His Caellach was different now. It was painfully obvious as he watched him sparring with Astaroth, moving with liquid, deadly grace that seemed so easy to him. This Caellach would have given his captives hell and he couldn’t help but wish, futilely, that the Caellach of six years ago had this much skill with his blade and body as the present Caellach did. He wondered if part of the reason why Caellach went through the rigorous training he had obviously had for that very reason, so that he would never be so helpless again and that thought made him wince and that age old feeling of regret and guilt filled him. He should have been there, as Caellach had said, should have told the Order, the Council to hell with it and gone after Caellach himself instead of bending to their will, bending to his own goddamned sense of responsibility and sent Astaroth.
He should have been there in the forefront searching for Caellach, should have been there when they rescued him but he hadn’t. Instead he had been in isolation preparing for his Offering, instead he had been through ceremony after ceremony as they had pushed forward his initiation into the Order, instead he had spent those lonely, too-long days making his Offering. If he could do it all again, he would change everything, he would turn his back on duty and made the Offering when chance came again, seven years after. If he had, then perhaps he would not have spent these past six years in remorse, he would not now have to face Caellach after so long a separation so coldly distant. If he had, then he would not have had to face Caellach’s broken, battered body that Astaroth had carried back.
His hand tightened into a fist as his eyes turned faraway. No matter his power, no matter his skill with magic he had not been able to find the culprits for Caellach’s kidnapping. The Order had declared it a closed case for so long had past but Bael could not forget, could not forgive what had been done to his dearest friend, to the person who had been so close in becoming his lover. To his love. Even now he loved him, the sight of Caellach after so long like a punch to the gut, like a hand twisting his heart. The sight of the Hellhound had always effected him thus, had always left him breathless and wanting, needing more. It had been that way from the beginning and six years had not dimmed his yearning, had not slaked his lust. He remembered the taste of those teasing lips, remembered the sight of those eyes clouded with want and those memories were what hurt the most. To see those eyes so devoid of love and trust and adoration was a harder blow than any he had ever received. The possibility of Caellach’s hate tearing at him.
His father had said that perhaps it was not meant to be, and for so long he had tried to accept it and yet six years down the road he still felt himself pulled to the Hellhound. The sight of the younger man standing there in his home once more made him feel, for one moment, as though his world had been put to right at last and for one dizzying moment every bit of love he felt for Caellach had rushed up only to be shattered so terribly once more. Would fate really be so cruel as to deny him, deny them reconciliation? Would fate be so cruel as to tie his life so irrevocably with Caellach’s that he would forever love the memory of a mischievous, quick witted, intelligent, sarcastic, flirtatious Hellhound? Would he never be allowed to have his own heart to himself? His hands gripped the railing tightly, watching the face that even from this distance he could see bright and cheerful. The soft click of the door opening made him turn, facing the young prince whom he had bedded the night before, the young prince who was Caellach’s friend, the young prince whom he had taken while his mind lost itself in the memory of Caellach, in the fantasy of Caellach. Guilt washed through him again, but he pushed it down, forcing a mild smile on his face.
“Good morning, Your Highness.”
“Good morning,” the prince replied, almost shyly, tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind his ear. He was dressed in one of the silk robes that Bael kept in his room, the midnight blue complimenting his pale skin, matching his eyes almost perfectly. Bael had to admit that the prince was a beauty: delicate, slender with fine features and thickly lashed eyes. But he couldn’t help, even now, to see another face laying over the Cerberus, like a phantom. A face with a challenging smirk, bright green eyes, brown hair with that startling shock of white at his temple. He quickly shook that thought away, guilt welling once more. “What would you have of me today?”
“Nothing, little one,” Bael said, smiling reassuringly. “I thought perhaps you would like to spend the day and however many thereafter exploring first my home, then perhaps the Dark Court. Caellach would be a good escort and I’ll be sure to ask Haagenti to accompany you whenever I can spare him. Failing that, I can always assign someone else to go with you.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“Nonsense,” Bael said, firmly. “My home is now your home. You are an honourable guest here and I hope that soon you will feel comfortable enough to call it your home, too. We will be staying in the city for another three weeks yet, but after my business with the Order is done, we will make the journey to my family manor in the country. It will take us four days in a carriage.”
“You don’t have to go to the trouble,” Bréanainn assured him, earnestly. “Lord Caellach’s father has gifted us with horses from the Night bloodstock. I’m sure we will be able to match the pace of your flight.” The words startled Bael, but then he smiled, fondly.
“That’s right, Deaglán always did like to speak of his treasured horses. It is nonetheless impressive to have so many Nightmares and Nightstallions to one’s name. I confess I have not yet found one who has taken to me.”
“Neither had I, until I went to the ó Riagáin stables. Which you certainly must do if you have an interest in horses. Theirs is the best of the Cerberii Court.”
“I had meant to, a long time ago,” Bael said, smiling wryly but he knew it did not reach his eyes, which had once again travelled to the two sparring men below. “But… circumstance prevented it. Who knows, perhaps one day I really shall.” He turned his head when the prince kept silent, saw the boy biting his lip as though wanting to say something, but was holding himself back. He smiled at that. “Don’t feel the need to hold back when you have something to say. By all means, please speak freely.”
“Thank you,” the prince smiled at him shyly again, but his expression quickly turned serious. “If you don’t mind my asking… it was obvious last night that you and Cael knew each other previously. Indeed, he seemed familiar with your home, and those in it. But I sensed that all was not right. What happened?” Bael wanted to wince at the question. He should have known that the prince would ask it, had known that Caellach’s companions had been curious last night but some part of himself had thought that Bréanainn would still prove too hesitant to ask. But he heard real worry and concern in the prince’s tone and discerned that he was asking as Caellach’s friend. But that, in itself, was a dilemma.
“It isn’t my tale to tell,” Bael said, quietly, eyes locking on Bréanainn’s for a moment before drifting down to Caellach. “If it were, I would divulge without hesitation, but as this is Caellach’s story to tell then it is he who you should ask.”
“But he doesn’t wish to speak of it!” the prince said, in exasperation. “We have all urged him to do so but he is strangely tight lipped on the subject. We’re all obviously concerned about him yet he refuses to tell us.”
“It is understandable,” Bael broke in, gently. “It is a terrible tale, a horrible thing to have happened and to such a young boy – ” He broke off, shaking his head. “Perhaps even in saying that I have said too much. I truly wish he would speak of it to you, though. It is not healthy for him to keep too much to himself. If you find yourself privy to the tale, I beg of you, please be with him. Give him all your care and support for he needs it still, I believe. Do not let him brush it off as something of the past for it obviously concerns him still.”
“I hope he will too,” Bréanainn said, softly. “He will not even tell Fionn and from what I have gathered, Fionn has been his closest friend these past two years.”
“Even so, Caellach is not one to reveal his weaknesses lightly.” Bael smiled then, sadly. “Even then, he had always wanted to be strong, to be seen as strong. His smile is his biggest lie for it hides everything he feels. His irreverence is his greatest mask, so don’t let that fool you.”
“You seem to know him well.”
“I did, once. A long time ago, I would have said that I was the one who knew him best.”
“You loved him.” Bael turned to the prince at the quietly spoken words, startled. Then he smiled despondently.
“I did, very much,” he said, quietly. “Some part of me says that I still do. But the Caellach that I loved, and who loved me in return, was younger and more carefree, and lacked the shadows in the eyes of this one. I do not know this present Caellach.”
“Love is difficult to forget, difficult to get over, no matter what the incarnation of the person.” Bael chuckled at that, shaking his head.
“You are incredibly insightful for one your age, Your Highness.”
“Please, call me Brén. If we are to live together, I would hope that you would use my name. I want us to be friends, especially if you care so deeply for Cael.”
“I do, and thank you… Brén.” Bael smiled, genuinely at the prince. “And please, feel free to use my name as well. I dislike formality outside of duty.”
“Then that is something we have in common,” Bréanainn replied, grinning. “Now, good sir, what has so caught your notice?” He went to the railing, looking over it and gasped as he saw the two who were still, impossibly, sparring. He shook his head in awe, smiling widely at the sight. “I had heard rumours, but never would I have thought that he would be so good.”
“Rumours?” Bael asked, curiously. He watched as the prince nodded absentmindedly, eyes only for the two fighting, blinking as the prince turned to grin briefly at him, startled at what that grin did to an already beautiful face.
“Cael is known as The Prodigy, has been since he enlisted in the United Army two years ago. His prowess is well known.” Bréanainn’s words disconcerted him further. Enlisted? Caellach was in the army? But was he not in the Demon Kingdom once more as a diplomat, as his father had been? That was certainly the impression that he was given from Minister Stiobhard, and from Caellach himself the night before. What was going on?
“Enlisted? He’s in the army?”
“Hmm? Oh yes. Oh!” Bréanainn’s eyes widened as he whirled around. “We were meant to tell you. We didn’t want to write of it for fear of letters reaching the wrong hands. Minister Stiobhard decided that if anything were to happen, that we should have Caellach as a,” here he hesitated, searching for the right words. “A second line of defence? In any case, we had thought it better that, given the current uneasy political climate of the Dark Court, that his real role be hidden. We meant to tell you but… well. After yesterday and all it seemed that the topic was forgotten by all. We didn’t mean to mislead you.”
“It’s alright.” Bael smiled reassuringly at the prince. “It is understandable and even a commendable course of action that you have taken. It’s just – I’m surprised to hear that Caellach is in the army, that is all.”
“I think we were all surprised when he enlisted,” Bréanainn said, wryly. “No one expected the wild, trouble-making ó Riagáin would do something such as sign his life to the duty of crown and kingdom, yet he did. It caused quite the stir in Court, I assure you, especially as it left less time for Cael to be at Court. There were quite a few disappointed Lords and Ladies at the news, I assure you.”
“Really?” Bael asked, a wistful note in his tone. “Brén would you – that is, if you do not mind overmuch, I would dearly love to hear tell of the man Caellach has become, at your convenience. If you wish to, of course.” Bréanainn just smiled at that, laughing slightly.
“No, I do not mind. Come search for me when you wish to hear stories about Cael, for certainly there is a vast number of them. He’s had quite an illustrious life. How long has it been since you had seen him?”
“Six long years,” Bael admitted, ruefully. “I suspect that in those years he indeed has managed to create many a fine tale.”
“Well, it did not truly start until four years past, five perhaps. But indeed, there is a large number. Now, what say you to lunch? The hour grows late and I’m sure that after such strenuous exercise they would like to have a meal as well,” the prince said, nodding towards the bodies below. Bael started, before shaking his head.
“I am rather remiss in my duties as a host, it appears.”
“Not at all. What little I have gleaned from our conversation shows that you have much to think about.”
“I thank you for your understanding an patience. Please, get yourself ready. I shall send a servant to tell them. In half an hour, perhaps?”
“That sounds fine. I will see you later, Bael.” The prince bowed slightly, smiling, before he took his leave, the rustle of cloth from Bael’s room telling the Demon that the prince was picking up his clothes from the night before, then a soft click from his door signalled the Cerberus’s departure. Sighing, he turned to look at the crowd below once more before disappearing inside his room.
Lunch proved to be just as strained as dinner had been, though most if not all noticed that the tension had only risen when Bael and Bréanainn had appeared together, the prince on the Demon Lord’s arm, both chatting together amiably. Caellach had tensed and refused to look in their direction, instead putting his whole attention towards the rest of his companions, laughing and speaking as though he had not a care in the world. The performance was brittle at best but they at least had the foresight of going along with it. Well, all barring Major ó Maolomhnaigh and Captain ó Ruairc, but they were skilfully covered by the girls and Astaroth, who smoothly distracted them with questions and easy chatter. Still, it was plain to see for those who knew him well that Caellach was discomfited, his cheer too bright to be anything but forced, especially as his hold on his cutlery or glass seemed a trifle too hard.
Bael excused himself after lunch, claiming work would detain him but that he would return for dinner and the party dispersed. Lorccán, Major ó Maolomhnaigh and Captain ó Ruairc followed Astaroth to observe his guards, the girls attended lessons and as both Fionnlagh and Caellach declined to follow the other men, they were left to their own devices. It was the first chance that Fionnlagh had to speak with his best friend so after the rest had departed, he had quietly but firmly invited his friend for a walk in the park. Caellach acquiesced, though his dismay and reluctance was obvious, finding no way to refuse. They walked, for the weather was pleasant, and were quiet on their way, the silence humming with things unsaid and questions unvoiced. Just as Caellach had decided to break it by making some observation or other, his best friend whirled on him, eyes flashing.
“You are telling me everything, and you are telling it to me now
. And I will not accept you just batting it aside like nothing anymore, Caellach! I want to know the reason for your hostility towards King Bael, especially if he might pose a threat to the prince.” Caellach was startled at that, staring at the fuming man. It had never even occurred to him that his friend would think that way though, to be honest, he supposed that Fionn’s train of thought was reasonable, considering his own behaviour. Still, he detected genuine worry underneath Fionn’s ire, and knew that most of that worry was directed towards him so he sighed, waving towards a large tree which would provide them with some shade.
The other man stiffly sat down, waiting with obvious impatience as Caellach did the same, eyes narrowed and locked on him. He sighed, picking at the grass, wondering what in the seven hells he could say, where he should start. The truth was, it had chafed at him, this silence, the fact that only he, Bael, Astaroth and the girls knew. Especially after his breakdown the day before, he knew that he needed a friend, a confidant to whom he could relay his own fears and misgivings but Lady, was it difficult, so difficult to let someone see how weak he had been, how stupid and foolish and young
. Finally, just as he could see Fionn’s impatience building, he looked up, eyes solemn as he stared at his friend.
“I can see no discernible way to say this with any ease,” he said, quietly, sighing heavily. He turned away, then, mouth tight with worry and pain. “The story is an old one, and barring for a few people, one that is not known to any in the Cerberii Court. My family, of course, know. Our most trusted servants know a little of it, but not what truly transpired. A close friend of father’s, but that is all. You are the first that will know since the damned incident happened at all.” He laughed then, the sound bitter as he met Fionn’s eyes again. “‘Incident’ doesn’t quite measure up to what it is, what had happened. If I could find a better word… perhaps disaster. Personally, I call it a nightmare, but whatever it is, it is something that has scarred me for six years.”
“What the hell happened?” Fionn asked, and now his voice was subdued, the worry only growing. He dropped a hand to still Caellach’s fidgeting ones, squeezing them comfortingly. “Cael, you know I’m your friend, that I am here for you, as stupid as that sounds. I want to know what was so terrible that it has made you like this.”
“It’s not a pleasant tale,” Caellach warned with a humourless laugh. His eyes squeezed shut, but he turned a hand up, gripping Fionn’s tightly, drawing strength where strength was offered. When he opened his eyes again, they were overbright, but faraway, looking past Fionn and seemingly to somewhere no one could reach, into a memory. “When I was sixteen, my father met with Bael’s father, Prince Vassago, as an emissary for our King. You know that then, my father was still an active diplomat, though now he chooses to spend most of his time with his horses, and finding exotic, rare and expensive paraphernalia that drives my mother insane. When I found out his destination, I was excited and begged him to allow me to come with him, which he finally relented to do. When I came here, I met Bael.” He sighed again, running his free hand through his hair, though his hand on Fionn’s tightened almost painfully. “It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced,” he admitted, quietly. “Our eyes met and we knew that our fates were tied. That we were meant to be together. At first I saw it as the bonds of camaraderie, that he was a kindred spirit…” He told Fionn then, of how they had spent all possible time together, how through Bael he had become fast friends with Eleksha, Lilith and Astaroth, how the five of them had been inseparable, moreover, how he and Bael had been inseparable. He told him of how feelings of friendship and awe slowly started changing, deepened, turned to love and how Bael had confessed a month after he arrived that he loved Caellach too.
“So what happened?” Fionn asked gently, after a moment of silence fell. Caellach sighed, smiling despondently before his face turned solemn and his grip on Fionn’s tightened so much so that Fionn actually flinched in pain. Caellach didn’t notice, once again seeing something that Fionn couldn’t.
“I was abducted three days after,” he admitted, tone so quiet that Fionnlagh had to struggle to hear him. And when he did, he blanched, shock pouring off of him, thinking that he had heard wrongly – “Bael was preparing for his Offering and the rest were busy so I took a walk in the park, this selfsame park, in fact.” He laughed, bitterly then, looking around them, eyes haunted. “All I remember of it is that I was walking when suddenly someone grabbed me, and a cloth was pressed to my nose. Then I just… blanked. When I woke, I was naked and chained up in a cold, dark room. Three Demons who looked down on our race, who wanted, I suppose, to teach Bael and his father a lesson. They called me an upstart, a whore, filth. I was beaten, starved, tortured but never so much that I was grievously harmed. To be honest, the days just bled together and I was in so much pain and all I wanted was to escape, to get away, for someone to rescue me.” He paused then, laughing again, the sound still bitter and humourless. “No, I didn’t want just someone to rescue me. I wanted Bael
to rescue me.
“I waited and waited and no one came and yet I still hoped and dreamed because he had to save me, right?” He looked up at Fionnlagh then, eyes desperate and vulnerable that Fionnlagh had to swallow down what felt, unpleasantly, like tears. He almost wanted to tell the other man to stop, to halt the story, the horror he was being told but he felt frozen and part of him recognised that there was no stopping Cael, that it was impossible to do so now, as the words were leaving him in a torrent. “I mean, he loved me and I him and I knew that were anything to happen to him I would try my utmost to help him so I had to believe the same of him. And… and I trusted in him so much, believed in him so much because beyond being my first love, I saw Bael as some kind of… of hero. Of someone who deserved my worship and adoration. I could endure anything, thinking that way. But in the beginning of the third week…” He shivered here, uncontrollably and his words finally stumbled, crashed to a halt. Anguished eyes turned to his and Fionnlagh could suddenly move, pulling Caellach into his arms and rocking him, tucking the Hellhound close and resting his chin on the top of his head. He knew his hold on Caellach had to be as painful as the other man’s grip on his hand had been but Darkness, it mattered not, not when such atrocity was being told by his best friend of his own life.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, trying to sound comforting but he knew that his efforts were less than stellar, because his voice was rough with the tears that stung his eyes. “Take it slow, I’m here for you, okay? I’m here for you. Just take it slowly.” Caellach took a deep, shuddering breath, pressing his face against Fionnlagh’s neck so tightly that his next words sounded muffled, but Lady, not muffled enough because he could still hear them, could still hear more of what had befallen his friend and his heart ached
“My third week there, they were starting to get impatient,” he said, softly. “And started to get more creative with their means of torture. They… they called me a pretty little bitch, started to – started talking about putting me into heat, put me to good use.” If nothing else had made him feel horrified, hearing that certainly did it, his body feeling as though it had been doused in ice. Caellach’s words were now slow, as though disbelieving even now, but Lady it was far too clear still. He forced himself to keep his body as relaxed as it could possibly be, kept on stroking his back and his hair while his friend, tone deadened, told of how pride had broken down and how he had cried and pleaded and begged. Of all the things he had imagined Caellach had to tell him, it wasn’t this. Still he listened, as Caellach, haltingly, told of how madness almost won. “But I couldn’t give up, I was still hoping even as they told me that Bael was going to make the Offering. I kept on hoping until the last minute, right up until someone not them came in and… and I saw Astaroth.”
Fionnlagh squeezed his eyes shut as he felt Caellach’s body shaking in his arms, as he felt warm wetness seep through his shirt and couldn’t believe that his friend was crying. It was inconceivable that Caellach, strong and bright Caellach who had always teased and flirted with him with gleeful relish would be crying and yet he was, keening sounds escaping from his throat as though he were dying. He could do nothing but hold on to Caellach just as tightly as his friend was holding on to him, murmuring broken words of comfort that stopped just as soon as he tasted salty liquid on his lips and realised that he too was crying, crying for the boy that Caellach had been, the boy who had been through so much.
“Where was he?” Fionnlagh managed to ask, finally. He heard Caellach take a deep breath before pulling away slightly and though part of himself was loathe to let his friend go, he did so, letting Caellach straighten, wiping the tears from his face, not facing him.
“I found out much later, when I finally listened to reason,” he admitted, quietly. “You know, of course, of the unrest in the Dark Court. Bael was a Duke before he made the Offering, with every probability of being King after it. He’s a good politician, and of course he’s powerful so it had been widely known that the majority wanted Bael in their ranks. They saw my abduction as a sign of rebels moving against them and so pushed forward the date of the initiation ceremony. Instead of allowing for the usual week wherein a candidate could wait to make the Offering, they persuaded
Prince Vassago to urge his son into making the Offering on the first day. And as you know, the more powerful the Demon, the longer it takes for the Offering to be complete and in the duration, he is dead to the world.”
“Still, he should have refused, he should have told them to wait if they wanted him so badly – ” Fionnlagh began furiously, but Caellach shook his head slowly, smiling sadly.
“You don’t understand, Fionn. His family have a motto they have lived by for a millennium, the very same one written on their crest. ‘Duty Above Self
’. It is something that he has been taught since birth. He could no more go against it than you could betray our King.”
“If he loved you – ”
“Duty above self
, Fionn. It didn’t matter if he loved me or not, his sense of duty is far too great for him to simply ignore the commands of the Order.”
“You sound as if you’ve already forgiven him,” Fionnlagh said, disgruntled, but then he shook his head. “But if you had, then why – not that I blame you, of course, but still – ”
“I understand intellectually
,” Caellach corrected, sighing. “Have for four years, now, but it doesn’t make it easier. Our emotions are fickle, selfish things. While my mind understands, my heart can’t forgive.”
“Do you want to? Forgive him, that is.”
“Truthfully? I don’t know.” He sighed. But then he smiled slightly, shoulder lifting in a half-hearted shrug. “But one day, yes. Yes, I do want to forgive him and if we can no longer be lovers then perhaps… friends.”
“Will you be okay?” Fionnlagh asked suddenly, recalling Cael’s reaction to breakfast. At his friend’s look of confusion, he clarified. “With the bonding between Prince Bréanainn and King Bael. Will you be alright?”
“I’ll live, my friend.” The smile that curved his lips was genuine this time as he pushed himself up to his feet, brushing off his trousers. “I knew what was to be expected before I came and though I admit the thought of it isn’t one which I would like to indulge in for very long, I will live. If only because it is such a pretty picture.” His mouth quirked in a grin as he offered his hand to Fionnlagh, who regarded him for a long moment before accepting that hand and standing up as well. “Now, staying in this park for so prolonged a time is making me feel uneasy. What say you I take you to town? You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”
“The last time you promised me I’d enjoy something, we were kicked out of an inn with our clothes following close behind. And not on us. So forgive me if I’m rather leery at that pronouncement,” Fionnlagh retorted, making his friend laugh as he slung a companionable arm around his shoulders.
“Don’t be such a prude. You have to admit that the events leading
to our rather abrupt and unclothed departure were certainly enjoyable.”
Fionnlagh rolled his eyes, but privately had to agree. And as he allowed himself to be led away, he spared a thought for Caellach’s sudden good humour and smiled a little easier when he realised that it wasn’t as forced as it had been before. Perhaps forcing the younger man to speak had been a good idea after all. He looked as though a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders and while shadows still remained in his eyes, they were definitely less than what they had been the day before and even just a few hours before. Considering it a job well done, he turned back to Cael, bitchy and whining and needling and feeling very, very glad that his best friend was back.
He spared a thought to Duke Astaroth’s shy, bookish and pretty younger cousin and made a note to warn the Demon Lord to keep an eye on him. He had a feeling Cael would be back on top harassing form starting tomorrow.