If one was to choose between duty or love, honour or tender affection, what is the right decision to make?
Prince Kyuhyun was not the best of princes, no, not by far. His home in the forest allowed him places to hide when royal affairs came up, places to commune with the spirits of the forest, places to sing in privacy without being scolded for his commoner behaviour.
Today was no exception. While his people, the Eryn of the forest, were busy lighting crystals to illuminate the pathways for incoming travellers and were preparing a vast feast, Prince Kyuhyun stayed away for the most part. He did not feel the need to take part in such barbaric festivities, especially ones that could possibly exchange the hand of his beautiful sister Sulli. He found it a barbaric human tradition to wed for peaceful treaties, there were far more valuable things in his fair kingdom to trade for peace. Magic being one of them.
The Eryn were called mages by common folk outside the forests, their gifts coming from a long line of cohabitation with elvish kind to the point that they were near elvish themselves with pale, beautiful skin and hair smoother than silk. Most of Kyuhyun’s people had silver or blonde hair, while the royal line were regarded as such for their hair dark as ebony. They were ethereal next to the other Eryn.
Maybe that was why so many suitors had come for his sister lately? Princes from provinces beyond their forests; from oceans, cities, mountains they came in the hopes of stealing the heart of the princess.
This latest one was from the mountains, from the city Budan, far from their borders. He believed he heard his father call the prince ‘Siwon’, but the name sounded foreign on his tongue, just like the man himself. Clearly Kyuhyun did not want him to steal his sister.
Perched on top of a winding oak Kyuhyun picked at the loose threads on his leathers, the lightly tanned material a gift from the last suitor — who had not succeeded, obviously, even with his barbaric animal skin gifts. Kyuhyun did like them, though, it kept the bark of the trees from scraping his skin as he climbed the trees, and gave the birds something to grasp that was not his fair skin as he played with them.
The animals of the forest were his companions, and unique, since the environment of the forest was the only one to meet their necessities, such as a wide variety of fruits and nuts to eat and crystal clear water to drink from the giant lake.
“Aaah! Amazing, it tastes so different, so fresh.” Siwon spoke with a wide smile as he wiped the water from his chin. “Yunho, you have to taste this,” he added and looked up to the man beside him, clad in a uniform much like his, though his black suede clothing was decorated with red and gold floral patterns, a sash from his shoulder to his waist, the Royal family crest on the chest and symbols of his status on the shoulders.
“Prince Siwon, please stand, the ground will dirty your uniform,” the emissary pleaded with a stern look, hands patting invisible dust from Siwon’s shoulders as if the gold that rested there would shine brightly afterward. The prince did not seem aware of how much his outfit cost compared to the emissary’s own.
“I look fine, she will fall for me the moment I see her.” Siwon reassured the other with a warm laugh, but he fell silent when a sudden screech startled both men.
It only took Yunho a second or two to grab his sword and point it at the sky where a gigantic bird hovered over them, its large wings creating gusts of strong wind that hurt their eyes.
“What is that?!” Siwon asked in shock at the size of the creature and he quickly drew his sword when the brightly coloured animal opened its beak and revealed two rows of razor sharp teeth.
Kyuhyun watched the two people, clearly not from the forest, aggravate the large creature by drawing weapons at it like some kind of hunters.
The bird dove forward in a threatening swoop, aiming for the shining metal in Siwon and Yunho’s grip, the latter getting the metal snatched right out of his grasp by the much stronger bird. It flew upwards only to deposit the shining item in a nest way above their heads, sitting on a branch high up in the twisting willow.
When it returned it flew above them as if waiting to pluck the last weapon out of the prince’s hand as it glistened in the light that pierced through the canopy of leaves overhead.
“Fair travellers, I would drop your weapon!” Kyuhyun called from above, dangling his feet over the edge of the thick branch he had been perched upon.
Yunho and Siwon stood side by side, eyes wide and alert for any movement of the giant bird above. The sudden voice suggesting such a ridiculous thing made Siwon laugh. It was all he could do in this situation, because he was not giving up the only object he had to defend himself with. He glanced up at Kyuhyun shortly before the large animal gave another screech and dove towards them, targeting the prince and his sword.
Yunho gave Siwon a firm push, ushering him to run. Before the prince from the mountain could turn around, his arm was grabbed by the creature.
“Prince Siwon!” Yunho tugged on the prince’s free arm and fell backward when Siwon dropped his sword and was released. They scrambled back onto their feet while the bird grabbed the second sword and disappeared back to its nest. The two men used this opportunity to flee, but in their panic they tripped over several roots and bushes.
“DARN THIS FOREST!” Siwon groaned in frustration as Yunho helped him back onto his feet and brushed leaves from his hair and shoulders.
The bird followed after them post-haste. Kyuhyun could not believe that someone would step into the forest wearing such shining and glittering attire. The Roc were just like giant, carnivorous crows, they loved metal objects and anything that shined in the light. They were walking trophies for the beast.
“Tsk, foolish,” Kyuhyun said before letting himself drop gracefully from the tree to the ground, landing with barely a sound on the mossy stones that surrounded the willow and the lake.
He chased after the Roc and the foreign travellers, quickly pulling a piece of polished metal out of his pocket and trying to catch the light with the mirrored surface of the metal.
Eventually the reflected light passed over the bird’s eyes and it stopped its quest for the two travellers, diving right for Kyuhyun, but instead of attacking it stood on the ground in front of him and gently plucked the item from Kyuhyun’s hand.
“You can keep it,” the forest prince laughed, petting at its feathers before it took off to return the item to its nest.
They had a few moments before the Roc returned for the gold-covered duo and Kyuhyun was quick. “Remove your clothes,” he demanded as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. He was not used to people disobeying his orders either, so he didn’t expect these people to do so.
“Have you gone mad?” Yunho asked with wide eyes upon hearing Kyuhyun’s demand. He was grateful the boy had distracted the large animal, giving him and Siwon the chance to stabilize and calm down to escape the scene with clear minds and a composed posture.
However, how could this strange boy ask for the Prince of the Mountains and his emissary to expose themselves in the middle of the forest on their way to what could be the last chance to bring the Eryn of the forest and the Golem of the mountain together?
One would think all in Siwon’s kingdom were as their name described: clumsy, slow, helpless and dumb; and in this situation, that was certainly the case as the two men roamed unfamiliar grounds.
However, they were not such things on their own grounds where they climbed rocks with ease ever since they were young and were brought up strictly, with wisdom passed on from their ancestors, who according to folklore created the Golem to protect the mountains from those who sought to disrupt the peace.
Like the Golem, that their kind created centuries ago, Siwon’s kind was bound to the whims of its King and the rules installed by him, which resulted in unwavering and unquestioning loyalty. This was the exact reason why the prince’s emissary offered to distract the large creature by taking his clothing off like the foreign Eryn had suggested.
“You can’t let the princess wait, hurry to the city Aurora and be careful,” Yunho muttered to Siwon who gave a look that said he would not leave his companion behind. “Go!” the emissary pointed in the direction they were headed and began unbuttoning his jacket.
When Kyuhyun heard that the two men were to join his kingdom’s festivities with his sister, Princess Sulli, he knew he had to explain himself better before the guests in his realm got themselves killed.
“I am far from mad, good sir, but the gold on your clothing is what the creature wants.” He sighed when it was made clear that the one in white was not going to remove his garments, so he was left to do something that would cover it as much as possible. If only one of them stripped down then there was still a target to be had.
“I guess it is I that must remove my garments then…” he grumbled to himself, pulling off his leather vest and slipping it over the gold that decorated the one who had nominated to do as he said, appreciating the gesture from someone who clearly had no clue who he was. He stripped off his white tunic and likewise slipped it over the one called Siwon’s shoulders to cover as much of the adornments as he could. It was enough to deter the Roc as he heard it fly over their heads, above the treetops, off to make collections somewhere else.
When he looked up, though, he noticed how high the sun had travelled in the sky. He had wasted nearly the entire day playing in the forest. He needed to get back and prepare for the festivities. Sulli would be furious with him!
“Oh, dear! I must go!” he said, and fled as fast and as quietly as the wind, his sure footsteps not even making a crackle of leaves and twigs — unlike the two men who tripped over roots like they were unaware of their existence.
“Who was that peculiar Eryn?” Siwon asked softly and raised his hand to grab his chin in thought.
Yunho didn’t know the identity of the one that had saved them, but kept an eye on the large creature that circled in the sky above. “Sir, may I suggest we hurry?” he gave an urgent look to which Siwon nodded, and though their weapons were now a part of the bird’s collection, they doubted they needed to defend themselves on the little part that was left of their journey.
It didn’t take long before they reached the Eryn’s palace located in the centre of its city Aurora, its grand size leaving both men speechless. Though their castle in the mountains rivalled its height, Siwon had not expected the Eryn’s castle to surpass the treetops and for it to look as if nature had created it for the Royal family itself, branches and leaves decorating the city and palace walls.
At the gate, they met a guard and showed him the family crest of their origin, a clear sign they had travelled the distance for serious business involving the Eryn’s royal family.
Kyuhyun skidded into the palace shirtless and covered in dirt from the forest, making more than a few handmaidens gasp and cover their eyes as he rushed to his quarters to change into clothes more fitting for a royal gathering. Just because he didn’t like the idea didn’t give him the freedom to not be present.
The white marble floors of the halls squeaked under his leather footing, leaving streaks on their perfect surface, which was not so used to shoes being worn on them. Most of the Eryn walked the palace barefoot, shoes were only required to protect the feet and there was no such need inside the pristine palace walls.
He began to undress the moment he was within the quarters he shared with his beloved sister, thinking she had already departed to meet the foreign prince and his no doubt huge accompaniment. The last prince had brought nearly twenty slaves with him and he thought that was ridiculous, royalty should be able to handle daily care of themselves. If they couldn’t, they were hardly fit to rule a province.
“Look at you! You are hardly prepared to present yourself,” Sulli scolded her brother, immediately bringing him the wash basin and cloth to clean the dirt of the forest from his skin so that his moonlit pallor was clear. They had to be prepared, this prince might bring a princess of their own, which could turn the favour should Sulli not like the Mountain Prince.
“I’m sorry, a Roc attacked some foolish travellers, ’tis not my fault, sister.” Kyuhyun grabbed the cloth and scrubbed at his face, wiping the dirt away so he was nothing but pure white canvas, pink lips and dark lashes. He was as beautiful as Sulli herself; they were brother and sister after all.
He pulled on the royal blue garb that matched his sister’s lovely blue gown, the symbol of his people embroidered in white on the front of the long tabard that sat over his tunic, a cross with deep roots coming away at the bottom like the trees that set the foundation of their civilization.
Once he was dressed, Sulli and Kyuhyun looked like quite a pair, Sulli’s elegant gown of fine silks and laces ruffling around her slim and tall form, making her seem more elegant than was humanly possible as she walked without her feet being seen. Her neck was decorated with crystals blessed by the magemother to encourage a swift and healthy relationship between the Mountain Prince and Sulli when they met. Similar crystals fell like teardrops from her dark hair that had been pulled back.
Kyuhyun did not even have time to embellish himself with royal jewels or fix his wet hair when flutes and trumpets sounded, announcing the arrival of their all-important guest. Kyuhyun and Sulli needed to hurry to greet them; it was not polite to make someone who had travelled such a vast distance wait.
“We must make haste,” Sulli said and grabbed her brother’s hands, the two of them pattering down hallways barefoot in such a hurry that people had to move out of their way or be pushed aside by the royal pair.
Siwon and Yunho slowly made their way into the palace, the floor giving Siwon the opportunity to check his appearance, fixing his hair in the reflection. He felt slightly nervous; this was his first time visiting the Eryn palace and its royal family. He could only imagine how beautiful his potential future bride looked like.
A servant guided them through the spacious hallways, passing others who greeted the duo with deep bows. When they reached a marble double door, the servant cleared his throat and called out from behind the doors to inform the royal family that Siwon and his emissary were about to enter.
“Noble Prince of the Mountain, Choi Siwon, and his emissary have arrived!”
The doors opened soon after, revealing another grand room that made Siwon’s and Yunho’s footsteps echo. Yunho looked around carefully, checking the room for any suspicious people or objects. Even if the Eryn had been looking forward to Siwon’s arrival, it did not rule out the possibility of an ambush. It was his task to protect the prince and to ensure his safety.
He folded the clothing the Eryn had given them to shield the golden details on their uniforms that had attracted the large creature’s interest. Siwon wanted to ask the King to find the one who had come to their rescue. The prince felt grateful and wanted to properly show his gratitude toward the brave Eryn.
Sulli’s eyes widened when the large doors to the throne room opened for the Mountain Prince, slowing to an elegant walk with her brother’s hand in her own as she slipped behind their father’s throne, the twisting ivory woods hiding them mostly from view, as if they had been there the whole time.
“It is good to see you have arrived well,” the King said in his silky voice that seemed to fill the entire entrance hall as he stood with arms wide in a friendly greeting to Siwon. He stepped forward and patted Siwon strongly on the arm, grasping his hand in a strong greeting befitting of his royal nature, though the Eryn King was certainly friendlier than most kings were.
He was more beautiful than most of the haggard old kings of the realm too, long dark hair pulled back with beads woven into it where it sat over his shoulder. His crown was not an overly decorated hunk of metal, but simple curling silver that sat on his forehead, fixed with chains that too wove into his dark ebony hair. But he had presence, and his eyes held wisdom of many an Eryn decade of rulership.
“Thank you for your kind welcome, King Jaejoong. My father sends his regards from the vast mountain.” Siwon gave a warm, charming smile and a nod, squeezing the hand in his own. His dark eyes glanced to the throne and the ones shielded behind it. The smile lingered on his face when the prince turned to Yunho and motioned for him to step forward. Yunho knelt on one knee and raised the neatly folded garments.
“My father intended to present you with one of the finest swords crafted in my kingdom, but I feel ashamed to admit I lost it when fleeing from one of the forest’s creatures.” Siwon bowed once more, cheeks burning slightly in embarrassment as he recalled all the tripping, stumbling and falling during their journey.
“An Eryn came to our aid, shed his jacket and dress shirt to cover me and my emissary from the creature. It feels impolite to instantly ask a favour, but I’d like to ask for your kindness and find the owner of these garments so that I and my companion can show our gratitude.” Siwon spoke firmly and took the clothing from Yunho, who stayed kneeling beside the prince with his head lowered. Siwon caressed the silk fabric with a grateful look.
The King eyed the leather and silk items with a raised brow. They looked like the custom items the previous suitor of his daughter had gifted Kyuhyun. Had somebody broken into the palace and stolen the one-of-a-kind items?
“My son, please step forward,” King Jaejoong called, waving his son forward and away from the cover the throne gave him from the eyes of the strangers in their fair kingdom.
“Yes, father?” Kyuhyun asked with his eyes lowered, not because he was shy, but because he didn’t want his father to see the mirth in his eyes. He had saved the so-called ‘Prince of the Mountains’, the strong and mighty warrior of the Gollums, from a Roc and watched him stumble through the forest like he had drunk too much honeyed wine.
“These are yours, are they not? Have thieves taken to our home, or were you outside the palace gates, again?”
Kyuhyun didn’t know what to answer. If he lied, then some poor commoner would be punished for him holding his tongue, and the truth would certainly earn him extra studies with the magemother as punishment for disobeying the King’s request for Sulli and Kyuhyun to remain in the safety of the palace unless accompanied by guards.
“I… was outside, father.” Kyuhyun chewed his lip.
“You truly are my son,” he laughed. “I am glad you arrived unscathed, though, the forests can be quite daunting for someone who has not walked her paths before.” Jaejoong seemed to drop the subject and let a page take the dirtied clothing, letting Kyuhyun return to his rightful place behind the throne.
“Though I am stalling, we should get to introductions,” the King announced with a clap of his hands, returning to sit on his throne with a smile. “My son, though wild as he is, would be happy to assist you through the forests should you need a guide while you are here. Kyuhyun, this is the mighty Prince Siwon, heir to the Orod throne.”
The word was probably alien to Siwon and Yunho themselves, for Orod was the elvish word for mountain, the Eryn people keeping a lot of their heritage through words long dead in the common tongue.
Kyuhyun bowed with a bit of a smirk at Siwon that his father could not see, one that showed that Kyuhyun was smug about saving the ‘mighty’ Siwon.
“Siwon, this is my jewel, my pride, my daughter Sulli.” Jaejoong held out his hand and Sulli took it, gracefully stepping around the throne with her father’s hand in hers, and curtsying to Siwon with a shy smile.
“It is very nice to meet you, sir,” she said, and her voice was soft and wistful. She seemed to have taken a liking to the terribly handsome and almost humble man before them. She would never have expected one of her suitors to be kind enough to return the linens of a commoner, even one that had saved them. It was a good start to their potential relationship already.
Yunho kept his eyes on Kyuhyun, who seemed to mind his own business after the King had introduced him. So, a prince had saved them. That would make it more difficult for Yunho to show his dislike towards the one who had treated Siwon like a common traveller instead of the prince he was.
Siwon did not appear bothered by Kyuhyun’s true identity. Though the King had forcefully shifted Siwon’s attention from his son to his beautiful daughter, the Prince of the Mountains would use another moment to thank the Eryn Prince.
Almost gracefully, Siwon stepped forward and knelt with a lowered head. “My fair lady, your beautiful, pale, moon-like skin looks as pure as the fallen snow that I am fortunate enough to admire in the mountains. It is an honour and a privilege to meet you.” Siwon slowly raised his head with a kind smile and held out his hand for the princess to place her delicate one on. Sulli immediately looked to her father for permission, before the King himself put her hand where she wanted it, right in Siwon’s own.
“Kind prince, you flatter me, I feel I might blush,” she giggled, and true enough her pale beauty began to tinge pink around the edges from such a handsome man complimenting her with such wonderfully charming manners.
Kyuhyun rolled his eyes. His sister was already falling for this prince’s charms and they had barely known each other for moments. Kyuhyun was jealous because he was the only man in Sulli’s heart until now, and he did not want to lose his best friend and sister to some hulking brute.
“Orod Prince, you and your companion must be tired, let me you to your quarters,” Kyuhyun said, breaking the moment Siwon was having with his sister.
“Ah, so true, the journey from the mountains to here must have been long. Rest now, and we shall speak again at the feast tonight.” King Jaejoong luckily went with Kyuhyun’s words. It gave Kyuhyun an excuse to separate the bumbling prince from his sister, even if just for a short while.
“Thank you for your consideration, if you’ll excuse us, my emissary and I shall rest as you suggest.” Siwon stood and raised Sulli’s hand, kissing the back of it like a true gentleman before he lowered it and let the hand slowly slide from his own. “We will meet again soon, my princess.” Siwon gave a small nod towards Sulli and also the King before he motioned for Yunho to stand.
The emissary did as commanded and wiped his slightly aching knee. He should be used to it after several years at Siwon’s side, but this had taken longer than he had expected. To show his gratitude, Yunho bowed deeply and silently walked along Siwon’s side as they neared the one who would guide them to the quarters where they could rest and refresh.
Kyuhyun did not share any polite chitchat with the pair as he led them to their quarters, which were not far from his own. And, much like his own, the large room consisted of two very large beds on either side of the room and a small area made of polished stone where the wash basins and everything else needed to clean and primp royalty was located.
The emissary and Siwon were to share a room much like Kyuhyun and Sulli did. If they wanted privacy, there was a silk curtain that pulled easily to partition the room and allow some modesty while dressing if required.
“Orod Prince, here is your quarters. If you need assistance pull on this rope.” Kyuhyun stepped into the room to demonstrate his instructions on a red velvet rope that hung from the ceiling. He pulled it, and within moments a servant boy appeared, holding soft towels for the guests from the mountains to use after bathing.
“If that is all, I shall take my leave of you.” He tried to exit, wanting simply to return to his room in peace before he had to entertain the kingdom at the feast that night.
“Wait! I have yet to thank you for your bravery.” Siwon turned to the departing Eryn Prince and Yunho was beside Kyuhyun within seconds, knowing it was inappropriate to touch one of higher rank and settling for a gesture that told Kyuhyun he had to wait.
The Prince of the Mountains took the towels from the servant’s hands and gave a smile before turning to Kyuhyun.
“My emissary and I might not have made it if you hadn’t come to our aid. I sincerely want to thank you for going out of your way to rescue strangers,” he said, and gave a slight bow, as he was accustomed to doing when thanking someone.
Kyuhyun turned, holding his tongue for the most part as he faced Siwon. “Orod Prince, it would do you good to remember to accept help from strangers, no matter how strange. You never know, they might turn out to be a prince and take it as an insult,” he said, making sure that Siwon knew he did not appreciate his advice being ignored twice and being treated like an annoying commoner during his moment with the Roc. He didn’t have to help, but he did, and Siwon would do well to remember that his advice would have saved him the effort of returning his linens had he listened to him first.
With those words he pushed passed Yunho and the servant before returning to his own room just across the hall, finding his sister already perched on her bed, painting her face for the feast that evening.
“Isn’t he charming, Kyu? And so handsome! I was expecting some rock calloused brute, not such a soft man,” Sulli cooed as Kyuhyun set about taking off his clothes to bathe properly after his day outside. He needed more of a wash than just his face.
“I was expecting a well-trained warrior of honour,” Kyuhyun seethed slightly.
“Oh, he is, isn’t he? So wonderful, so much better than my last suitor!”
Kyuhyun let Sulli go on, she was smitten by Siwon’s good looks and well-placed charms.
Meanwhile, Yunho scoffed after the servant left as well. The nerve. How dare the prince take on such a tone to Prince Siwon? Had he truly expected them to arrive at the palace barely clothed?
“Absurd.” Yunho commented as Siwon was unbuttoning his jacket in silence.
The Prince of the Mountain kept silent, feeling quite embarrassed that the young Kyuhyun was clearly offended by Siwon’s lack of trust in his words. At the time, the suggestion to take off their clothing was ridiculous, and Siwon hadn’t understood what difference it would make until Kyuhyun explained the bird was after the shining gold.
Siwon let the jacket slip from his shoulders and folded it, placing it on his bed and reaching up for the buttons on his white dress shirt as well. He had hoped Kyuhyun would accept his sincere gratitude, but perhaps what the younger one wanted was an apology.
“Will you be wearing your white attire, sir?” Yunho asked as Siwon removed his shirt and unbuckled his belt.
After confirming his emissary’s question with a silent nod, the prince excused himself and went over to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. There was no point in dwelling on what happened in the forest. Tonight, he had to look good for Kyuhyun’s beautiful sister, Sulli. A smile appeared in his reflection. Sulli, his potential bride, aah, she was truly beautiful.