Once upon a time, there was a kingdom. Within this kingdom resided a grand and glorious knight. From the time he was but a child, he had longed only to be a knight.
His father, a stern but loving man, saw the light in his son’s eyes, and vowed to see him made a knight.
And so the boy grew, and worked hard, training in all that men must know in order to be true knights.
He became a great horseman with a fine and loyal steed he saved from a stable fire.
He became a great warrior, and wielded a blade gifted to him by a prince he rescued from terrible bandits.
He became educated, and was given countless books and scrolls by the lords and ladies he rescued.
He was called noble, honorable, brave, strong, great—over time, all took to calling him the Shining Knight
He went on quests whenever he was called forth to do so, taking time only to bid his father farewell and replenish his healing herbs. He spent his days slaying dragons, retrieving lost treasure, rescuing damsels, and other feats of daring.
He was lavished with rewards, praised endlessly, and loved truly being a knight.
Then, one day, the Shining Knight returned home to find his father dead. The Shining Knight wept, and sought for someone to comfort and console him.
But no matter where he looked, no matter whom he sought, no one would save him from his grief.
So he buried himself once more in questing, returning home only when his healing herbs needed to be replenished.
Until one day, he returned home, and saw that disaster had struck the home he had known his entire life, and nothing remained of it but embers. The fire, the villagers said, had come too fast, too sudden, for the house to be saved.
The Shining Knight turned to all he knew, seeking help, but though he was given a fine and handsome house, no would help him make of it a home.
So once more, the Shining Knight replenished his supplies and threw himself into questing, taking up those quests they said only a fool would accept. He fought demons, necromancers, sirens, vampires—he fought the dark, until he could fight no more, and at last was forced to return home to replenish his healing herbs.
He returned to his village, eager to rest, happy to be amongst friendly faces—only to realize that they all held back, regarded him with awe, with fear, with worship, and some even with terror. He tried to remind them he was theirs, the boy they had watched grow up in that little village, but they drew back and would not see him as other than the Shining Knight.
And so he sought elsewhere, with the lords and ladies, the princes and princesses, all the people he had saved.
But none would save him from his loneliness, none would rescue the Shining Knight.
Broken-hearted, the Shining Knight returned again to his village. He packed up the few possessions he still owned which mattered to him, then left the village, determined never to return, vowing to quest until he found someone who saw him not as the Shining Knight, but as a man.
Well outside the village, in a remote clearing in the woods, he stopped at the home of the witch who made his herbs, to replenish them one last time.
“And where are we off to this time?” Leith asked curtly. “Surely your damn quest can wait until morning.” He opened the door and let Forlen inside, grumbling all the while.
“I am sorry to disturb you,” Forlen said. Normally he could take Leith’s grousing, normally was even amused by it, but right now, it was all he could do to force a patience he did not feel.
Leith was grouchy, could even be downright mean when he wanted—but Forlen had traveled the entire continent and never had he found a witch who could equal Leith’s skills. More times than he could count, Leith’s healing herbs had saved his life.
And even if hostility wasn’t what he sought, either, Leith’s utter lack of respect for everything had always been a nice change from the awe with which everyone else regarded him. He would miss Leith and his crabbiness when he was oceans away.
Mustering a smile, Forlen said, “Look on the bright side, Leith. After tonight, you will never me again.”
Leith dropped the porcelain bowl he had been carrying across the room to his work table, sending blue and white porcelain crashing scattering across the floor. He whipped around, braid flying in his face, and snapped. “What do you mean, never again? Are you finally going to let a dragon have you for a snack? Because it would probably just spit you right back out again.”
Forlen replied, “I’m leaving. I’m done here.”
“Done,” Leith repeated flatly. “What’s got you all whiney and mopey this time?”
Forlen scowled. “It doesn’t matter.”
Leith scoffed at this reply. “Poor Shiny Knight, his ideals given yet another blow. What has broken the pretty colored-glass image through which you see the world, now? Catch a lady with a stable boy? Catch a lord with a horse? Catch a horse—”
“That’s enough!” Forlen snarled. “I am tired of it, Leith! Tired of all of it! Everyone is so busy being in awe of me—”
He bit the words off, knowing it was a waste of time with Leith. Everyone else might revere him, but Leith had always simply mocked him. He found it refreshing sometimes, yes, but not right now, not when he just wanted someone to welcome him home, to want him. He just wanted someone to hold, to hold him, and just be ordinary for a time.
He had worshippers and enemies in numbers greater than he could count. He had not real friends, and no lover.
“What does it matter to you?” he asked wearily, when the silence stretched on, too worn out to guard his words as he might have otherwise. “One would think, after all your complaining, that you would be glad to be rid of me.”
Leith said nothing, only turned away and began to grab and slam and band and stomp and swear as he began to assemble the special collection of tinctures, ointments, oils, creams, and other items that were the healing herbs he made for Forlen.
Forlen sighed, and slumped in a seat by the fireplace. He really should have just gone to bed, and left in the morning, but he was afraid he would talk himself out of leaving.
Restless, but knowing better than to interrupt Leith and break his concentration, he cast his eyes idly about the cabin. It was nearly as familiar to him as his own home had been, for he came here whenever he was in the village. As always, it was beyond neat. Leith gave new meaning to the word fastidious. Usually when Forlen came upon witches, their homes were nothing so much as barely contained chaos.
But Leith’s home was always neat, clean, and always smelled of the pungent herbs he used in his workings. Much like Leith himself, tidy and smelling of herbs.
Forlen shifted his gaze to Leith, whose back was still turned as he beat up the contents of his work table. Even turned away, half in shadow, Leith was beautiful. His hair was a mottled mess of colors—some strange combination of blonde and brown and red, like a stray cat. He was slender, almost skinny, as though he never quite ate enough. When he could actually be tricked into smiling, his handsome face was pretty, all the hard lines smoothed away. His eyes were like his hair, a mish mash of colors that never completely blended together.
Currently, he wore black breeches and stockings, and silver-buckled shoes, a white shirt with a gray waistcoat, over which he had thrown a heavy apron. His hair was braided back as usual; Forlen had only ever seen it down once in all the years they had known each other.
He froze, surprised, as Leith abruptly whipped around. “So where are you going?”
“I—I don’t know,” Forlen replied, startled. “Does it matter? Anywhere—anywhere but here.”
“Anywhere but here,” Leith mimicked snottily. “Little village too grand for you, finally?”
Forlen regarded him stiffly, anger beginning to stir for the first time. “You know that’s not it.”
“Then why?” Leith demanded. “Why would you leave forever, if not for all the bits and bobbles and shiny things they give—”
“Because there’s nothing here for me!” Forlen bellowed, losing his temper in a way he had never allowed himself before. “Just a house that’s not a home, and people who either worship me or fear me! There is nothing here to make me want to say!”
“Fie on you then!” Leith snarled, and turned sharply, then whipped back around to throw damn near everything on his work table at Forlen. “Fie on you, and I hope a dragon does eat you!”
Then he stormed out, and Forlen heard the back door open and slam shut hard enough to rattle the house.
He stood, angry and confused, in Leith’s front room.
Why did Leith care if he was leaving? Leith who was always snappish, always rude, always mocking. Leith couldn’t stand him, as far as Forlen could tell.
He had never understood why, as much as Leith disliked him, he kept making up the healing herbs. Every couple of months, Forlen returned for them, and Leith groused and bit and complained, but he always made them.
Everyone else had changed over the years, but Forlen could always count on two things never to change—Leith’s healing herbs, and Leith’s temper.
Frowning deeply, needing suddenly to know why Leith was so much worse than usual, Forlen strode through the house and out the back door.
He drew up short as he saw Leith sitting on a tree stump, in front of the little pond behind his house, bathed in the soft glow of witch lights.
Forlen had never seen Leith dejected. Irritable, cranky, sour, hostile, angry, moody, and on three rare occasions almost happy—but never dejected. Never so…broken.
He approaches lowly, more than half expecting, something to come flying at his head. But he reached Leith unassaulted, which only added to his confusion. “Leith…”
“Still here?” Leith asked, obviously trying for his usual acerbic tone, but falling far short of the mark. “Go away, you stupid, imbecilic knight.”
“No,” Forlen said, and reached out cautiously to touch Leith’s shoulder.
Leith jerked away, surged to his feet, made to storm off—
—But Forlen caught him up, held fast, even when Leith began to thrash and swing wildly. “Leith!” He bellowed, surprised when that worked, and Leith went still in his arms. “What’s wrong?”
“What—what’s wrong? There’s nothing here, that’s what’s wrong! I actually thought—I can’t—I thought there must be another reason you always came back. After all, the bright and marvelous Shiny Knight could get better herbs elsewhere. So there must be another reason you always came back to get them from me.”
Forlen went still in surprise, but before he could speak, Leith plunged on, “I learned witchcraft while you trained! I learned herbs bandaging you up! I made the tea that eased your father’s pain while he was sick! I fixed your stupid burns when you tried to dig through the remains of your house. I’m always here. I always make your herbs! And I thought—but obviously I’m the stupid one.”
Stunned, Forlen could not think of a single thing to say. But words had never been his strong suit. He went with action instead, and some did something he had pondered once or twice, when he was too far away for Leith to glean the nature of his thoughts and murder him for them.
He had not expected Leith to taste so sweet. As sharp and bitter as he could often be, Forlen had expected some of that to flavor Leith’s kiss—but he only tasted sweet, with none of the bite—
Forlen grunted in pain as Leith bit his lip. He drew back, half-surprised there was no blood.
“I don’t recall giving stupid, thick-headed lummoxes who are going to leave forever permission to kiss me,” Leith said—but Forlen could hear the barest amount of thawing in his icy tone.
He smiled faintly and said, “What if said lummox wasn’t leaving after all, and was extremely sorry for being so blind and stupid, and even more sorry he had always resisted the urge to try kissing you?”
Leith just frowned at him.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything, Leith?”
“You’re an idiot,” Leith snapped. “I’m the bastard whelp of a woman who went crazy from smoking herbs she shouldn’t have been smoking, and drowned herself in a horse’s trough. You’re the Shiny Knight Who Shines Brighter Than A Thousand Golden—mmph—”
Forlen chuckled into the kiss, as Leith thumped his shoulders hard, not giving Leith a chance to bite him again, just kissing hard and deep and sure—
Until Leith finally broke with a soft moan, going suddenly, surprisingly pliant in his arms.
Why had he never seen, never tried… Forcing himself to draw back, he stared into eyes that seemed to be six different colors at once, but so sharp and clear and pretty. “I’m sorry.”
“Just shut up,” Leith said. “You’re an idiot, there’s no help for it, we may as well accept it.”
“So you often tell me,” Forlen replied, mouth quirking. “But you’re no better. Being crabby and hostile is no way to say you don’t hate me.”
Leith rolled his eyes. “I thought—you always came back—I figured you must know I was just—awkward. And you hate the way everyone else is nice to you, so I thought it was better if I wasn’t—” He broke off, and just glared.
Forlen smiled. “So we’re both awkward idiots. I’m sorry I caused you to make a mess of your house.”
“Forget it,” Leith said. “You can help me clean it up.” He started to say something else, but instead only snapped his mouth shut.
But Forlen was already learning what that precise scowl meant, that particular tilt of his head. More than happy to obey, he bent and gave Leith another kiss.
When he finally drew back, it was just far enough for him to speak, murmuring the words against Leith’s mouth. “I’m sorry it took me so long to come home.”
“Whatever. Welcome home,” Leith muttered in reply, and tugged him just enough to resume the kissing.