1 Berries and Blood (1/1)

Rowan picked the reddest berries from the tangled bramble, happy to suffer a few scratches if it meant filling his basket with treasure. Thorns snagged the freckled skin of his bare forearm and pierced his fingers. He didn't mind the sting of torn flesh. He could have been done with his task twenty times by now if he'd used his magic, but berries always tasted sweeter when he earned them.

He knew Master Ciprian had summoned him from his garden with the expectation that he would report to the Core immediately, just as he knew when a familiar presence emerged from the trees behind him to glare at his back. But one thing he knew above the others. The berries, which were undoubtedly more appealing than whatever awaited him in his Master's conference room, were ripe now.

Rowan would finish with his diversion and endure whatever punishment Ciprian gifted him later.

"Hello, brother," Rowan said without turning around. "Are you hungry? There are plenty here for both of us." He nodded toward the basket by his knees and the heap of berries inside.

"Get up. Why must you always disappoint? Only a fool plays in the woods while the rest of us work." Alaric, who had been clinging to Ciprian's shadow for as many years as Rowan had known him, spoke in the calm voice befitting the Order's next leader. He'd long given up on telling Rowan not to call him brother.

"Well, you have always said I'm a fool. You must be happy to know your instincts were correct." Rowan spotted a cluster of berries darker than blood, and he snaked his arm deeper in the thorny bush to reach them. His little birds would sing happily after a taste of these.

"I never doubted myself."

Rowan gave Alaric his best impression of a smile over his shoulder. The sun dappled the air with patches of warm gold through the leaves overhead, and the spring breeze kissed his cheeks. He enjoyed the feel of it.

Never one to enjoy anything, Alaric pressed his lips together and folded his arms across his chest. His dark eyes grew even darker. "Don't make me drag you there."

"I don't think you could. But I'm almost done. No need to drag anyone anywhere." Rowan twisted off the cluster of berries, taking as much pleasure from the expression on Alaric's face as he did the sun and breeze.

As he maneuvered his arm back through the prickly mess, a burst of magic knocked him between the shoulders. Of course, he'd seen it coming. He could have deflected, but as always, he thought it best to let Alaric underestimate him at times like this, when the outcome didn't matter. This was nothing more than brotherly annoyance.

Rowan's body was accustomed to much worse abuse than that dealt by the hands of their Master. Alaric would be accustomed to the same. Maybe that's why he never actually tried to hurt Rowan. They shared the secret bond of knowing what it felt like to be overpowered by someone who was supposed to care about you.

Rowan absorbed Alaric's magic with a slight jerk, keeping his hand cupped softly around the berries while Alaric proved his point. A curved thorn hooked into the pad of his thumb, tearing the flesh as punishment for the abrupt movement. A line of crimson welled from the cut. The blood pooled into a single bead to fall like a garnet teardrop on the leaf below.

Rowan knew it. The berries were darker.

He extricated his arm from the bush, somewhat heedless of the pricks and scratches he suffered on the way. After putting the berries with the others in his basket, he stood up and brushed himself off. Leaves and dirt clung to his dun-colored trousers, and a stray twig had worked itself into the back of his knee high boots.

Alaric's frown deepened as Rowan held up a finger indicating to wait. Using a tree for balance, he tugged off his boot and fished out the offending twig, giving his sweetest expression to Alaric as he did so.

"Don't be like that," Rowan said as he pulled his boot back on. "It has been a while since we've seen each other. We should be happy."

"Only you would say that. You hide in your garden while the rest of us deal with with danger."

Hiding, forced isolation, punishment, peace…they were all accurate ways to describe Rowan's solitude. He pasted on his smile again and held out his basket. "You sure you don't want some?"

"You are ridiculous."

Rowan appraised his almost-brother, the person he'd known since they were children. Ciprian had taken Rowan in at the age of four. Alaric joined the Order as a novice a handful of years later, at the appropriate age for a beautiful and talented youth from one of the realm's wealthiest families.

They were the same age, but had nothing in common physically. Where Alaric was tall and muscular, all angles and hard lines, Rowan was shorter and slight of frame, with fine-boned limbs and delicate features. Alaric's hair was the cool, woodsy dark of a winter forest, and Rowan's held the sun-kissed warmth of oak leaves in autumn. They both had brown eyes, but even those were different, with Alaric's being a deep mahogany, and Rowan's being the light hue of a ripe acorn.

Yet as much as they differed in physical traits, they shared the common threads of talent and devotion. They both mastered every magical skill before anyone else in their peer group, and they both adored Ciprian's daughter Loma as if she were their own little sister.

Rowan knew they were close once, but his time away and the nature of his work had blurred the edges of his memories. Alaric, on the other hand, seemed determined to erase those memories altogether.

Rowan tilted his head. "You look different. Did you change your hair?"

Alaric's eyes narrowed. He took a step forward as if to grab Rowan by the arm and deliver on his promise to drag him to Master Ciprian. Of course if he had to grab him, he'd use magic. Never flesh to flesh. Rowan's magic made him too impure to actually touch. It was much different from the days when they used to wrestle in the grass as boys.

Rowan hopped nimbly to the side, his free hand held out in front of him, fingers splayed. "I see it now. Did you grow a bit? Weren't you tall enough already?"

Alaric lunged, but stopped short of catching his prey. He stared at Rowan's hand, and his lips pressed together in a stiff frown. His dark eyes slid down Rowan's bared forearm, taking in the scratches that marred the flesh. "You did that on purpose." His voice was cold.

"What?" Rowan turned his hand to inspect the palm. "Oh? This?"

Blood still dripped in a vibrant rivulet from where the thorn had dug into the base of his thumb. The scratches on his arms showed faint lines of crimson.

Alaric stepped back. "Don't touch me."

"Why would I want to touch you, brother. You are the one making threats."

Alaric stiffened his shoulders and headed down the trail. "Let's go. I will not suffer the consequences of your dawdling."

Rowan nestled the basket handle into the crook of his elbow and watched the Core's most powerful Adept depart, his brown hair bound in a prim ponytail at the base of his neck. He really did look taller. Or maybe it was just an increase in pride. Rowan glanced at his bleeding palm, and pressed his mouth to the wound. He licked his own blood, the most unclean part of himself, swallowing it down as Alaric's form disappeared into the green shadows.

Note: If you missed the auxiliary chapter, I've uploaded character reference images for Rowan and Wren there in the comments. One is the book cover, but you can get a better view of Rowan's freckles.

Next chapter