Once Upon a Time - Landon's POV
Landon sat in the chair in his office, his thoughts racing. Having the written admission of Malcolm before him caused a mix of emotions to spread within. There was a relief to finally knowing what happened to the former king of the Kingley pride, only to be followed closely with a rage that spread rampantly throughout his entire being. There were only three factors that kept Malcolm alive at this precise moment: the fact that it was the tribunal’s right to hear Malcolm’s case and make the decision of his fate, the fact that it was Brock’s right to question him further regarding the details of his admission, and, more importantly, the fact that his admission seemed...flawed. As if, maybe, it was not his admission at all.
Landon brought strong fingers up to pinch the bridge of his nose. A headache had been forming for a few hours now, and it was finally taking its toll on him. The ache had spread over his brow and temple to swell and surge around the sides of his head.
Sitting back in the office chair, he used deep breaths to ease the pain brewing. Every part of him wanted to shift into his lion and race through the woods that bordered the castle grounds. The beautifully manicured gardens situated beyond the windows of his office beckoned him with their brightly colored blooms, the leafy greens of trees looming in the distance above their perky blossoms.
The gardener crouched by a new patch of golden perennials with a small tow-headed child beside him. It was a touching scene, watching the two of them work. As young as the boy was, it was obvious he enjoyed being of help to his father as they worked in tandem with one another. The young boy beamed at his father each time he was able to assist him, even in such a small way as to simply hand him a plant to be placed into the ground. From time to time, the small child would pat his meaty little hands on the same earth his father had to ensure that the roots of the plants were secured beneath the dirt.
At one point, the child turned to gather another plant from the wheelbarrow and discovered it to be completely void of any other plants. It amused Landon to watch as the child looked beneath the wheelbarrow, and walked around it, to attempt to discover any other plants with which to give his father. When he found none, he placed his small hands on his hips, cocked his head to the side, and expressed his displeasure of his current circumstances.
The expression struck Landon like a fist to the gut. It was almost as if looking into his past and dredging up a memory. A faint awareness that had been tugging at him since his encounter with his brother and his mate in their room earlier crept in before it hit him like a deluge.
Memories of his beloved childhood friend, Arwen. She was the reason he nearly couldn’t control his rage over the words in Malcolm’s confession. Oddly, he now found himself pondering their time together as his eyes continued to behold the scene before them, unseeingly.
A peal of laughter sounded in the air as a small child burst through the trees. Her pale blonde tresses flowed freely behind her as they whipped through the air with every twist of her head. Even though Landon was hot on her tail in pursuit, she was determined to not let him have this win. She was always determined not to let him have his win.
As soon as her bare feet hit the ground beyond the trees, she took the advantage of the minute lead by shifting. Her clothes fell in a heap at her feet as a small lion cub sprung free of the impeding clothes. The small form darted for a group of small bushes that would swallow her in their midst.
“Arwen,” Landon broke through to the small clearing, panting in his efforts to keep up with her. When he spotted the pile of clothes, he shouted, “That’s cheating, Arwen!”
A small yip sounded around him as it echoed in the trees, and he smirked. “Fine! Two can play that game!” He laughed just before shifting into his own lion and plunging headfirst into the bushes where she was hidden. At least, the bushes where he thought she was hidden...but she was more clever than that.
I’ve got you! He said prematurely through his mind link as he rummaged through the bushes. The bushes were bathed in her scent, but the girl herself was nowhere to be found.
Claws raked across his still exposed backside and a jovial, youthful voice floated in his head. I win! AGAIN!
The smugness and laughter carried through her words as he gasped at the paper-cut like scratches that now marred his backside.
Very clever! Though he laughed at her escapade, there was faint indignation that rode beneath the surface at having been bested by such a young chit once again.
Bounding out from the entrapment he had found himself in, he raced around the bushes to try to cut her off as she moved in the opposite direction. The yips and barks startled birds and other small forest creatures as he gave chase. Arwen’s small form was made for quick changes in direction, and she used it to her advantage as Landon attempted to use speed to outmaneuver her.
When he took her by surprise by flanking her on her right, she zigged to her left a little too sharply. Running nearly full throttle as she turned, she ran snout first into a large oak tree that lurked in her path. Her little form bounced off the obstacle and she fell on her haunches a moment before she shifted back into her human self.
“Arwen,” he called her name in a panic. He quickly maneuvered beside her, aware of the stunned expression and blooming tears that accompanied that type of injury. Throwing his jacket over her, he knelt beside her and lifted her face to his.
Arwen stared at him for a few seconds, blinking back the tears and stars that had momentarily overwhelmed her. “That wasn’t very smart,” she muttered dazedly.
Landon chuckled as he wiped her nose with his shirt. “No, I can’t say that was one of your finest moments, little one.” Those rosy red cheeks of hers were now being overshadowed by the swelling redness of her injured nose.
He tilted her head slightly as he brushed his shirt up against her bruised features. She blinked in rapid succession, flinching away from his touch as it crossed over the bridge of her nose. Her watering eyes stared at his face, and he knew she was trying to prevent herself from crying. There was no way Arwen, the little firecracker he was both plagued with and humbled by, would ever want to be seen crying in front of him...in front of anyone, for that matter.
“Laten, why do you dislike losing to me?” She asked innocently.
Though he knew the question was more of a distraction to her as opposed to an insult to him, it still made him tense. “What makes you think it bothers me?”
He tried to sound nonchalant as he masked his features. Over the years, he had come to love the little girl like he might a sister. Albeit one that he had been forced to entertain while his brother was galavanting around the grounds learning one thing or another.
Arwen frowned at him with such a knowing yet non-judgemental expression that Landon sighed. “It’s not that I dislike losing to you, Arwen. It’s just...you’re so small...and you’re a girl.” His face screwed up before he sighed once more and shrugged his shoulders. How do you explain the sting of defeat when losing to a girl nearly half his age? “Losing can sometimes bruise a guy’s ego, that’s all.” Then he smiled at her and ruffled her hair gently. “But, I am starting to get the hang of it when it comes to you, so don’t ever change or go easy on me! To pretend to be something you’re not to spare my pride is not worth it. Any guy that crosses your path will just have to learn how to deal with losing, or learn how best to outfox you as you are.” He tapped her chin. “And if they have a problem with that, you can send them to me. Or Brock.” He smirked at her, feeling more brotherly by the moment. After all, she would someday be part of their happy family. In some ways, she already was.
Hoofs pounding against the ground caught their attention just before a horse and rider became visible. Without even stopping the beast, Brock lept from the massive creature. “What happened?” He bounded across the way to where the two of them sat. Kneeling on the other side of Arwen, he placed his hands on either side of her face to inspect it as a frown flitted over his features. “Are you okay?”
Arwen nodded as much as her head was able to, being captured between his two hands. She tried her best to smile, but it was smooshed tight in his grip. “I beat Laten,” she said victoriously, though sounding like she was speaking with her mouth full.
Landon groaned. “That doesn’t give you bragging rights, little one.” He sat back against the ground, watching his brother consider his young betrothed’s face. It was curious to him that Brock could sense her pain, riding as if the devil himself was at his heels.
Brock chuckled, allowing Landon to release a small breath of relief. “What’d you do, Landon? Punch a girl for beating you?”
It was said in jest, but Landon found himself practically snarling at Brock in response. Landon would never lay a hand on any girl, let alone Arwen. “Whatever,” Landon fired back. “Aren’t you supposed to be training? What is it today,” he nodded towards the horse. “Jousting,” he joked.
Arwen brushed Brock’s hands away from her face. “That sounds like fun! Can I come?”
Both boys laughed at her innocence. Of course, why didn’t it surprise him that she would find that entertaining? “I wasn’t really jousting, Arwen.”
“Oh,” she frowned. For some strange reason, it made Landon feel bad for getting her hopes up. Clearly, she really would have liked to try jousting on for size.
“Ah, come on, now. No frowns allowed on that pretty little face of yours.” Brock stood up and held his hand out to her, all the while Landon made small gagging sounds. Brock shot him a narrowed glance before turning to face Arwen once more. “It’s much prettier with a smile.”
“I know what will put a smile on my face!”
“I bet you do,” Landon replied, sarcasm at the ready. A part of him was annoyed that Brock had felt the need to come and ensure Arwen’s safety. “Does it have anything to do with beating me at something?”
Arwen grabbed Brock’s hand and he hoisted her up onto her feet with a little more strength than was necessary. She flew through the air and collided into him as her feet tried to balance the weight and quick movement. Her laughter pealed through the air, both of the boys grinning in its wake. She winced slightly when she crashed into Brock’s chest as a result.
When Brock pulled her away from him, he frowned. His eyes scanned the length of her, taking in her wild hair, bruised and puffy face, overly large jacket that hid nearly her entirety within it, and small, dainty feet jutting from beneath. Retrieving her clothes, he handed them to her. “Before we do anything, you need to put your clothes back on. Your mom is already going to have my head when she sees you like this.”
Arwen grumbled as she practically snatched the clothing from his hand. “I’d much rather just let my lion run.”
He chuckled after her. “Even after what she did to your face?”
“Yours is no better,” she chided, tossing Landon’s jacket to Brock. Landon could not resist chuckling at her tenacity.
“What? His lion, or his face?” Landon roared with laughter, his own dig at his brother earning him a scowl from its recipient. Brock punched him in the arm for all his efforts. “Ow!”
“Don’t encourage her,” Brock warned, though it was a half-hearted effort.
“Alright, alright.” He grumbled. Then, his voice lowered and he added, “So, why are you here?” Landon asked, a knowing smile peeking around the edges of his lips.
“As if you didn’t know,” Brock muttered softly so that Arwen couldn’t hear. “Arwen was hurt.”
“Yeah,” Landon started, drawing out the word as laughter tried to take hold of it. “But, I didn’t tell you.”
Brock grumbled at the line of questioning. “I don’t have to hear everything from you to know that something has happened,” Brock growled at Landon.
Walking out from behind the bushes fully clothed, she beamed radiantly at them as they both watched her cautiously. Her head tilted slightly before she moved past them towards the castle where her parents would be waiting for her...where her parents were certainly going to plague them with many questions with regards to her appearance.
“Think she’s...you know...your true mate?” He whispered the words, the thought becoming almost a certainty in his own mind.
Running a hand through his windblown hair, Brock sighed as he kicked at some rocks at his feet. “I don’t know. It will be years before we know that for sure. Maybe she just has an open mind-link to me,” he shrugged, his dark eyes troubled with his thoughts. “She’s young enough that she may not know how to control her beast and her thoughts.”
“Hmm,” Landon offered in response.
Seems his brother was not as willing to concede to the possibility that Arwen was his true mate...a consideration that Landon had already accepted as the only possible conclusion. After all, he knew full well Arwen was in total control of her lioness and her thoughts.
Arwen spun around towards them, a mischievous grin taking over her features. “Which one of you wants to race me home?” She smiled impishly as she riveted neatly on her feet and dashed from the clearing the way they had come.
They both looked at each other with smiles on their faces before they sprinted after her. If she is, you are going to have your hands full!
Brock laughed as they gave the small little princess chase. Even if she’s not my true mate, I’m still in trouble. She’s my betrothed.
From in front of them, the little girl screamed with delight as she continued to elude their efforts. And, in true princess fashion, she beat them both back to the castle, with only a small amount of gloating on her part.
That evening, Landon found Arwen sitting on the stone steps that spanned the front of their home. Her finger played delicately against the patterns of her white mary jane shoes. Though he knew she would prefer to be barefoot, he knew her mother would never approve.
The dress she wore fit her a little too well, and not for the first time he wondered how she was able to breathe in the crinkling mass of satin and silk. The slight chubbiness that came with being a child not long from the toddler stage stretched the fabric across her childish frame. Since Arwen would never choose something like that to wear, he could only guess that it was her mother’s doing. He watched her fidget for more than a few minutes, the confining deluge of fabric that now held her captive in its very existence irritating her need to run wild.
He couldn’t resist smiling at the heathen side of her before finally calling to her. “Arwen?”
Without looking up, she continued to let her fingers run across the hole-punched patterns of her shoes. “What,” she asked miserably.
Landon frowned. Arwen was always so enthusiastic about nearly everything. He could practically imagine her jumping on the balls of her feet for a root canal.
“Your parents are looking for you.”
“So,” she grumped at him.
Landon sat next to her, the scent of roses filling his nostrils as the red and pink blooms crawled up trellises along the front side of the home. Her own honey and citrus scent was just as pleasant to his nose, though he knew Brock found it troubling. Even though he would never let on he knew, he had watched Brock on several occasions scent the air around her when he was near.
“Alright, sunshine. Spill it!”
Arwen looked up at Landon and grimaced, her lips pressed together in clear abjection. Landon had to contain his own wince at the purpling flesh under her eyes and around her nose. A pang of guilt flashed through him, one that he struggled with even though he knew it wasn’t exactly his fault she face planted into a tree.
“I have to go to Uncle Malcolm’s.”
He chuckled at her confession and she glared at him before he offered an explanation. “You always go to dinner at his house on Sundays. Shouldn’t you be used to it by now?”
Sighing, she took the hem of her dress and pulled down hard on it. So hard, in fact, that he worried for the frailty of the gown. The material bent harshly at her knees and covered her feet before she finally rested her elbows on her knees.
Pouting, she cupped her face in her hands and leaned forward, no doubt scanning the stairs for an innocent pebble with which to take her troubles out on. “I don’t like going there!”
Shaking his head, he chuckled at her once more. He had finally found something that Arwen didn’t like that had nothing to do with clothing. Though he had only met Malcolm and his daughter on a handful of occasions, he couldn’t blame her for not wanting to go. The man was as fun as watching grass grow, though he thought Arwen could find joy in even that. But, his daughter, Lara, was even worse. Even if she deemed you worthy of paying you any attention, it was never the kind of attention you would want.
“I can’t imagine it would be very exciting for you with all those grown-ups talking about politics and what not.” Though he wished he could commiserate with her, his parents would not appreciate their son affirming her lack of desire to attend dinner at her uncle’s house. “But I am sure there has to be something entertaining to do while you are there.”
Her arms dropped as she turned to face him. “It’s worse than that, Laten. It stinks there.”
This had him laughing at her once again. He found he couldn’t help it. “What, like mothballs and muscle creme stink?”
“It’s not funny,” she grumbled. “It smells like...I don’t know. Vinegar and...rotten eggs, I guess.” Landon’s laughter died down in a flash as a frown took its place, the words of caution and warning from his royal tutors pounding in his head. Arwen didn’t seem to notice his distraction. “Lara doesn’t like me. I don’t like being around her. She’s mean.”
Placing a hand on her shoulder, he leaned forward to look at her face. “Arwen, are you sure it smells like that? Vinegar and sulfur?”
“Sulfur?” She frowned at him.
Landon nodded his head. “The rotten egg scent. Did the whole place smell like that?”
Arwen watched him, puzzling over his question for a few moments while Landon waited anxiously for her response. Finally, she shook her head. “No, but I don’t want to go.” She huffed, and let her head hang heavy in her hands as she changed the topic. “Last time I was there, I stomped on Lara’s foot. I don’t think she liked it much.”
Landon once more found he was able to laugh at her sincere and youthful words. The thought of her stomping a foot down to do harm was just too much for his sensibilities. His laughter bellowed in the air sharply before he stopped to catch his breath. For Arwen to inflict purposeful pain, he had to know the cause.
“What made you do that?”
Arwen made a face, her lips twisted in a look of disgust. “She told me to rub her feet.”
Landon could barely keep himself upright as his laughter echoed across the gardens before them. Between fits of laughter, he barked, “She is a...piece of work.”
Arwen...rubbing someone else’s feet? Hardly! She was much too busy getting herself into other mischief.
Though she fought to contain the smile that slid over her features, his laughter was infectious. “I’m glad you can laugh about it.” Though she tried to grumble at him, it came out as anything but.
He let his arm drape across her shoulders and leaned in towards her. “It isn’t that I am laughing at you, Arwen. It’s just funny to think that anyone would try to order you around.” She attempted to grumble once more, but a smirk was plastered on her lips. He nudged his body into hers. “Don’t worry about her, Arwen. She’s just a jealous she-beast. She will never have a lion as strong as yours, and she will never be as brave and as loved by everyone as you are.” He chuckled. “Come to think of it, maybe I’m a little jealous, too.”
The goofy grin on his face was a testament to his jest, and he was grateful when her mouth softened into a gentle smile. “Thanks, Laten.” She glanced around her before adding, “If only it didn’t smell so bad.”
With that, she pushed herself off the marble step and started to move in the direction where she would find her parents. Landon sat bothered once more by her words of a foul scent. His tutors always warned him about the scent of deceit and jealousy, and she certainly seemed to be experiencing that. But from who and towards who was the question. He contemplated telling her parents...his parents...anyone. And yet, if it was that strong, her parents would surely know of it. So, he decided to keep his mouth closed. Instead, he wanted to try to make her feel better.
“Hey, Arwen?” She stopped and spun on her toes to face Landon. “I meant what I said. Your lioness is strong, but you are even stronger to be able to control her like you do. Don’t forget it...just in case Lara tries to make you rub her feet again.” He grinned at her while she frowned.
The thought had her wrinkling her nose as she turned once more to go and find her parents. “I will claw her eyes out if she tries,” she grumbled as she walked away.
Landon rose from his chair. That is what had been plaguing him! The honey-citrus scent that infused Brock’s room was undeniable. Brock was hardly given much time around Arwen, but he would surely recognize it, wouldn’t he?
To Landon, there was no doubt. He fled the office as if it was lit on fire, strode through the castle, and burst through the heavy oak doors that led to the front of the massive building. Brock knew that his mate was in danger and Landon was even more certain of it.
The written confession on his desk was a sham...a cover-up to protect someone else, and Landon felt that someone might be Lara. How far he would go to protect her or whoever he was shielding was still left to be seen, but Landon wanted to be sure he was there to help protect his childhood friend in any way he could. The relief she was still alive was palpable, and the hope he once had that she had survived had been answered. However, he wanted to be sure she stayed that way.
After trying unsuccessfully to mind-link his brother, he opted to finally track him. If there was one thing he was better at than his brother, it was tracking...and that was all due to the little heathen affectionately known as Arwen!