A memory surfaces.

A grassy clearing full of sun-drenched flowers, early afternoon light casting heart-shaped shadows through the high canopy. Hands as warm and rough as his own. A vibrant smile he could never forget; a laugh that could shake the trees.

Raph was a child in this memory, a mere eleven years of age. He stands in that same clearing, now, a man of almost twenty-four, and feels like an entirely different person.

It's been ten years since he last saw the boy he once spent so many afternoons here with, ten years since he was even able to find this place.

Even now, he's not quite sure how he stumbled upon it. He's been wandering the forest since sun-high, about an hour's distance from the rest of his hunting party—not that they'll be looking very hard for him; his Guard know very well how much he likes to hunt alone. Raph could cast a stone in any one direction and claim that's the way he came, having gotten distracted somewhere along the way, and yet, as soon as he steps foot into the clearing with the great mossy oak at its heart, he knows exactly where he is.

Raph's steps are measured as he makes his way toward the great oak. Approaching winter has made the branches begin to bare, but the moss that crawls all the way up its massive trunk remains the same healthy green it's always been. More memories circulate, memories of being young and nimble, of climbing up to the lowest branch and leaning into a familiar side, of silly jokes and reckless dares.

Raph reaches up and feathers his fingertips along the years-old knife strokes carved into the tree. Tallies—one for every year they knew each other. There were twelve when he was here last, before the castle Guard found the cottage, before he was stolen away to live the life of a royal. Of a king.

Now, however, there are no longer twelve tallies on the tree, but twenty-two.

"Philos," Raph whispers, his heart in his throat.

To the right and about a half-hour’s walk into the woods, Raph knows, lies the cottage he grew up in. The cottage he once thought he might inherit, he and—

Before he can stop himself, Raph takes a breath and goes right.

The clinking of his sword against his hip follows him through the trees, as he walks and walks down a path that feels more familiar than it looks. The ghost of a younger Raph skips along in his shoes. One glance up tells him that the sun is still high—that he has time.

“Sire,” the head of his Royal Guard says at the most recent edges of his memory, “are you sure now is the best time to be heading into the forest on your own?”

“Do you question my ability to defend myself, Sir Lyonel?” Raph retorts as he buckles the belt of his sheathe. His tone is stern, but his smile is playful.

Sir Lyonel doesn’t laugh. His eyes survey the treeline; his hand never leaves the hilt of his sword. “I just mean, Your Highness, that the realm grieves the death of your father, the King, but some celebrate.”

Raph huffs. “Can’t say I blame them.”

“Be careful, My Lord. Your coronation is not for another day, and there are those who would wish to take the throne while it is most vulnerable,” Sir Lyonel warns, something grave in his tone. “Especially when he who claims it is but a bastard.”

Raph flinches, blinking out of the memory to find that he’s reached a recess in the trees. Sunlight shines, unfiltered, through a wide opening in the canopy, and resting right in the center of it is a small wattle and daub cottage with a dried straw roof. Harvesting a few untouched herbs out front is the woman Raph used to consider his mother, the woman who took him in, nursed him, and raised him as her own, even though he wasn’t.

“Catrin,” Raph calls before he can think better of it. His heart pounds as the woman straightens through the spine and turns her head.

“Oh!” she exclaims, confusion in her soft eyes. “You’re quite a ways from the road, my boy. Are you lost?”

Raph laughs, venturing a few careful steps closer. He wasn’t very far away to begin with, but now he’s close enough to see the smile lines that dig into the woman’s cheeks.

“No,” Raph says. “No, I—I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

Catrin tilts her head to the side as she looks at him, at his face and the long, sleek waves of his dark hair; at the fine material of his blouse and the sword strapped to his hip. She must notice the seal carved into the hilt—the King’s seal—for her dark eyes go wide. When she looks back up, there’s recognition there.

“Gods, it can’t be,” she breathes, bringing a thin hand up to his face. A featherlight touch, as gentle as he remembers.

Raph wraps loose fingers around Catrin’s wrist, leaning into her touch and feeling like he’s thirteen years old again. “It’s me,” he says. “It’s Raphael.”

“It’s been years,” Catrin whispers thickly. She takes another look at him. “Gods, look at you. You’re a king now.”

Raph laughs, a humorless sound. “Not quite yet.”

Catrin’s following scoff is spiteful, her voice firm when she says, “I would have given anything to have hidden you from them forever. Your mother brought you here so that you’d never have to bear such an awful burden as being King, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to protect her wish.”

“I would have given anything to have been able to stay here, with you. With—” Raph cuts off, the ball of emotion in his throat suddenly too thick to speak, to breathe. He hangs his head in shame, the dulled ache of sorrow glowing like an ember in his veins.

Catrin’s expression softens. Her free hand finds its way to his. “He’s here,” she tells him, gently. “Would you like me to fetch him?”

Raph sucks in a shaky breath, his heart doing flips against his ribcage. How silly this reaction is. He’s almost a king, trained to intimidate the most stoic of men in the wake of battle, and yet, here he is, losing face at the idea of seeing a boy he knew a decade ago.

He swallows around the lump in his throat. “Thank you, Catrin, but I don’t think that that’s—”

“Mother?” a man’s voice calls from inside the house. Raph’s heart falls into his stomach, his feet frozen to the earth, as he looks toward the door. “Mother, who are you talking t—”

Philos stops in the doorway, his eyes—those same forest-colored eyes—taking in Raph first, then his mother, their hands, the sword at Raph’s side. There’s something hard in the look on his face, in the rigid line of his shoulders, that Raph doesn’t recognize. He’d dreamed about this moment for years, had imagined a million different ways Philos could have grown up, but this—

“Hello, Philos,” Raph says, finally, and has only the gods to thank for the steadiness in his voice. He can only hope he looks as put-together as he sounds.

Philos’s eyes dart up to Raph’s, but they do not soften. “Your highness,” he returns, and his voice is just as cold.

Hurt blooms inside Raph at his old friend’s rejection, but he doesn’t show it. When Catrin reprimands her son for his ill manners, Raph smiles softly and tells her it’s alright.

“May we walk?” he politely asks, gesturing toward the woods.

After a moment of hesitation, and though he doesn’t seem very inclined, Philos dips his head in agreement. Raph doesn’t let himself think that it’s because a common man would never hope to deny a king anything he requests. Raph doesn’t want to be a king here. Not in this place, not to him.

For a long while, they walk in silence. The air is as tense as it is humid, and Raph wants more than anything to break the horrid silence, but he can’t seem to find the words.

Eventually, it’s Philos who speaks.

“Why did you come here?” he asks, none too kindly. “After all this time, why now?”

When Raph glances over at him, his eyes are glued to the trees. His profile is striking in the dappled light, his features far more mature than Raph remembers. His dark hair is longer, too, tied back into a worker's bun to keep it out of his face.

Consequences, Raph supposes, of leaving a boy and returning to a man.

“In truth, it was an accident,” Raph admits. Philos scoffs, a far cry from the soft-hearted boy Raph once knew. “I couldn’t find you, Philos. They covered my eyes after they took me so I wouldn’t know the way. I searched for you at every chance I got, but the realm is so big. There are so many trees, and none of them looked familiar. I’m so sorry.”

For a long moment, Philos says nothing. The rough material of his pants makes a strange sound as he continues to walk, nothing else but birdsong to be heard.

Then, Philos laughs, a pitiful sound that carries very little humor. “I was so angry at you for so long,” he murmurs, his steps slowing. “I thought I had dealt with it, had put it all behind me, but then I saw you standing outside with your hunting leather and your King's sword, and it all came rushing back.”

Raph’s heart twists, and he slows, too. “It wasn’t my choice to leave.”

“I understand that now. But back then, I didn’t know what to feel. I was young, and you were one of two people in this entire kingdom that I loved, and then, suddenly, you were gone, and you—you never came back.”

Raph halts abruptly, feeling like his chest is splintering. “I tried to come back, Philos, I did.”

“It doesn’t matter,” argues Philos, turning to face his old friend. “You were gone to be a prince, to be a king, and for ten years, you didn’t return. What was I to think, Raph?”

Raph stumbles over himself in an effort to find something to say, something better than I’m sorry, but all he can think is how good it feels to be called by his name. How good it feels to talk to someone like an equal, to have words without the threat of the throne looming overhead.

“Gods, I missed you,” Raph confesses, something bitter and lonely making it impossible to hold his tongue.

At this, Philos deflates. His lovely forest-green eyes finally soften like his mother’s, his frown turning into the smallest of smiles like he can’t quite help it. He shakes his head in incredulity and begins to walk again. Raph grins and follows.

“You don’t walk like a king, you know,” Philos quips. Raph is relieved to hear that his tone has turned playful.

“Yeah? And what, exactly, does a king walk like?”

“You know—” Philos arches his back as if to support a massive gut and widens his gate, swinging his arms along with his obnoxious steps and kicking up leaves as he goes. Raph can’t help but laugh.

“I’m sure any king that walks like that is one far too proud of the title.”

“Not you, though, right?”

Raph hums in agreeance. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. Being royalty, I mean. I don’t feel like it. I was raised to feed pigs and climb trees, not lead armies and boss people around. That’s all I feel like I do these days. I can’t even dress my own bed. How absurd is that?”

“That is rather absurd,” Philos laughs, a lilting sound that seems to make the air shimmer. “But is it really so bad? You have more money than you could ever hope to spend, you’re draped in the finest clothing in the world, and you have the right to demand the utmost respect from even the highest of nobles. You even have a wife to share your bed." He says the last part in a strange tone. Raph wonders if he’s only imagining the bitterness he hears there.

“You heard of the union,” Raph decides to say.

“Of course, I did. We may be treated as outcasts, but this is still our kingdom, just as you are still our king.”

“Almost king,” Raph corrects, to which Philos waves a dismissive hand. Raph glances out at the forest with emptiness in his heart. “I didn’t choose to marry Elyse. When my father first fell ill and it became apparent that the Paridons were willing to take the throne by force, my father’s closest advisor introduced the idea of a union as a last desperate resort. It wasn’t hard to tell that he didn’t mean for the king, and as the king’s only known heir, it was not in my right to say no.”

They’ve stopped again, facing each other without meeting each other’s eyes. They’re closer like this, barely an arm’s length apart.

Philos’s silence is thoughtful before he says, “Does that mean you don’t love her?”

Raph sighs. “She’s lovely and kind, and I suppose I should. But no. As fate would have it, my heart lies elsewhere.”

Their eyes meet, like a river meets the ocean, and Raph finds himself lost just below the surface. It’s hard to breathe underwater, so he holds his breath.

“Would you trade it?” Philos asks, something like hope in his voice. “The glory, the title, the whole kingdom at your fingertips, all of it, to have this again—this disheveled cottage, this common life, this...” He takes a breath, like he’s inhaling courage, and says, “Us.”

Raph swallows. Exhales. His heart glows and burns all at once. Deciding quickly that there’s no better time to be reckless, Raph reaches down to where Philos’s hand rests at his side and intertwines their fingers. It feels foreign in a familiar kind of way, like reigniting a long forgotten flame. It’s not the first time they’ve done this, but it’s the first time as adults rather than children. The first time as a man and a soon-to-be king, whose worlds are impossibly far apart but still interwoven at the roots.

Raph looks at the boy he once knew, and the man that he’s become, and knows his answer. He’s always known.

“No amount of gold or silk in the world,” says Raph, “could make me miss the throne more than I miss you.”

Philos inhales sharply, his eyes falling closed. His free hand finds its way to Raph’s nape, their similar heights making it easy to lean their foreheads together. For a long moment, they just breathe each other in.

“Gods, if they saw us like this, they would have us both killed,” Raph whispers, his voice trembling. “But I can’t make myself care.”

“Won’t they be searching for you?” Philos asks. His breath breaks against Raph’s lips.

Raph wants to say no, wants to believe that he can stay here for a night, for a week, for the rest of his life, without consequence. But the sunlight falls at an angle now, the shadows stretching longer. Evening is approaching, and Raph knows he has to say goodbye.

He takes a deep breath and squeezes Philos’s hand. “Come on,” he says instead, pulling away just enough to look.

Philos’s frowns at him curiously, but lets himself be led away anyway.


By the time they make it to the clearing, the sky is an array of pinks and purples. Philos is painted a soft, rosy gold in the fading light, and he has never looked more beautiful.

Raph’s fingertips find their way back to the marks on the great oak tree, the first twelve closer to the roots, then the longer ten a ways above.

“If you thought I’d never come back, why did you keep up with the tallies?” Raph asks into the silence.

Philos grins, a soft thing that makes him look thirteen again. “I suppose some part of me held hope,” he answers simply and squeezes their joined hands. “For good reason.”

Raph smiles and squeezes back.

When Philos looks to him again, his eyes find where the collar of Raph’s shirt falls open, where he knows, just beneath, lies the birthmark that had given him away when he was thirteen. There’s something heavy in his eyes as he stares, something that makes Raph’s heart twist in his chest.

“Will you return?” asks Philos, hardly audible even in the stillness of the evening.

“Always,” Raph promises because, now that he knows where to look, nothing could ever keep him away again.

With a sigh, Raph presses a lingering kiss to Philos’s forehead and turns away.

Tomorrow, he’ll be crowned.

Today, he is twenty-two tallies on a tree, carved by a boy that will always call him Raph, and not King.


[A/N: Credit for the title goes to BTS, and their song "Let Me Know".]

July 23, 2020 09:17

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Jonathan Blaauw
13:26 Jul 29, 2020

Firstly, a point of clarification quick. Your bio says 20. Is that like 20 years old, or 20 years of writing experience? Because the way this is written I’d guess the latter. It is incredible! Everything – the dialogue, pacing, emotional build-up, the ending, has a professional smoothness that even more than two decades of writing experience sometimes doesn’t produce. One thing that I did notice – you tend towards long sentences at times. I was delighted by this because that’s something I do naturally, but while mine often come out hard to ...


Taylor Arbuckle
15:33 Jul 29, 2020

Well, technically, it's both. I am twenty years old, but I've been writing since I could pick up a pen (seriously, ask anyone), so I guess you could say I've had quite a while to improve. Thank you so much, that means so much to me. Also, I'm really glad that you pointed that out because I've seen so many people try and police their sentences so as to avoid the "ugly run-ons," but I will always advocate for the run-on rather than the staccato. At the end of the day, it's the style of the story that dictates syntax. If it's an action/suspe...


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