"Another battle lost, Elf King."

The Wizard King, Eric Cartman, looked down upon his prize captives. The battle had started late at night, and the stars could still be seen in purple skies upon its ending. The fog had cleared, and fresh snow covered the fallen.

"Getting yourself captured is a problem for the both of us, you know?" Cartman sighed with disdain, having declared a special war tribunal to decide the fate of his rival and his faithful knight. The rest of the elven army had managed to retreat into the woods, so Cartman asked, "What was it that kept you from retreating?"

With one eye covered by bloodied field dressings, Kyle looked to the armored general that had appeared in the sky and kept him from retreating as he should have, haunted by the memory of the person the winged unicorn had borne before them. "The rider. Who is she?"

Cartman extended a hand to his right, gesturing for them to step forward and remove their helmet, uncovering blonde hair braided in green ribbons. "Allow me to introduce Valkyrie Marjorine, riding to honor the memory of our fallen Princess Kenny."

"Butters," Kyle pleaded vainly, wincing as the wounds on his arms throbbed against fresh sutures.

"Paladin Butters, the Merciful, has also fallen," Marjorine spoke coldly, "Pierced through the heart by a fateful arrow. I ride to honor his memory as well."

Kyle developed a grim sense of what may happen now that the wizard king's council had lost the temperance of Kenny and Butters. Stan was silent beside him, and Kyle drew strength from the stoicism he displayed, asking Cartman, "You said capturing me is a problem for you...How?"

Cartman explained, "Once you've captured the king, the fighting is supposed to end. You surrender or you die."

Kyle asserted, "I will never surrender."

Cartman shrugged his shoulders with his palms held out before him. "And I would never kill you. Thankfully, in my wisdom, I have come up with a solution."

The wizard retrieved the Stick of Truth from a safe place of holding, and it made Kyle fearful, enrtreating, "What are you doing with the stick?"

The wizard moved closer to Kyle, circling behind him. He made his intentions clear, seemingly proud to have formed the idea. "If you will not surrender and I cannot kill you, then I must make you lose legitimacy as the Elven King, for which there is no pure-blood heir. All I have to do is use the stick to remove your voice and your hearing."

"What is that supposed to accomplish?" Kyle spoke with too little air, breathlessly gasping as his heart drummed in his chest. Loose snow was compacted under heavy feet. The birds chirped fretfully for the guardian of their forest and Stan had to be restrained by Token, losing his still demeanor all at once.

Reaching around him, Cartman held the end of the stick to Kyle's throat. "It is written in your holy books, that in the eyes of the law, the deaf-mute are no better than fools, and as such they can make no claim to titles or property."

Stan despaired as his king's regal bearing was diminished by fear, pleading, "You can't use the stick like this, it's wrong!"

Cartman affirmed the truth of the power he held in his hand, saying simply, "The stick is never wrong."

Kyle pleaded too, telling himself that some part of the wizard could still be reasoned with. "It corrupts people. It has only ever been used to commit what is wrong. Destroy the stick, please. What honor can you give the late princess while that thing yet remains?"

This gave Cartman pause. The death of Princess Kenny, fallen to the influence of the stick, had brought them together to cast the artifact into the frozen depths of the Sea of Starks...However, Cartman was not content to let it sit there until it was taken by someone else. He recovered the stick, and war engulfed Zaron all over again. He was bound to put an end to it somehow, striking a bargain with Kyle. "If you can lead an army without hearing them or speaking to them, then I'll destroy the stick."

Kyle's pleas died in his throat as a blue light shone upon him. Kyle's seeing eye flew open wide in terror. His quivering fingers shot up to his frost-bitten ears. The last thing he heard was the villain's voice, whispering,"If there was anyone who could prove the stick of truth wrong, it would be you."

Then there was silence.

Kyle expelled air from his lungs, hoarsely wheezing, unable to make an utterance of sound. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he cried in agony, cut off from the world he had known so full of sound. Stan was upon him, hoisting him to his feet, pulling him away.

The wizard turned his back and let them go, seeing no semblance of his rival in the broken elf.

Hooves thudded on cold and muddy earth. Snow gave way to oppressive pales of rain that drummed over wet cloaks. Kyle held tightly to Stan, feeling his chest heave with shouts to spur their steed. There was nothing left to stimulate his pointed ears except for hollow, thudding vibrations. All the way home he hung his head against Stan's back.

No one else yet knew of the damage the wizard had inflicted, only that Kyle had lost the battle, and so they did not question their lord's behavior as he hung sullenly, silently, against his champion, led toward his chambers to recuperate.

In the stonework baths of the king's quarters, Stan peeled away layers of cold, wet clothing and red, ruined bandages until they were both made bare. Sat facing each other beside an open fire heating a cauldron of water, he beheld Kyle's downward, unfocused gaze. There used to be a great mane of silken crimson wool on his head, and a crown wreathed with gold. Riding from one battlefield to the next in a new war, his hair had been cut close, and the gold wreath was replaced by a crown made of antlers, emblematic of the elf's austerity, struggling against the war-hungry humans that heedlessly leveled forests and mountains to barricade and arm themselves.

"Kyle," Stan murmured. He reached out slowly and cupped Kyle's face in his hands, raising his gaze to meet him. "Kyle," he sounded again, with deliberate clarity in the way his mouth formed the syllables.

Kyle raised a hand to squeeze Stan's, mouthing his name in return. Stan. A hiss between his teeth and a stamp of his tongue to the roof of his mouth, spurned by clammy breath. Words they had exchanged enough to read from lips. The knight's right hand was pulled down to the breast of the king. A bruise marred the flesh, but underneath, his heart was still beating lively.

Assured of his lord's resilience, Stan pulled his hands away to soak and wring out a wash cloth over Kyle, flushing water over his wounds and gently patting him dry, thinking over the disastrous battle and how each wound on them had been formed.

Kyle's left ankle was swollen, rolled at an odd angle over uneven terrain obscured in the dense fog. Bruises from close quarters melee had formed on his chest, hip, and abdomen. A gash ran up the underside of his left forearm, coming perilously close to the wrist, raised but unsuccessful in diverting a concealed knife that had been thrust at his eye. The tip had stuck him, and it blotted half of his sight with blindness.

Their wounds from battle had gone ignored by the capable healer Marjorine, but Token at least obliged to perform first aid with all the delicate care one could expect from an ex-blacksmith.

Stan's own wounds...He had hardly given them any thought. Each shout of pain from Kyle in the field was etched into his mind, while the blows inflicted on him blurred together until they caught up with him all at once. His helmet had absorbed much of the blow of a mace, but it had staggered him and rendered the helmet useless for the remainder of combat. Glancing wounds bit him all over after running the gauntlet again and again to secure the safety of his king. The bones in his hands ached from swinging his sword, having it collide and reverberate against an opposing force, having to struggle for the advantage to score a blow, it proved painful to form a fist at all.

Kyle took up a second cloth to wash Stan's wounds. He was able to forget how much he missed the sounds of crackling fire and lapping waves as he put the whole of his awareness into the tactile sensations of radiating heat, flowing water, and skin brushing over skin.

Once they were dried, Stan doused the fire, loosely taking Kyle's hand in his own to lead him to bed.

Stan remained up and Kyle watched him, stretching and bending his naked body to assemble the little apothecary he had in his traveling gear. Kyle admired all of the effects of Stan that were kept in his room. Weapons, armor, maps, minerals, plants, and the lute he sometimes played. Stan kept his footprint light, thinking their arrangement was improper given his status, but Kyle considered it their room.

Kyle, the bachelor elf king, insisted on having his human knight sleep in his bed chambers, and they shared the same tent in the field as well. It didn't take the enemy wizard to make up propaganda about their torrid affair. At social functions they shared the first and last dance, at meals they ate off of each other's plates, and they had been caught in various states of undress together often enough to make Marshwalker's title of 'bodyguard' an inside joke.

Their closeness was celebrated by the king's vanguard, but the elder elves in the capital shunned them. It was shameful for an elf to court a human, a simple creature that lived a tenth of an elf's lifespan at best. More shameful still for that human to be of such low birth as to be found orphaned in the marshlands. If Kyle's legitimacy as king came into question under the law, those dogmatic ancients would lead the charge to dethrone him.

"Just relax," Stan pleaded, delicately massaging an herbal salve over Kyle's inflamed ankle, feeling rigidity in the muscles of his foot. He bowed his head to kiss Kyle's shin and his message was better received, leading to a slackening of tense flesh.

Familiar scents wafted up to Kyle, reagents of the ranger's salves. Stan had gone over each in exhaustive detail before, but the king would only ever smile and nod as he was pampered. A swampy root that smelled like marshmallow, a pulpy bark like cinnamon, and the oil of some savory leaf that was also used to flavor gamey meat in the wild, extracted and combined to make soothing lotion.

Kyle noticed Stan's hands trembling with ache trying to fasten a bandage around his ankle, and he sat up to assist. Working together, Stan would softly knead one salve or the other on an injury, and Kyle would secure bandaging over it. The king winced through the application and attention to the gash in his arm, but with everything else dressed, they had to deal with his eye.

Kissing his forehead, Stan dabbed the cotton-wrapped tip of a swab into a green jelly and carefully stroked a thin layer over Kyle's closed eyelid. It felt pleasing and cooling on contact and Kyle was relieved to be spared some pain, securing a patch over his eye.

They fell beside each other, maneuvering under layers of masterwork blankets and silken sheets to sink into the feather-light mattress beneath them.

The big spoon, Kyle's sir knight, fell asleep in record time, breathing against the elf's long ear. The rhythm of his shifting chest and the rush of billowing breath was comforting, but Kyle had always relied on sounds to put him to sleep. The wind scratching its back on the window, the drum of rain on glass, the croak of frogs, the chirps of crickets, and most of all the sounds of his bedmate.

Stan awoke to find Kyle burrowing at his chest and kneading fingers over his shoulders, trying to rouse him. He hugged his king tightly and his arm muscles felt even heavier after trying to exert themselves.

"You can't sleep?" Stan brushed his fingers over Kyle's scalp, seeing frustration in the knit of his brow.

"Sleep?" Stan repeated with more diction, and Kyle shook his head. Stan sagged with weariness, combing Kyle's hair in his fingers, languidly lifting his eyelids each time he realized they were closed again and he was nearly asleep. Kyle nudged him pleadingly, fearing a long and silent night to himself.

Stan came close to whisper in Kyle's ear, and his voice buzzed with pleasant vibration. Three single-syllable words judging by the pauses between. Kyle pulled away with curiosity plain on his face, and Stan repeated, "I love you."

Kyle clasped a hand to his eye, stinging as he teared up. Kyle kissed Stan on the lips and mouthed, "I love you too," lacing arms around his back and tangling their legs together.

Stan droned low melodies in Kyle's ear and listened carefully to his breathing. He held the line fighting against sleep until the king was peacefully under, heaving a pleased sigh and following after.

In rare form, Kyle woke up before Stan the next morning, with many of the aches and pains of last night finding him again in the light of the rising sun. The songbirds by the window, each of them named by Stan and Kyle during lazy mornings past, chirped fruitlessly at the master of the domain. The king found himself bound in the stiff, bandaged arms of his stalwart protector, and had to slither down out of his looping grip to get free, rolling out of bed to slouch into the stool before his writing desk.

Stan awoke to the furious scratching of Kyle's quill on parchment, mustering his strength to crawl over the bed and peer at the writing.

Kyle deposited his quill in its inkwell, passing the drying note to Stan, which read:

"The wizard king is as cruel and unusual as always. I do not doubt that he has done the research into the laws of my people seeking a means to dethrone me, however, I am no less a king than I was yesterday. Send word for Jimmy to travel with my writ to Cartman for a temporary cessation of war. You and I shall travel to a place of sanctuary, with word that the king needs to recover. Retrieve the following tomes and reagents for druidic magicks..."

Stan skimmed the rest of the list and nodded pointedly, bracing an arm over his chest in salute before hurrying to dress: tugging on thin, tanned leather breeches, calf-high boots, and a long, gray tunic. Kyle resisted dressing, but after enough prodding he slipped into a white night gown. Stan wanted to expedite the preparations as much as possible, but he would not condone them passing on breakfast, so at the least they could tuck into what was left in his pack.

"You need to eat." Stan implored, seeing Kyle's annoyance as he dallied to bring a bundle of food over to his writing desk.

"Eat." he repeated, tearing a ration of bread in half to give to Kyle, setting out small jars of yeasty vegetable paste, fruity jams, and smoked kippers.

Kyle took a bite of bread and strawberry jam before pointing at the food and then to Stan impatiently.

"Alright, I'll just worry about feeding myself and getting a move on. But you missed a spot." Stan dipped down, kissing and licking away a sweet morsel from the edge of Kyle's lip before taking his food to go.

Fingers clasped about Stan's wrist and held him from stepping away. He was given a third note by Kyle, folded into a compact square, addressed to him. Stan would have read it then but Kyle was up in a huff and batting it out of his hand, shoving it into Stan's pocket.

Stan laughed, "For later, I understand now."

Kyle returned to his desk and Stan took long, fast strides away to the archives.

There were multiple missives the king had to write to buy the time he needed. Hearing nothing, staring cock-eyed at a page with the quill shaking in his grasp...The task spoiled into an ordeal. His eyes and ears held the blankness of the page and it daunted him, left his body as still as a statue, hunched over with indignity.

Ink trawled over the page from the tip of the quill, blotting through to stain the desk, leaving a great blemish that made the king swell with irritation, crumpling and then ripping the paper in his hands.

Ripped paper fell like moulted snake skins around Kyle, with each terminated page bearing only single syllables before being deemed unworthy. A mounting sense of failure constricted him, made his attempts less frequent.


The symbols slithered meekly from the king's quill and he would not accept it, tearing the sheet and starting anew. He strained so hard to hear it rip that a high-pitched ringing manifested itself in his ears.

"The King..."

Discarded parchment curled in on itself and brushed against Kyle's bare feet. His thin fingers were spotty with black ink, and he carelessly wiped them off on his night clothes.

Cartman's parting words haunted him, such a contemptible voice to be the last thing he heard...

"If there was anyone who could prove the stick of truth wrong, it would be you."

Was it a sporting challenge? Or was he being manipulated somehow? To be attacked while the king is in hiding...His kingdom could topple in one night, and he would be entombed by the wreckage. Kyle winced in pain, bowing his head and cupping his hands to his ears.

He had set a hard date in his writ to Cartman, a date where he would ride to meet the wizard in another battle for survival. He had no choice but to undertake the challenge that had been given to him; the stick's truth would prevent him from speaking or hearing, but he had to lead his army all the same, keeping his handicap a secret.

Everything depended on him finding a solution, and he prayed it would be bound in the magic tomes of his druidic ancestry.

Kyle breathed deeply, trying to find peace in his mind, when suddenly the smell of strawberry jam lifted him up. He would not be alone, bowed in study and prayer. Stan would be there. If everyone in his army was just as attentive to his wishes as Stan was, perhaps this wouldn't be so difficult.

Kyle picked up the piece of bread slathered in jam that Stan had left for him and took to eating it as he wrote:

"Dear elders, fortify the capital and watch the west. I, King Kyle Broflovski, son of the late Queen Sheila and King Gerald, have suffered gravely to keep our flags flying at the border of Zaron. I am taking a humbled respite to reflect on my losses, leaving temporary stewardship to your council so that state affairs are not hindered by my brief absence. Rest assured, the flags will remain as they are."

Kyle put his seal upon the letter aggressively and pushed it aside, a chore he was glad to have out of the way. Stretching in his seat, standing, he paced all around the room, emboldened with accomplishment and planning what to do next.

Under some pressure to look like the king and not an injured painter, he changed into his trademark burgundy-colored robes, accented by golden leaf brocade, flaring with wide sleeves and a high collar.

Stan admired him by the door and took note of the king pulling on silk peaked shoes instead of riding boots, anticipating that he'd prefer a carriage to a saddle after the grueling ride home the day before. The books Kyle had requested required a wagon to haul about, and they would have taken much longer for him to find if Ike hadn't been skulking in the archives, eager to help for admission to the king's private books. Stan had been worried that Ike might find something illicit, but the king's private books were strategically placed on the highest shelves where his diminutive, adopted brother could not reach.

"Kyle! Let me borrow one of your strange books!"

Ike shouted and popped out of hiding from the bottom of the book wagon, greatly startling Stan but yielding no reaction from Kyle.

"Why isn't he...?"

Stan grabbed Ike under the armpits and hoisted him out of the wagon, entreating him, "He is short of hearing...Temporarily."

"My brother got hurt." Ike acknowledged it calmy, but his face quickly became more visibly distressed at the implication of the words.

"Young prince, please don't cry...! Kyle is okay!" Stan held up Ike and made brisk strides toward Kyle, who was faced away from them and brushing his hair, looking out the window from his bedside.

The king froze up with alarm from touch he had not anticipated, but Ike and Stan were suddenly around him, holding tightly, and he responded with warmth. Ike gibbered at him with concern, and Kyle could only frown back sympathetically, brushing his brother's soft black hair.

"The books we gathered today will help Kyle, I'm sure." Stan squeezed Ike's shoulder, unsure of what else to say.

"He can't talk either?" Ike stressed, balling his hands into the fabric of the king's robes.

"Not right now," Stan mumbled, "You need to keep this to yourself. Kyle didn't want to make anyone worry about him."

"If he can't talk then he can't speak magic incantations," Ike spoke flatly.

Kyle looked between them both in irritation, noting Ike's graveness and Stan's fresh concern.

"What else can he do?" Stan asked.

"He could use the Somatic codex to translate the words of power into hand signs," Ike offered.

"The young prince has been very studious," Stan commended. "Kyle wants to leave soon, so you ought to hug him again before we do."

The royal brothers embraced again before Ike scrambled to leave, swerving close to the wagon of books.

With a loud and commanding snap of his fingers, Kyle arrested Ike's attention, guided to the king's punitive glare. Slowly, Ike withdrew the book he'd slipped under his jacket, delicately setting it back in the wagon before retreating from the king's quarters.

Kyle looked up at Stan. He craned his head this way and that and raised his eyebrows, asking him something.

Reading Kyle's cues, Stan responded, "you look beautiful."

Kyle pointed to his bandaged eye.

"Beautiful," Stan repeated.

Kyle urgently mimed a large oval shape with his hands.

Stan made a quick look around the room until he spotted the metal-coated glass set in a bronze oval frame by the dresser. He retrieved the mirror and held it up for Kyle.

The king bowed his head, rejecting his reflection as it came into view. He saw himself there again, at the war tribunal. Pale, numbed, incapacitated, kneeling on the ground. One of Cartman's hands resting solemnly on his shoulder. The other holding a weapon to his throat.

Stan hurriedly set down the mirror and knelt before the king, taking up his left hand in a firm grip.

Kyle's downcast gaze found Stan. His facial expression slackened with lethargy.

The only thing keeping the mad wizard king from conquering the land was his own arrogance. The elf king was being toyed with like a mutilated rat, batted into the corner by a cat; a corpulent predator that hunted for sport when its survival was already assured.

Stan's lips moved beseechingly, speaking from a well of passion, but his words did not reach the king. His effort only furthered Kyle's sense of isolation and entrapment.

Stan bowed his own head, leadened by the weight his king was under, sharing his burden. He had to help Kyle stay the course. When Stan had left Kyle earlier in the morning, he seemed ready to play with what he had been dealt. What had Kyle seen in the mirror that made him want to fold? In Stan's eyes, Kyle had not lost any of his grace or majesty. Thinking back on the rush he'd been in preparing for their trip, he remembered the folded letter from Kyle, retrieving it from his pocket.

Kyle blinked as the aperture of his eye refocused itself on the note in Stan's hands.

Stan sat up on the bed beside Kyle, holding the letter between them, reading the contents aloud, close to the king's ear:

"I need to get away from the castle, to a place of sanctuary. There is, to the south, a place touched with magic, where I know I can find peace and heal my spirit. I have not been there for some time, but< you should know the way, for it is the marshland you once called home, the place where we first met. I want to go there again. It will give me the strength to win, or it will give me the strength to lose, to face the end without regret. I know you will follow me there. My love, my knight, my shining light."

Kyle leaned in to accept firm kisses pressed against his long, pointed ear, reciprocating the firm squeeze from Stan's hand with curling fingers.

Like a fairy tale, once upon a time, an elven prince happened upon a ranger in the marsh. He knew humans to be cruel and destructive to nature, but it was clear that the ranger was different. The prince admired him from afar, until the ranger's keen senses picked him out.

The ranger, likewise, admired the prince. He showed the comely elf the home he'd made in the wilderness. He was proud of himself, to be an independent young man, overcoming the tragedy of losing his family and homeland to marauding orcs. When the elf jokingly asked if he were the king of his castle and domain, the ranger insisted that he was indeed, and if the elf should have a better one he'd like to see it. So they were off.

Prince Kyle, citing the adoption of the young Prince Ike to bolster Elf-Human relations, impudently brought the ranger home to meet the royal family, and instated him as a knight of the prince's guard.

Kyle had to attend to his studies, and Stan had to attend to his new training, but all the spare time they could find they were together. Kyle knew his life would far outstrip the human's if they lived of natural age, and so he would take up as much time of Stan's as he would allow. To the present day, they have been inseparable.

Ready to leave the castle, the pair of them were south-bound in a hooded horse-drawn carriage, with Kyle resting his head on Stan's shoulder. To make himself feel more presentable to his subjects, the king had fashioned a small silk scarf to cover the unsightly white patch over his eye. The books he'd asked for were piled beside him with care, and he'd brought along a small tablet of black slate with sticks of white, chalky clay to conveniently communicate with Stan.

Flocks of puffy, white clouds crossed over the sun. Shaded, warm, and comfortable, Kyle fell asleep while thinking more about the past.

Not long into Stan's training, when Wizard Prince Eric Cartman and Princess Kenny came to visit, Kyle was quite enthusiastic about presenting his new champion, insisting that he had talent to surpass Cartman's champion Leopold. To Kyle, it was clear that Cartman was jealous, because he must know that Sir Leopold was not so able as Sir Stanley. Princess Kenny proposed that their champions should duel so that there was no doubt as to who was a better fighter. Kyle was hesitant, saying that sparring with blunted blades was more preferable than a duel.

The wicked wizard and the princess mocked Kyle and his precious knight, insinuating many things. Kyle agreed to a duel, with Stan fighting to preserve their honor. Leopold and Stan dueled with short swords and bucklers in the shadows of giant, ancient trees in the elven capital's arboretum. They went for many bouts, with neither gaining the advantage in a clash or a clinch before having to disengage.

It was the first duel either had fought, and neither was truly keen to harm the other. The duel dragged on, and Leopold's obedience was tested by the commands of his lord and lady. His morale quavered, and even Stan was surprised when a reckless vertical down-swing of his sword overcame Leopold's defenses, neatly striking a line that crossed over his right eye.

Stan was visibly nauseous drawing blood from another person for the first time. He relented from striking further. Cartman callously pointed out how Leopold's sword had slipped in his buttery fingers before telling him not to cause a loss of face against the elf prince.

Leopold mounted an invigorated attack against his queasy opponent, carrying his weight through a parry to disarm Stan before knocking him to the ground with a body blow from his buckler.

Leopold declared the duel his victory and staunchly refused to strike the unarmed Sir Stanley. To save face, Cartman forbid Leopold from healing the scar over his eye, and newly titled him as Sir Butters, the Merciful.

Kyle discharged his guests and broke down in tears apologizing to his knight. If Stan wanted to return to the marshlands he was free to. Kyle was certain he had besmirched their close relationship over a petty dispute that had inflamed to a duel with sharp, naked blades.

Sir Stanley accepted Kyle's apology. He had not doubted his duty to defend the King's life and honor, but this was not something to be trifled with. He only wondered if what the wizard and princess had insinuated had made Kyle angry...Kyle supposed that it did make him angry, because they insinuated evil about something he saw as pure and goodly.

The tale of the merciful duel between two champions spread, and it stirred the hearts of those who heard it. Staying the blade for opponents in duels for honor, even against the wishes of one's lord, was adopted into Zaron's unspoken code of chivalry. It afforded the champions of the land many spectacular duels, and bolstered the rising infamy of Sir Stanley and Sir Butters. In the song that Jimmy the bard wrote, there are some details changed to reflect better on his king, such as Sir Stanley himself volunteering to duel after his lord's honor is called into question.

The left wheel of the carriage raised above the right as it rolled over a rock in their path, startling Kyle awake once it dropped back down onto level ground. The imposing redwoods of his homeland were far behind, and here there were many willow trees that bowed to them under the weight of snow, hanging thick green curtains to hide them from the world.

High grasses concealed wet ground and grazing animals that revealed themselves to run from the approaching cart.

Stan's attention was pulled away from the path ahead by Kyle pulling at the sleeve of his tunic, urged to read the king's writing tablet.

"We are here."

Stan nodded and returned Kyle's smile. He passed the reins in trade for the tablet, writing down a message of his own.

"My old house has probably rotted..."

Kyle shuffled the reins back to Stan, eyes darting over different titles among the books beside him until he found what he was looking for, snatching it up right away to turn to a specific page.

Stan couldn't make heads or tails of the old runes, but there was a picture of a house in the book.

Meeting his expectations, the house he'd built as a young man, nestled beside a spring-fed lake, was reduced to a soggy stack of wood floating in a pool. Stan brought the horse to a stop, taking hold of the chalk and slate again.

"Ike said something about a Somatic Codex for casting magic?"

Kyle took the writing board back and his eyes lit up, hurriedly scrawling a messy reply.

"I had overlooked that. Hopefully the spell books list the somatic components. I know very little signs to begin with, so translation with the codex would be an arduous task. I will prepare shelter. Make yourself useful, ranger."

Stan took that to mean finding dry firewood and dinner, taking his quiver and bow, letting the horse free from the carriage to graze.

Kyle took stock of what physical components he needed to cast the spell: a square stone, a glass bead, charcoal powder, and a clove of crushed garlic. This assembly of mundane objects would be annihilated, and shelter would be magically conjured in its place.

Finding a wide space of flat terrain, he drew a circle and arranged the material components within. Luckily, the sequence of somatic components needed were listed with the spell: two crossed fists, a roof bridged by templed fingers, and a traveler represented by fingers 'walking' over an open palm.

Ten minutes passed in the course of the spell's casting. Spontaneous combustion consumed the spell materials, leaving clinging smoke that obscured the shelter's creation.

A clean, dry floor. Winding, interlocking boughs of local willow rose to form walls and a ceiling before transmuting into solid, cohesive surfaces of wood. Melting glass dripped and pooled from the top of empty window frames to fill the space within before being secured with wooden shutters. A puff of wood smoke signaled the shelter's completion from a small chimney poking out of the roof.

Kyle wrote "welcome home" on his tablet and left it by the door, bringing his things inside to unpack.

Stan was assailed by nostalgic scents all throughout the expedited hunt in his homeland. He found peppery roots growing near the lake, porous mushrooms growing at the base of old trees, and an arrow from his bow found the breast of a duck passing overhead. The smell of woodsmoke caught him next, leading him back to camp without the need for firewood.

He plied his horse to stay nearby with feed from his bag, surprised to find the tiny cottage sprung up out of the ground.

"Welcome home."

Kyle looked up from the single bed against the wall as Stan opened the door and stooped through to have a look at the interior.

Besides the single bed, the shelter was mostly bare of furnishing. A pair of stools on either side of a trestle table, a writing desk, a book shelf freshly packed with magic tomes, and a wood-burning stove. Stan opened a window, taking out a cutting board and a sharp knife from his pack to dress up dinner, leaving Kyle to study.

The Stick of Truth's magic could not be simply negated by another spell, but many alternatives to circumvent its effects presented themselves to Kyle as he flipped through his books.

Had the wizard expected him to give up? Was he hoping to dispel and defame Kyle no matter what solution he came up with? No deception of illusion would do. He had to be the one to lead somehow.

Strips of duck fat crisped and curled in a hot skillet on the stove, releasing a smoky, salty aroma into the air that made hungry mouths water.

Kyle set aside his books and rose from his bedside, reaching his housemate by the stove in a single stride. He wrapped his arms around the knight's stomach from behind, hanging his pointed chin over Stan's shoulder, watching browning mushrooms and duck meat frying in its own fat.

Hungry nips of lips and teeth pecked over Stan's neck, sending a shiver down his spine, tending to dinner no matter how distracted he became by the king's teasing mouth and roaming fingers.

Charred and ground up, the roots from the lake did well to season the salty dish, with a squeeze of lemon to tie all of the flavors together.

Managing to extricate Kyle from his back, Stan dished the duck and mushroom dinner with a side of herbal salad, seating the king at the opposite end of the table to cool his ardour. The meal distracted them briefly, but Kyle mischievously slipped off his right shoe to extend his stocking-clad foot to Stan, toeing up his calf and inner thigh.

Stan adjusted himself and looked up sternly at the king who smiled and feigned innocence, thoughtlessly jabbing his fork into his salad bowl, continuing to roam and feel as he pleased.

Lascivious play substituted Kyle's need for discussion over their candle-lit dinner, working Stan slouched and bow-legged, making a sturdy footrest for himself in the process.

Both of them leaned over the table, watching the other with smoldering eyes, making hitching progress toward something...Until Stan's undivided attention was suddenly snatched away by a bird landing on the open window-sill near the stove.

The knight banged his knee on the underside of the low table and cursed aloud, hurrying out of his seat.

Chirping brightly, the red cardinal was one of the many birds that Kyle had trained to sing and ferry messages for Jimmy the Bard, carrying a small scroll fastened in a string around its neck.

Stan took the note, kneeling to present it to his lord.

Kyle had not expected a reply so promptly, for the bard had a way of dragging out negotiations with the wizard. Jimmy, in addition to Ike, was one of the few who were close to Kyle that Cartman did not openly despise.

The scroll rolled out into a long, thing strip, reading:

"The Wizard King marches tomorrow."

The merciless script turned Kyle's stomach, letting the paper slip from his fingers. He should have known that Cartman would give him no reprieve. He'd fettered the day away, napping in a carriage and playing house with Stan, who seized his trembling hand.

"What do we do?"

It rang unsaid between them. They were hidden, but not escaped from the tumult of war. Neither would acknowledge the instinct to flee, to abscond with duty and live for their passions.

Kyle moved to the writing desk behind him, turning over the scroll to write on the other side:

"The Elf King will meet him."

They watched the red bird fly away from the open window, unhindered by the gravity of its message.

Kyle hung himself against Stan's chest, held in his arms, brought into bed with a need to rise by the dawn. He closed his eye, stripped of his clothes, warmed by lotioned hands passing over his bare flesh, freshly re-dressing his wounds. Stan attended to himself before joining Kyle under the elven quiltwork, whispering what comfort he could close to his ears. In the dark of the marshland, they joined as one, expending all they could to find an easy sleep in exhaustion.

Stars held in the sky as long as they could throughout the night, fighting the coming of another morning storied by purple skies, foreboding mass deaths to all who dwell below.

One by one, those same valiant stars were snuffed, falling to the ground as cold, white ashes of snow.

All along Zaron's borders, trees had been scarred and blackened in ceaseless conflagration, starkly dividing the habitats of warring men and elves.

A winged unicorn flew over the battleground carrying the Valkyrie Marjorine, sweeping to land by the wizard. The rider reported, "The elf king awaits my lord's judgment."

Word had spread that the elf had taken a vow of silence after his most recent defeat, so arriving with his army in formation was not so great a feat.

Cartman remained pitiless. "He lead them to battle. But can he lead them in battle? I think not! There is no spell among druids that can undo what the stick has wrought."

The wizard raised his staff aloft, sending a beacon of red light into the sky, signaling a full assault. "I shall ride to meet the king. If he is using an illusion to lead in his stead, then I will reveal his deception. If he is not, then he will surely be unable to issue command once his soldiers are scattered from him."

Marjorine frowned. "You believe the Elf King would employ such deceit?"

The wizard moved toward his horse, braying with a brusque laugh. "Of course I do! It is the last defense of a mightless coward. He has no plan. See now, the great flocks of birds, waiting in the forest below? They are here to sing a dirge for the kingdom of elves!"

A whistle of feather fletching sounded as an arrow plucked the steepled hat off of Cartman's head, sending his mount running away in a fright.

A mere dozen bowmen, with birds perched upon their shoulders, revealed themselves from the crags of snowy rocks, with King Kyle and Sir Stan taking the lead.

Cartman bellowed, "You knife-eared rat..!"

A flurry of curses fell upon deaf ears as Kyle caught him dead to rights, extending a hand toward the wizard expectantly.

He had successfully led a precarious mission up the hill in silence to catch his enemy unaware, leaving his vanguard at the border with an illusion of his likeness.

Moving with the coordinated effort of a great flock of birds, he had communicated with signs from the somatic codex of druids, relaying messages with the help of elven avifauna. His enemy had sorely underestimated his resolve.

"Alright," Cartman conceded, "You got lucky, but you did it. The Stick could not keep you from leading. If it is not truly infallible, then I have no more need of it. I will destroy it."

Withdrawing the stick from his belt, King Eric held it in both hands, with thumbs pressing together at the middle, feeling the ancient wood bend...The cursed artifact that had consumed his princess and his countrymen with a lust for power. Why hold back? Break it...Or better yet, turn it upon his enemies, one last time...!

Cartman's eyes widened, looking up to Kyle, who had snatched the stick from his hands. The satisfaction of breaking evil in twain belonged to the victor alone.

Without any hesitation, the elven king snapped the forked wand in two.

A life full of sound roared anew in his ears, christened by the thunderous crack of the broken weapon, disintegrating into dust with its magic imbuement sundered.

Kyle's dormant voice rumbled free, full of righteous fury. "This battle, and the War for the Stick of Truth...They are finished."

Majorine announced herself. "What of your captives?"

The Elf King looked down upon his broken foe with disdain. "I shall stay my hand, and you shall leave these lands at once."

Cartman clutched his fallen hat to him, shrinking behind the imposing stature of his valkyrie champion, edging toward their unicorn mount. "You think this is over? I told you, I don't need the stick to fight!"

Kyle shook his head disgust. "I do not covet the lands of men. I have only ever fought to end the tyranny of the stick. If you still desire war for the hegemony of Zaron, I dare you to make the first attack! I am the King of all free elves in this realm, and I will never surrender!"

The winged unicorn, the symbol of the human army's divine manifest destiny, retreated west under the light of the sun for all to see, leading the invaders away.

Stan clasped a hand to his king's shoulder, reveling in their victory. "Shall we make for the capital, my lord? Your elders will expect some account of the battle."

"Nay," Kyle declined, "send someone on my behalf. When last I sent word, I had requested a leave of absence, and I intend to make the most of it."

With the blessings of his army behind them, the Elven King and his knight Sir Stanley rode south, to a place touched with magic.




If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!