Within the capital of a small country hidden within a ring of rocky mountains, on a gentle hill beside the castle grounds, is a wide stone monument. Upon this monument rests three beautiful metal sculptures. On the left side, a waxing crescent moon, on the right a waning crescent, and at the center a full moon, polished into a perfect mirror so that every visitor may be reminded of their own importance.
This morning, like so many before it and many more that will come after, a tall, broad-shouldered man walks up the hill in slow and measured steps. Dressed in simple clothes, he carries with him only a broom, and a cleaning cloth. As the sun rises between two mountain peaks in the distance, the man bows deeply before the monument, and begins to clean. Only once he has swept away all the fallen leaves, and polished both stone and metal, does he kneel.
On some days he offers promises for the future he has stolen. On other days he has only regrets and apologies to give. But once in a while, on days like today, he brings joyful news about the Kings that now protect this land. He says all this out loud and without hesitation, for everyone who might stumble upon him here knows who he is, regardless of whether or not they have forgiven him for his sins.
As he stands, his face is briefly reflected in the mirror, scarred from many battles but wearing a peaceful expression. And as he walks away, the mirror reflects the image of large, unmoving, white wings, bent at odd angles and hanging limply from the man’s back.
Once upon a time, those wings were both beautiful and powerful, but he finds these broken wings suit him much better.
Metallic sounds rang through the crisp autumn air, and bounced off the stone walls of Selene’s castle. If it weren’t for the agonizing cries of the soldiers, Warin could almost imagine it was all just a training exercise; it was so quiet compared to the battlefields he was used to.
Warin swung his sword, slicing through layers of leather to the delicate skin and soft flesh beneath. Twenty, seventeen, fifteen? The numbers entered Warin’s mind unbidden, mere guesses based on the sharpness of a brow or the trembling of a sword. One soldier actually managed to block Warin’s sword, only to stumble back from the force of the blow. There was no flash of triumph in their eyes, only terror; they were too green to even recognize the skill or luck it took to do such a thing. Warin clenched his jaw and finished them off quickly.
Around him, yells turned into screams. Soldiers dropped their weapons as they realized they were the only ones left standing. Blood flowed into the cracks on the ground, seeping into the very foundation of the castle. In his ten years as a soldier, Warin had never felt so disgusted at the sight of blood pooling around his boots.
His eyes were drawn toward the end of the hall where a thin figure in spotless leather armor stood before the gilded double doors, waiting for the others to catch up. “You were right,” Warin said, wiping his sword against his thigh and sheathing it away.
Their commander, Ariel, said nothing, but Warin still heard ‘of course’ echo in his mind.
Several weeks ago, Selene’s armies had been sent to the northern border to protect against the approaching conflict. Their commanders probably believed they were protecting the newest recruits by leaving them behind to defend the capital and the royal family; a last resort unlikely to see battle. Unfortunately for Selene, it was exactly what Ariel expected.
Warin stepped over bodies without looking at their faces and rejoined the others at the end of the now silent hall. He had never been to Selene, but he had seen these faces before and would likely see them again.
With a wave of Ariel’s hand, Warin pushed the doors open and the throne room revealed itself to them. On either side were high walls of intricately carved stone and narrow windows of colored glass. A single row of guards stood before them, weapons raised and pointed forward.
At the end of the room, standing upon a raised platform, were three figures. The King before them was a tall and slender man, with pale skin, golden hair, and golden eyes. In his right hand he held a sword too beautiful for battle. To his left stood the Queen, easily a foot shorter than her husband and with a darker complexion. Her auburn hair was held upon her head with two pins from which dangled twin silver moons on fine chain. Her hands were folded gracefully in front of her. Both King and Queen held their heads high, defiant and angry. Warin found his eyes gravitating toward them. Their presence held weight the way Ariel’s did.
Beside the Queen, the third figure stumbled forward into his mother’s arms. The Crown Prince had his father’s pale skin and golden hair, but his mother’s warm, brown eyes. Although he stood at nearly the King’s height, he still had a boyish face which now twisted in horror as the image of the outer hall was revealed to them.
Two of Ariel’s warriors stepped forward to finish off the guards before them. Warin stayed back, unable to take his eyes off the royal family. When it was finally over, the Prince broke away from the Queen and fell to his knees beside the body of a fallen soldier, calling out to him by name and weeping openly.
Light from the mid-day sun filtered through the windows and painted the throne room in all colors, but the ground reflected only shades of red, like a dream turned nightmare.
That evening, Warin stood on the castle’s outer wall, looking out at the city and the tall mountains in the distance. The streets were empty and dark, merchant stands were abandoned, shops were boarded up, and a few people packing wagons full of their families and belongings.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?”
Warin turned his head to see Ariel climbing up the ladder to join him, their helmet gone and their long, red curls gathered over their shoulder.
“It was like this when we arrived. A deserted capital, a war lost before it’s even been fought.” Ariel stopped beside him. “You noticed it too. You always notice things like this even if you don’t know what they mean. But you didn’t say anything this time.”
“You never miss a thing. Why waste my breath?”
Ariel chuckled. “You give me too much credit, Warin.”
Warin disagreed. Even after ten years he still underestimated them sometimes.
“You’re lying,” they said. “That’s not why you stayed quiet.”
Warin hung his head and huffed out a laugh. Not this time, though. He had expected that.
In truth, he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t said anything. It had nagged at him as he fought his way to the throne room. But the royal family had been captured without issue.
“Did you wish for them to stop us?” Ariel asked.
Warin froze. Images flashed in his mind of an ambush, Selene’s army appearing behind them, too many to handle. A complete defeat. Lying on the battlefield reaching out toward a head of too-red hair— He remembered the chant in his mind as he slaughtered those young soldiers in the entry hall, please let this end.
He turned and searched Ariel’s eyes for any sign that they shared his racing thoughts and found none.
“Ariel, what are we doing here?”
“I answered that before we crossed the border, but somehow I don’t think that’s what you’re asking this time.”
“If you know, then please answer the question.” Warin had never minded this game before, confident he would have all the answers he needed in time. Where was his patience now?
Ariel stepped toward the wall and looked out over the city with a soft hum at their lips. “I’m not sure my answers will satisfy you right now.”
“You don’t know until you try,” Warin replied immediately, stepping toward them. He wanted— needed desperately to hear their answers, justifications, excuses. Without them he just didn’t understand what was going on anymore. Perhaps he never had.
The corner of Ariel’s lips turned up in a smile. “Using my own words against me?”
“Nothing has changed, Warin. This is what we came here to do.”
Warin grabbed Ariel by the elbows. It had been days since they’d last touched and Warin could feel their connection surge beneath his skin. In that moment Warin wanted nothing more than to see Ariel’s eyes cloud over with the same doubts that filled his own heart, but when Ariel looked up at him, their eyes were as clear as spring water. What once inspired confidence now filled Warin with horror.
“Something has changed. Don’t you see? This is not the path we embarked upon all those years ago.”
“You think I got us lost?”
Warin retraced their steps in his mind and found he could not fault Ariel for this. “I think we got swallowed up by something bigger than us. Surely there must be a better way.”
Ariel scoffed. “So things got a little complicated, do you really think we can turn back now? Do you know how many deaths I’m responsible for as Commander of this army?”
“We can,” Warin insists. “You said it yourself, as long as you and I are together, we can do anything, no one can match us.”
“Don’t be immature. I haven’t spent all these years growing your wings and your magic for you to run away now. You became strong to fight—”
“I became strong to protect you, Ariel. I’m not giving up on our dream, I’m just asking you to find another way. It doesn’t matter if they send armies after us. I will protect you!”
Ariel slapped his hands away and stepped back. “Enough. Don’t be naive! You want to protect our dream? The only way to protect our dream and ourselves is to become strong! That’s why we are uniting the North. That’s why we’ve crippled Selene today. Wake up, Warin. This isn’t a game. This is the only way. Trust me.”
Warin met Ariel’s gaze, standing on this wall above the corpses of children dressed as soldiers, while memories echoed in his mind of all the times he had trusted Ariel. He took a step forward and placed his hands on either side of their face. In his hands, Ariel sighed and the tension drained from their body. Warin felt the familiarity threaten to overwhelm him, but his head was already too full. He leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on Ariel’s lips.
“I can’t right now.”
Hours later, in the depths of the stone castle, Warin unlocked the solid metal door that led to the prison cells. It creaked as he pushed it open but he knew the sound would not reach the throne room where the others were sleeping.
Warin had been unable to sleep. Memories of the battle — if it could even be called that — plagued him. He kept trying to reconcile the Ariel who had saved him a decade ago with the Commander he now followed and felt ashamed for having let it come this far.
Warin walked past the cells holding the King, the Queen, and a number of servants, until he reached the very last one. There, the young Prince raised his head to look at him, aided by the moonlight that filtered through the barred window. The silence stretched on for several moments until it became obvious Warin was not going to speak first.
“Do you keep such foul company that you needed to come here to soothe your loneliness?”
Warin sat down in front of the prison door. “Perhaps,” he answered honestly.
There was a soft rustle of fabric as the Prince stood and moved to sit where they could get a better look at each other.
Warin finally pulled something free from his tangled mind and asked, “Did you know?”
The Prince met his gaze. “No. We were prepared— we were preparing to lose. But, not like this.” He clenched his fists in his lap and looked away. “We didn’t have enough time.”
For a moment the Prince carried the same anger his parents had shown in the throne room. But in the Prince, that anger slipped away easily, like water in a child’s hands.
“The city is safe. We came straight here.” But would that still be true tomorrow?
A pair of eyes searched him, hesitant to believe. But finally he sighed, “Thank goodness.”
Silence returned to keep them company. The light from the moon slowly shifted until it shown on the face of the young Prince. There was peace on his face the likes of which Warin could not understand, but envied as he sat shrouded in darkness.
“I cannot stop them,” he admitted.
“A sword cannot stop the arm that swings it,” said the Prince. And perhaps he was right. Perhaps Warin had only been a weapon in the hands of a great strategist.
“But I have swung my sword with my own two hands and carved out what I believed to be the right path. Only now I see my hands are stained red.”
“You… are not what I imagined,” said the Prince after a pause.
“Neither are you,” Warin replied, but it meant something different.
“I didn’t know someone like you could feel regret.”
“Perhaps I couldn’t when I only followed.”
“Why did you?”
Why indeed… “Your Highness, may I tell you a story?”
The Prince did not object.
And so, Warin told this doomed Prince about his home and his past. He told him about the traitorously large and pure-white wings on his back that only Ariel could see or touch, and about the magic that they granted him. He recounted how his wings had once been so small but had grown rapidly in response to Ariel’s praises; and how as his power grew, so did the pile of bodies left in their wake. He told him about the sense of safety in Ariel’s arms and the feeling of invincibility he had grown addicted to. He told him about the dream they shared, or had once shared, or maybe had never truly shared.
Warin talked as the world spun and brought them closer to dawn and the end of all of this. He felt wicked for telling this story now, in this place, to this person; but the shining young Prince listened and did not doubt his words.
“My people will probably be enslaved to provide for your troops. But you, you have been enslaved for a long time already.”
Warin frowned. “No. Our bond is not— I chose to follow them, I wasn’t forced.”
“And yet you say they picked you up off the street where you would have died otherwise. What other choice did you have but to follow them?”
The light from the moon now shone on Warin, piercing him. He didn’t know what to say. It was true he didn’t have anywhere else to go. But the choice to go with Ariel in the first place, that alone he could not bring himself to regret. “I cannot betray them,” he whispered, staring down that the hands that had held Ariel so many times.
“They betrayed you from the start and put you on a path that will never lead to this future you seek. No one will ever be grateful for being conquered. Violence will beget more violence. Don’t you know that better than anyone?”
Warin closed his eyes as the wings on his back began to ache. He knew. He knew it now and perhaps he had known it before. Ariel’s love had always served a purpose. These grand wings that now glowed in the moonlight but went unseen, had been forced upon him like chains.
“If you are bonded to this person — as you say — then it is your duty to stop them from continuing down this path. You know that already or you would be up there with them, and not here talking to me.”
The Prince sighed and the force from his words melted away. “You should flee.”
Warin looked up. “What?”
“If that person is as clever as you say, they’ll notice the change. You should flee.”
“But how can I flee? I’m responsible, as you said. I should be helping you escape!”
“There is value in surviving, soldier. You cannot take responsibility if you are dead. Return when you are ready.”
The Prince’s smile was bright but soft, like moonlight. “Me? I am a prince of Selene. If my people die for my sake, then I have no value. I will not flee and put them in danger.”
Just hours ago Warin thought this prince seemed so young, but now he could see the image of a King that could lead his people to peace and prosperity. He could do what Warin and Ariel could not. And yet, when the sun rose Warin destroy that future with his own hands.
Warin clenched his jaw. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. Warin leaned forward but the Prince only shook his head. “I…cannot say. Unfortunately, it is not something I can entrust to you.”
“I understand,” replied Warin. He would simply have to swallow this helplessness whole.
The moon continued it’s journey across the sky, shining it’s soft light elsewhere and leaving them in darkness.
“I wish I could have met my own fated one,” came the Prince’s broken voice from within the shadows. “I wonder what kind of person they are.”
Warin let himself imagine it. He hadn’t met many of his kind in his travels, but he knew they were out there, to the West. “I’m sure they are a gentle person,” he wished out loud.
The Prince sniffed and let out a breath. “If that’s true, then I am sorry to leave them behind,” he said, his tone weighed down with regret that sounded almost like laughter. It was cruel to find out about something so wonderful at a moment like this.
Warin imagined it no further. He would not tell the Prince about the way his other half would suffer his death, even having never met. Instead Warin wondered how much worse it would be for him when it came time for him to close this chapter.
“May I ask for one thing?” said the Prince.
“Please.” It was all he had to give. He knew it was not enough.
“Tomorrow,” he whispered, taking care that his voice would not carry to the other cells, “may I be the last?”
Warin pictured the Prince’s tear-streaked face as he cried over the bodies of his parents the way he had with the soldier in the throne room. Warin wondered if this castle crumble before it saw another King like him within it’s stone walls.
Warin could not take another step down this bloodied path. One day, he would cross paths — and perhaps swords — with Ariel, but until then Warin could keep this promise.
“Yes. You will be my last.”
Before the first light of dawn, Warin locked the metal door behind him and walked back to the throne room. He found Ariel standing beside the door with arms crossed, waiting for him.
“You didn’t let them go,” they stated.
“No, I did not. I merely wanted to pay my respects,” he lied.
Ariel sighed and pushed off the wall. “You will get to do that in just a few hours.”
Warin knew well what his role was and yet Ariel approached him with a softness to their expression that felt jarring..
“I’m sorry for earlier,” they said. “Maybe you’re right. Things have been stressful lately. We can talk more about it once we’re back across the border, I promise.”
In response, Warin lifted Ariel’s chin. Their eyes were as clear as the moonless night sky. Warin closed his own eyes and took his hand back. He was no strategist, but he had watched Ariel scheme for ten long years.
Without another word, Warin walked past Ariel and into the throne room to get some rest. One of his wings brushed along Ariel’s shoulder as he passed, but it no longer mattered.
I submitted this piece to six Creative Writing MFA programs in 2019. If you enjoyed this piece please consider buying me a Ko-fi to help me cover application fees! I have a goal set up on my Ko-fi page so you can see how it’s going. I appreciate the support while I wait to hear back from the programs!