Galahad and Iseult were unparalleled in beauty all the days of their lives. As children they were mirror images of one another, pale of skin and dark of hair. Galahad grew his hair long like his sister, so that it fell in soft, shining waves down his shoulders.
They were inseparable in those days. When one was called, both would look up from their play. They would chase each other through the orchards for hours, naming everything with words they made up, building a language of their own, just between the two of them. They ran between the apple trees, cheeks glowing bright with exertion. When at last they grew tired, they collapsed giggling to the soft bed of grass beneath their feet.
Afternoon finds them there, lying tired and warm in the shade. Branches sway above them, the rustling of leaves a gentle lullaby. Galahad closes his eyes and listens, watching the dappled sunlight play over his eyelids. Somewhere in the distance, a bird calls.
He opens his eyes when he feels a gentle tug on his hair. Iseult is there smiling down at him, her soft hands working the stem of a flower into hair fanned like a crown about his head. He cranes his neck to see a pile of wildflowers cradled in her lap.
“Galahad!” she scolds. “Stop moving. You’ll spoil my work.”
“Sorry, sister,” he says, not the least bit remorseful as he lays his head back down.
He closes his eyes again, drowsing as Iseult weaves many-colored flowers into his hair. Galahad doesn’t expect to fall asleep but he must, for he awakens to Iseult tapping him on the shoulder when she’s finished.
He sits up with a yawn, stretching the stiffness from his limbs. “How do I look?”
Iseult smiles. “Beautiful.”
Galahad smiles back, for in those days, he’d yet to find cause to be ashamed of his looks.
“Would you like me to braid your hair next?” he asks.
Iseult nods, blue eyes shining bright. “Please.”
He gathers up the remaining blossoms, careful not to crush them in his fingers, and Iseult shifts so her back is to him. She’s soft and warm between his legs, and Galahad cards his fingers through her hair, murmuring apologies whenever he catches them on a snarl. He picks up the first bloom, blue as the ocean, and tucks it beneath a weft of hair. He does the same with a yellow flower and then a white, forming a pleasing pattern as he works.
Iseult sighs and leans back into his careful hands, relaxing in the still afternoon air. Galahad is nearly finished when he feels the prickling sensation of eyes on his back. He whips around quickly—too quick, for he pulls Iseult’s hair in the process.
“Galahad!” She grabs the end of the braid just as he lets go, in the knowing way that twins have, in order to keep Galahad’s work from unraveling.
Galahad gets his feet under him as fast as he can, scanning the treeline for comers.
“Who’s there?” he calls. “Show yourself!”
“Galahad, there’s no one there.”
He holds out a hand, and Iseult bites her lip.
No answer comes, and he’s beginning to think that he’d imagined it after all—a silly child jumping at shadows.
“You’re frightening me,” Iseult says, and Galahad is just about to apologize when a shape emerges from the trees.
A person walks toward them, and Galahad puts himself between the stranger and his sister. As the man draws closer, it becomes clear that he’s not a man at all but only a boy himself, albeit an older boy, one taller and considerably broader than willowy Galahad. Galahad doesn’t let that get in the way of his righteous indignation.
“Why were you spying on us from the bushes?” he demands, drawing himself up to his full height. He still comes only to the stranger’s chest, much to his chagrin.
“I apologize,” says the boy. “Your father bid me collect you from the fields, but when I came upon you, you looked so peaceful at your leisure. I thought to let you finish before I disturbed you.” Now he looks sheepish. “I didn’t expect you to see me.”
“I didn’t,” Galahad says absently. “I felt your gaze.”
The boy is looking at him strangely, and Galahad feels his cheeks heating, wondering if he has misspoken. He and Iseult sometimes sense things that others do not, and Mother has warned them never to speak of such things in front of their father’s men. This is not one of his father’s men but a boy, he reasons.
“It’s impolite to stare,” he snaps.
“I apologize,” the boy says again. Galahad is starting to grow weary of his apologies, but before he can say anything, the stranger’s mouth splits into a crooked grin. “You just look so pretty with all those flowers in your hair.”
The blush on Galahad’s face flares brighter and hotter.
“I’m not a girl!” he squawks, batting the flowers carelessly from his hair.
Iseult rises from where she’s been watching on the grass, indignant as her work crumples to the ground.
“Galahad!” She rounds on the stranger, all of her eight-year-old fury brought to bear on their interloper. “Now look what you’ve done! You’ve made Gal feel bad.”
“I—I’m sorry,” the boy says, eyes wide. “I didn’t mean to offend. I wasn’t mocking, I swear it.”
She sniffs, and for a moment Galahad sees so much of their regal mother in her. “Good.” She turns to Galahad. “Now say you’re sorry and be nice.”
“I didn’t do anything!” he starts, but Iseult gentles him with a touch on his arm. His temper flows out of him, deflated.
He turns to the boy and bows stiffly at the waist. “You didn’t offend. I apologize for my rudeness.”
Iseult smiles at him—smiles at them both—bright as the sun. “Good. Now let’s go to supper.”
Galahad learns that the boy is named Tristan. He’s a foundling that’s come to work for their father—young, but strong and fierce on the battlefield. Their paths cross seldom to start, for Galahad’s days are busy with many pursuits that strike him as quite serious indeed.
He and Iseult must sit through lessons with their tutor each day. Iseult finds such work dull. She’s restless more often than she isn’t, craning her neck and looking toward the outdoors. She’s the bane of their tutors, difficult to corral, but Galahad doesn’t mind their lessons.
He finds them interesting more often than not, soaking up each bit of knowledge like a sponge. He likes the stories of far-off lands the best. They’re captivating in the best way, even when rendered in their tutor’s dry, creaky tone.
There are those, lessons in subjects his father deems fit for noble children to learn, and then there are the other lessons, the ones he attends at his mother’s knee. Their father is a remote figure, distant and vaguely frightening. He wants little to do with his two heirs, and that suits Galahad just fine. Their mother, though, she’s something different. She’s beautiful and kind and always has time for her two hellion children. When they come in from their adventures, he and Iseult find their way to their mother’s study with muddy palms and scraped knees.
She has things to teach them, too. Stranger things, tales of magic that delight Galahad and make his hair stand on end by turns. She tells them of the cunning folk, people with magic in their blood. She tells them that the two of them are very special, says it with a glint in her eye and a proud smile on her lips. She tells them secrets, and they keep them with all the solemnity two little children can muster.
Life is pleasant. It goes on.
When Galahad isn’t sitting through lessons, he’s playing with his sister, which he loves best of all. He has everything he needs—fields to run in, books to read, the love of his mother and sister. He sees no reason to seek Tristan out, and so he doesn’t.
Iseult doesn’t feel the same, much to his dismay.
She takes a shine to their father's new charge, smiling brightly whenever he's near. Galahad is jealous of her attention, although he's not sure why it should be so. Iseult is sweet-natured. That she smiles at Tristan means nothing, for she smiles at everyone, unlike Galahad who’s often chided for his sullenness. He keeps to himself, happy to let his sister do the talking for the both of them.
Iseult invites Tristan to spend time with them, when their paths cross. Galahad thinks uncharitably that their paths seem to cross suspiciously often—too much to be a coincidence, for what does a young soldier in training have to do with the noble daughter of the house? He blames it on Tristan and so finds yet another thing to hold against their father’s ward.
The result is the same, no matter who Galahad blames. Tristan spends time with them when his duties for their father permit, which is not so much as Iseult could wish, but seems entirely too often for Galahad’s liking.
They grow familiar with each other. Not with the closeness born of brotherhood, but in ways they find for themselves. Iseult is the sun around whom they both revolve—of course they get caught in one another’s orbit. And if Galahad is often churlish and jealous of his sister’s regard, Tristan never seems to hold it against him.
It infuriates him, the way Tristan never seems to fight back. It makes something mean and small within him want to dig in its teeth and bite.
As they grow in familiarity, forming an accord that sometimes borders on friendship, they also just… grow. He and Iseult grow long and lean, tall like the pines of the forest. People look at them in a new way, as objects to be desired. It makes Galahad want to bare his teeth. Boys sigh after Iseult, watching her with covetous eyes, but she pays them no mind. She has eyes only for Tristan, always. Still.
Galahad wants nothing more than to hold onto the world they have between them, the private one where they speak in a language of their own devising, where they work small acts of magic on idle afternoons—to make a flower bloom or shiver on the vine. He hopes to keep the rest of the world out, but it’s as relentless as the tide. Even with his back to the door, he can feel it beating its way in, and he’s helpless to stop it.
He’s heard it often—as children grow into young men and women, they forsake their siblings, turning to their own devices. It’s natural for a young man to find companionship in the company of other young men—to prefer the brusque rough-and-tumble world of boys to the softer world their sisters inhabit. Such a change is natural, to hear the men of his father’s manor tell it. They assure Galahad it will come for him, this change, even as they look upon his play with Iseult with indulgence
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Toland says to Iseult when he comes upon them climbing trees in the garden. “One day your brother won’t want to play these games with you any longer.”
Galahad clutches the branch tighter in his hand, unsure what he should say. He’s always liked Toland. He’s one of the more talkative of Father’s soldiers, quick with a laugh or a joke and never too busy to talk to either of them as though they were adults grown. He doesn’t ignore them—or worse, talk down to them as others do.
Iseult answers for them both, as she always does. She shakes her head, long curls bouncing down her back. “It’s not so. I know my brother better, enough to know we shall always be friends.”
Toland smiles and bows, courtly as anything. “Perhaps that’s so. My apologies, Lady Iseult.”
Iseult smiles in return. All at once her countenance is clear as day once more, any slight forgiven. Toland leaves them to their play, and she turns her attention back to Galahad. He’s gotten a head start while she’s been distracted.
“Wait for me!” Iseult calls after him, scrambling up the tree as fast as her skinny legs can take her.
Galahad is heir to his father's holdings and his mother's magic—twice blessed or twice cursed. He falls in love with his sunny sword-fighting mentor, the boy he's hated since childhood, while racing against the clock to undo a curse.
The same magic that makes Galahad's kind mother and talented sister respected and revered has only ever brought him ridicule and disdain—but there are worse things than being ignored. The world of men might not believe in Galahad's magic, but something else does. Something that waits in the deep, dark woods. Galahad has until he reaches adulthood to free himself from the curse.
If he can't, the price is his life.
- m/m sunshine x grumpy
- sensitive and prickly protagonist
- twins who love each other more than life itself
This is a finished work previously published as The Deep Woods by Hope Zane. You can click the series banner if you'd like to buy it and the rest of the books in the series.