty!” they heard someone the hallway shout.  “The door has unlocked!”

“Open it!”  Rami’s head jerked up in shock at hearing his husband’s voice.

The door flew open, and Freddie entered, his own sword drawn and ready.  He blinked at seeing Rami and Ben and quickly lowered his weapon and grabbed Rami.  “Rami!  What in gods names?” Freddie exclaimed, pulling his husband close.

“Rami?” It was Lord Brian now coming in.  He gasped when he saw Gwil and quickly knelt down beside his husband, seeing Joe and Fada and all their parents also unconscious.  “What the hells happened?”

“My father isn’t The Dark,” Rami quickly said to Freddie in a low voice, seeing other soldiers peering in.  “Joe saw there was a spell, and he fought it.  Then they all collapsed.”

“Gods,” Freddie sighed.  He thought quickly and gestured for soldiers to gather up the parents.  “Take them to secure lodgings for now, but make sure they are seen by doctors; do not harm them.  Separate them; do not let them speak to one another.  Send in my personal physician quickly.”  The woman was familiar with Joe’s bleeding sickness and would likely be needed after he had worked magic.

While the parents were carried out, Brian knelt with Gwil’s head in his lap as Ben pulled Joe into his lap.  Rami and Freddie knelt back beside the others on the floor and Rami quickly told the older men what had happened.

“Joe spoke in both Lord John’s and Adam’s voices,” Rami said.  “They were giving him support.”

“It was a powerful spell,” Gwil said groggily.  He was weak, but coming around, and sat up with his husband’s assistance.  “They have been enchanted for years…I think since before your wedding,” he said, looking at Freddie and Rami.

Brian’s eyebrows drew together in thought.  “It would explain why they demanded Benjamin and Joseph back then.”

Rami nodded as petted Fada who was also waking up.  “When they were under the spell, their priority was to capture Joe and Lord John.”

“And take them to their master,” Ben added.  Freddie’s personal physician had arrived and Freddie nodded to his husband and brothers. 

“We may speak freely in front of Lady Maeve,” he assured them all quietly as the doctor knelt beside Joe and Ben.

“He cast a spell?” Lady Maeve asked.  At their nods, she sighed, but nodded herself.  “Then we must except some bleeding,” she said.  She signaled to her assistants.  “Is there a place we can take him?”

Freddie looked around and was glad to see that General Bolton had returned.  He took Rami’s hand and stood up, pulling his husband up with him.  “General,” he said formally to the woman and her aides.  “May I present my husband, Rami Malek.”

“Prince Rami.” The general bowed formally.  “I am the commander of Post Pierren and its surrounding lands and we welcome you gladly.  We have always been loyal to the throne of Rhye, but could not in good faith accept its recent orders,” she said tactfully.  Rami nodded in understanding.

“I understand, my general,” he agreed.  “I too, could not accept the orders to attack Queen and imprison families and order executions of innocents.  I am very grateful for any support you have given to my first my twin and now to my husband.”

The general looked relieved.  “Then I wish to declare that our loyalty is to you, my lord.  We will no longer obey the orders of Said Malek or his followers.  Your twin may have told you that by our insignia, we declare our loyalty to you.”

Rami smiled as he gestured a little to Fada, who was now awake and anxiously sniffing her master.  “Indeed, my general, and it was a great comfort to both my twin and myself.  I am especially grateful that my sister-in-law was safely seen to her family, and send my personal thanks to those who assisted her.”


“Your parents have been comfortably but securely put in private quarters,” the general continued nodding to Gwil and Ben so they knew of their parent’s circumstances.  “And we have imprisoned those who followed Said Malek’s unjust commands.  What are your orders now, my lord?”

Rami glanced at Freddie, who nodded, encouraging Rami to speak his own mind.   “I ask you to keep the parents safe but secure,” Rami decided.  “For now, I wish there to be a simple end to hostilities between the forces of Rhye and Queen. There is much we must learn as to what has happened and we must all take counsel on our next steps.”

The general bowed.  “I will send messages that your orders are to stop fighting,” she agreed.  “All loyal to you – and there are many – will stop, but there are still forces loyal to Said.”

“Those loyal to us must protect themselves,” Rami decided quickly.  “Do not instigate hostilities, but act as needed to protect them and all who follow my twin and I.”  He looked between Freddie and the general.  “With so much still unknown, I am hesitant to give further orders,” he admitted.  “Should loyal forces remain where they are, or make their way here?  What is your counsel?”

Freddie and the general exchanged brief nods, pleased at Rami’s foresight.  “I would counsel they remain where they are, unless they are in danger,” Freddie advised.

“I agree, my lord,” Mary said.  “We have private codes and signals.  We will advise those who can to stay where they are, but if they feel endangered, they will head for here.  It is a sensible plan.”  She cleared her throat a little.  “I know it will require further explanation, my lord, but I do wish to make clear that many throughout the land follow you.  May we make it public that Said Malek has been….taken ill?” she suggested tactfully.

Well, it was certainty better than saying that he had been overthrown, Rami reflected briefly.  “Yes, you may,” he said gravely.  Until they knew more, it was the best course.

“North,” Gwil said suddenly.  He was more and more awake, and with minor effort and assistance from his husband, managed to stand.  “If loyal troops must move from their current positions, they should head as north as safely possible,” he said.  There was a clear color in his eyes that Freddie and Rami recognized as mage influenced.

“Sensible advice, seeing as how Post Pierren is one of the northern