This rage is not something Castiel is used to. It’s coursing through him hard enough to make his entire body tremble. He presses his knuckles into the stone floor under him, stopping his fists from shaking as he keeps his head bowed. Castiel is on one knee next to the Chieftain of his tribe, keeping his eyes focused on the smooth stone they stand on.
Even though this stone was pulled from the Earth and shaped by human hands to be placed here, it feels unnatural to him. It doesn’t feel like it should if he were to stand on it outside. The stone feels wrong under his bare feet. Even the sun on the bare skin of his back doesn’t feel right through the high glass windows set in the tall walls of the chamber. These stone castles of the Lowlanders are so confining. Nothing about it feels right.
Castiel’s people, the Aladaï, prefer the outdoors. They sleep directly under the stars or in cloth tents where they can still feel the winds. During the cold months, most tribes migrate to the warm lands in the south where they don’t have to wrap themselves in as much fur. Hunting is easier in the warm lands and Aladaï are more likely to be given jobs there during the cold months. Anyone who would hire them here shuts themselves up in their homes during the cold months until the weather warms again.
Aladaï are warriors and mercenaries. Every day for them is a battle for survival – hunting to eat and fighting for coin. Whether it’s as an assassin, a raiding party, or to pad the ranks of a baron’s army – they accept whatever job that will give them pay for what they do best. Fighting. They live for it and Castiel is no different. But as of today, he’s going to be losing all that. He’s losing the open plains and beautiful forests of his homeland – all in the name of peace.
The Aladaï and the Lowlanders have been at war with each other for longer than anyone can remember. But the current Chieftain has been making changes since he took leadership of the tribe lands. He rules all the many tribes and their lords scattered across Castiel’s homeland. And finally, after years of debate with the Lowlander’s King, an understanding has been reached.
As a warrior, Castiel has done his absolutely best to please all of his superiors; the generals who dictate the various garrisons of his tribe and even the Chieftain himself. He’s in his eighteenth year and he’s been told time and time again that he has a promising future ahead of him. He could very well be the youngest general in the tribe lands if he continues along the path he’s been taking. With that in mind, he can’t understand why this is happening.
Castiel is here purely as a part of the peace treaty. He, like a handful of other young Aladaï, are being traded to the King. Lowlanders don’t even like Aladaï. The majority of Lowlanders are terrified of them – even outright hate them. As a part of this trade, Castiel is going to have to live here surrounded by a people who can barely stand to look at him. He could care less about the people themselves, but if Castiel has any trouble with them, he won’t be able to just fight it out like he would in his own tribe.
It’s no comfort to him that there are other Aladaï being traded too. They’re grouped behind Castiel and the Chieftain, all kneeling in the same position as he is and already having pledged their allegiance to the King. Each one of them is younger than Castiel and none of them have even remotely the same amount of victory tattoos as Castiel does. They can’t even be properly called warriors as none of them have obtained the tattooed wings that mark them as fully-fledged warriors. Castiel has had his wings for nearly a year already.
And that is what he can’t understand. Why is he here? Why would Castiel, out of everyone in their tribe, be traded with these young ones? There must be more going on here than Castiel knows and it’s bothering him. It nags at the back of his mind, but he can’t let it show and there is nothing that he can do to change what’s happening.
He can’t change anything now that he’s already sworn his allegiance to King Winchester. The words still weigh on Castiel’s tongue. Despite being fluent in the Lowlander’s language, speaking the oath that has bound him to the King felt wrong and it tasted bitter in his mouth. It was a pledge forced from him – demanded of him – purely for this peace treaty. The treaty will bring trade into the tribe lands and it’s a benefit to his people. Castiel knows and understands this, and he supports the treaty. But he doesn’t want to be a part of it like this.
Carefully, he lifts his head enough to take a quick look around the room. To one side of the chamber are his own people; the Chieftain’s advisors and each of them a qualified warrior. Seated along the other side of the chamber are King Winchester’s advisors. They are all wrapped in layers upon layers of clothing that makes Castiel’s skin crawl. How are they not going insane being trapped within so much clothing? Aladaï barely wear a fraction of the same.
Even Aladaï women hardly wear more clothing than the men. Castiel wears nothing more than a strip of cloth pulled up between his legs under trousers that are tied in place at waist and ankle. The rest of the fabric is loose around his legs and he prefers it that way. Anything else feels too restricting. He doesn’t even like wearing the tunic that are a part of what the Aladaï during the cold months. And he certainly doesn’t understand how the Lowlanders can tolerate the leathers that cover their feet.
In battle, Aladaï barely wear any armour. They don’t even carry a shield into a fight. But the King’s so called knights who line the walls behind the advisors, watching everything through the slits in their helmets, are covered from head to toe. The ones standing in the corners of the room are wearing suits of heavy metal, but the rest stand in suits of chainmail and heavy leathers.
How is it possible that they can even fight while weighed down like that? Their movements must be restricted beyond reason. Just by looking at them, Castiel can already think of a variety of different ways he could out maneuver them while he picks out the weakest points in their armour. How bad must their hand-to-hand combat be if they need to depend on such heavy suits to protect them?
Will he have to wear similar things? Will he be placed into the King’s army? It makes Castiel’s stomach turn to think about what might be expected of him now. Everything he knows is going to change and thinking about it all makes Castiel extremely uncomfortable. And he can’t say anything against it. At the command of his Chieftain, he’s already given his allegiance to this King he barely knows beyond the stories told by his people.
A hand on his shoulder makes Castiel’s blood run cold. It’s a silent command for him to stand and he squares his shoulders as he does. Next to his Chieftain, Gabriel, Castiel stands taller than him. The Chieftain’s height has never come into question regarding his strength but it is no secret that his cunning is what won him his title.
“This is Castiel.” Gabriel announces, keeping his hand on his shoulder. “He is strong, fast, bright, loyal, and he is one of our most promising warriors. I give him to you as a protector. You will never be safer than in his care. None of your knights will be able to protect you better than an Aladaï warrior.”
This must be some kind of horrible joke at Castiel’s expense. Is he truly expected to protect a King? One who has been their enemy for as long as he can remember? He is much more suited to being a part of the army, or at the very least someone who helps to train the knights. That would be far more preferred than having to watch over the King. It means Castiel would get to keep fighting – and that’s the only way he knows to give meaning to his life.
“I don’t require any more protection.” King Winchester says lowly, narrowing his eyes. It’s a miracle his crown doesn’t fall from the King’s head when he tilts it, regarding him with thoughtful eyes. “How are you with children, Castiel?”
He bows his head out of respect for the King. “I take no issue with them, my lord.”
“Good.” The King nods and gestures around the room at the knights standing guard. “I have knights to protect me, but my sons are in as equal danger as myself. Their Matron is too old to keep up with them now and they need someone to raise them properly. It would only be a benefit if you could protect them at the same time.”
Castiel barely manages to keep himself from groaning or rolling his eyes. Children are fine and he gets along with them well back in his tribe, but those are Aladaï children. And he doesn’t want to raise some spoiled princes. But despite how every part of him wants to refuse, Castiel can say nothing against it. If he does anything to cost his people this peace treaty, the Chieftain would be well within his rights to kill him on the spot.
Stiffly, Castiel bends forward in a bow and swallows his angers and frustrations with the turn of events. “It would be my honour, your highness.”
Someone at the side of the room clears their throat. All attention in the room turns toward one of the King’s advisors as he stands. “My liege, as beneficial as this alliance will be for our two races, I do not think the peasants would take well to our future King being raised by an -”
He falls silent at the cold look the King turns to him. “My decision stands, Lord Campbell. If anyone here takes issue with this choice, you’re welcome to discuss them with me after this meeting is over.”
Lord Campbell’s lips press into a thin line and he sits heavily. Castiel’s eyes linger on him a little longer. As displeased as he is with this decision too, a part of Castiel wants to excel at the task the King is giving him purely to spite everyone who would think him unqualified for it. Something defiant starts to burn in his chest alongside the anger.
The King lifts his hand and a woman comes forward from a doorway hidden behind hanging tapestries. Her clothes are plain, but clean and her dark hair is pulled back under a white covering that ties under her chin. A servant girl. She quickly makes her way to Castiel’s side and gestures for him to follow.
“Go with her, Castiel. She will see that the preparations are made.” King Winchester waves his hand and Castiel’s stomach sinks.
This is it. He’s leaving his Chieftain and everything he’s ever known behind. Castiel bows shortly to Gabriel and doesn’t spare a glance for any of the other Aladaï gathered in the chamber. No one has spoken out against the trade of his services and the feeling settled in the hollow of his chest feels too much like betrayal for his liking.
As soon as they’re out of earshot of the chamber, the servant girl stops and turns to Castiel. She looks him over with a curl to her upper lip. “Castiel, was it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nods and holds still at the scrutinizing glare. It’s clear to him that she likes Aladaï no more than the rest of the kingdom. “Where are we going?”
“First, you need a bath. You’re filthy.” She turns away and starts down the hall again. “And my name is Ruby. I’ll be preparing you to meet our princes.”
Castiel winces at the mention of the princes. He has no desire to meet them. “Where is the nearest spring? I can bathe myself there.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ruby glances over his shoulder with a frown. “We’re not barbarians here. You will bathe in tub like the rest of us – though you shouldn’t expect the water to be warm. That effort is only made for the royals. Understood?”
He has little care for the temperature of water. For all his life, Castiel has been bathing in the cool waters of rushing rivers or dumping buckets from the wells over his head. That is so much less complicated than having to fill (and sometimes heat) a tub. Castiel can’t understand why they would bother with such a long process for just a few short minutes of bathing.
However, he does take issue with her thinly veiled insult. A barbarian? How would she feel if she knew that the very same term is used to describe the Lowlanders with their unsightly homes and roads that mar the landscape? It’s disgusting, but Castiel bites his tongue to remain silent and follows her deep into the castle to the bathing chambers for the servants.
A young man, not much younger than Castiel, stops in his process of carrying buckets of water from the well in the corner to a copper tub in the center of the floor. It’s round and barely big enough for him. Castiel suspects that he will be able to sit in it, but his knees will be folded almost to his chest unless he wants his legs to hang over the rim. The young man stares at Castiel with sunken eyes, looking him over with more curiosity than hatred.
“Ash.” Ruby hisses at him, snapping him back to attention. “Finish with the buckets and fetch new clothing. Our newest addition to staff requires them.”
Castiel frowns and shakes his head. This is what he had been dreading. “I don’t require new clothing.” He gestures down at his trousers. “These will be enough.”
Even Ash pales at that and he nearly misses the tub while he tips one of the buckets into it. Ruby turns on Castiel with a dark frown pulling her lips down. “Your clothing is just as dirty as you are and they stink. You can’t be allowed anywhere near the young princes like that.”
Though that is exactly what Castiel had been expecting, he’s no happier to hear it. He sighs and crouches to untie the strings that draw closed the trousers around his ankles. The draw at his waist is next and Castiel drops his trousers to the floor, stepping out of them in the same motion as he undoes the cloth between his legs and wrapped around his waist.
Ruby wrinkles her nose at his clothing, but she gathers it into a basket nonetheless. Castiel ignores what she and Ash do as he settles into the tub and picks up the rag hanging from the edge of it. With the damp rag, Castiel scrubs his body as best he can. If he rubs hard enough, perhaps he’ll be able to release some of his anger before he has to meet the children. He has no idea how old the young princes are, but it would do no good for their first memories of him to be ones filled with his rage.
Castiel uses a small cup that Ash provides to dump water over his head and shoulders, rinsing away the dirt and stink Ruby claims he has. Do they really think anyone in his tribe would have attended such an important meeting without washing both their bodies and their clothing? He had even used soap root on his hair and skin – a luxury that servants apparently do not have here. At least he has some in his pack still with his horse in the stables and he might be able to find some in the forests of the Lowlands.
What few meager possessions that Castiel owns is with his horse. The pain is still fresh from when he was told to pack everything. While he rinses himself clean, Castiel finds it hard to stop wondering what exactly it is that he did wrong. What did he do for his superiors – for the Chieftain – to decide that he was worth trading? Was he not a good enough fighter? Are the tattoos across his back and already spreading down his arms not enough to prove his worth to stay?
“That’s long enough.” Ruby pulls the cup from Castiel’s hand and replaces it with a clean strip of cloth. “Dry yourself and get dressed. The King wants you to meet the princes before I show you to your quarters. Your lessons begin starting tomorrow.”
Castiel stands and steps out of the tub. Usually he prefers to dry in the sun, but a cloth will do for now. However, the clothing that Ash holds out to him will not be acceptable. Leaving the boots aside, the stockings will be uncomfortable and the tunic has so much unnecessary fabric. He’s not even sure if it’s going to fit him properly. How do they know if it will or won’t?
“Ruby can have a bit of a temper, my friend.” Ash whispers, leaning in closer as Castiel hesitantly takes the clothing from him. “It’s best to just do what she says before she starts thinking about putting a curse on you.”
“She practices magic?” That is certainly a surprise. Castiel was under the impression that the Lowlanders hated witches and the sort.
Ash’s shoulders rise and fall in a quick shrug as he gives Castiel the room to pull his undergarments on before attempts the stockings. They go almost all the way to the strip of cloth between his legs and are held in place by a thin rope similar to the strings that Castiel uses to keep his usual trousers closed. It is obscenely uncomfortable and Castiel hates it with the same passion that he does the white undertunic he pulls over his head.
It falls almost all the way to his knees and the sleeves are loose around his arms though the wrists are tighter. They remind him of his pants, though they have no tie to tighten them. The fabric stretches across his shoulders and everything feels too small and tight. He doesn’t try moving until the colourful sleeveless tunic is over his head too and a belt has been tied around his waist. There’s too much fabric over his legs and all it does is confirm his suspicions.
His flexibility is compromised by the fabric bunched along his arms and across his chest. He feels weighed down and the fabric makes his skin itch. Castiel flexes his legs, crouching and surprising Ash and Ruby with a few experimental kicks. It feels like the stockings are slipping down his thighs and he doesn’t like that sensation. He can ignore it if need be, but why must he be forced into foreign clothing when he’s already being forced into a foreign land?
“How long do I have to wear this?” Castiel asks as he leans against the edge of a table to pull the boots on. They pinch around his feet though they’re still a decent fit, but he’s not used to wearing hard leathers and wood pieces. The shoes he wears during the cold months in the warm lands are made of hides and furs and feel far more comfortable than this.
“These will be yours now.” Ruby gestures at the outfit Castiel is wearing. “You can go to market and purchase more if you want. But on your own time and with your own coin.”
He looks up sharply, a heavy frown twisting his lips. “These are not mine. I want my own clothing. Return my trousers.”
Ash winces and shakes his head as Ruby puts her hands on her hips. “Have you any idea how improper it would be for you to walk around half naked like that? Those trousers are being washed and you’ll have them returned to you, but you absolutely cannot wear them in the castle.” Her sharp gesture at his current outfit spikes anger through Castiel’s chest. “You live here now and that is what you will wear.”
It takes a deep breath to calm Castiel’s heart. This is for his people. This is for their survival and their prosperity. For them, he can weather any uncomfortable clothing. There is nothing he can’t accustom himself to. Even if the collars of the tunics are close enough to his throat that he feels like they choke him, or that the fabric is stiff and too tight over all his limbs. It will take time, but Castiel might be able to adjust or adapt to moving with them eventually.
Of course, he won’t hate it any less.
“Fine.” Castiel bites out between clenched teeth. His hands ball into fists at his side and he tilts his head in a bow to Ruby. “Please, lead the way.”
There is much that Castiel knows about the Lowlander’s kingdom. He knows the name of the King and the members of his court. He knows that the King fathered two sons and his Queen died from a sickness acquired during the birth of their second son. Their names are Dean and Sam and Castiel can hazard a guess at their ages from the information he has.
And he isn’t pleased to find that his guess is accurate when he’s led into a chamber scattered with more toys than Castiel thinks all the children of the tribe lands have. There are dolls and small wooden animals grouped messily across the floor and rugs, interspaced with a few toy swords and shields, several balls of various sizes, and a number of hoops. A variety of instruments that Castiel doesn’t recognize are laying on shelves, but he is familiar with an unfinished game of chess on a table in the corner. They use it in the tribes to train the minds of the warriors for strategy.
“The small one is Prince Samuel, though he throws a fit if you call him by his full name.” Ruby explains in a whisper as they stand in the space behind the tapestries hanging from the ceiling, out of sight of both the boys – as a servant should always be, to his understanding. “This is his fourth year. We celebrated his birthday just a few moons ago. Prince Dean is four years his elder. I don’t suggest letting his age fool you. He is very smart for a child.”
Castiel swallows his groan. They’re so young and he’s supposed to be the one to raise and train them? Why? Would it not make more sense for him to be in charge of simply their training? None of this makes sense to Castiel. Though his simmering rage is doing little to clear his sight to see everything that he should. He sighs and shifts uncomfortably in his new clothing.
“What are to be my duties?”
“You will be their personal attendant. More so for the crown prince, Dean. He will take the throne next.” Ruby explains quickly. “Your position will require protecting them from any and all threats, obviously. You will ensuring that the princes attend scheduled lessons with their tutors and it will be your duty to teach them how to be proper gentlemen.”
Fantastic. A task that is nearly impossible. Castiel barely knows anything about what Lowlander’s consider proper. How is he supposed to instruct them of anything when he is – as Ruby so kindly pointed out before – a barbarian? The question is on the tip of his tongue, but Ruby continues her explanation.
“Of course you won’t be able to do any of that until you’re properly trained yourself.” She sighs and waves her hand as if she were dismissing the subject. “Until your own training is complete, you will be acting as nothing more than a servant attending to their needs and their protector. Matron will continue to oversee their education.”
“Who is this Matron everyone speaks of?”
Ruby rolls her eyes and tosses the black curls that spill out from under her cap over her shoulder. “An angry old woman. She helped raise our last King, and our current King, but she is far too old to keep up with our young princes. For whatever reason, the King has chosen you to take her place.”
Castiel refrains from rubbing a hand over his face just to try and rub away his frustrations. “Will the princes be introduced to me today or will I be meeting them after this required training?” Everyone seems to know so much more about this than he does. How long has King Winchester and the Chieftain known about the trading of his services for even the servants to know of this?
“Today.” She grabs him by the arm and tugs him forward. “They need to get used to your presence before they can be expected to follow your guidance.”
Fantastic. He sighs and allows her to drag him out into the open. Immediately, the room falls silent. The princes are playing alone in the center of the chamber, but there are a few guards posted by the entrances and another servant stands at the ready should the princes need anything. Prince Dean lifts his head and his eyes go wide.
Even at his age, he should be able to tell the difference between an Aladaï and a Lowlander. Castiel looks very different from the other adults in the room. His tanned skin is a stark contrast to Ruby’s pale cheeks. Most Lowlanders that he has seen don’t bronze as easily as the Aladaï do. The servants and the royals aren’t outdoors nearly enough for it.
Their skin aside, the majority of Lowlanders have long hair. Even their warriors have it and the only logic Castiel can see in having it is if they manage to keep their head (and hair) in their helmets through every battle. Long hair is a danger in a fight. It’s too easy to grab and if it comes loose it can obscure a warrior’s vision. It’s for that reason that all Aladaï cut their hair short.
Prince Dean’s green eyes only get wider the closer Castiel and Ruby get to him. He ducks his head and whispers something to Prince Sam and his little brother turns to look with eyes that are just as wide. Ruby tugs Castiel’s arm when she bows to the princes, as if that is enough to make him bow to. Castiel feels stiff in these clothes and overly formal as he waits for Ruby to finish the introductions.
“Your highnesses, the King has commanded that I introduce to you this man.” She lets go of Castiel’s wrist and gestures at him. “His name is Castiel and, by the King’s command, he will be replacing the Matron as well as taking over the duty of training you in the art of combat.”
“Dean.” Prince Sam hisses in surprise, tugging at Prince Dean’s arm. He looks to him with wide, almost panicked eyes. Castiel can only imagine what horrific stories the Matron and other servants have filled their young heads with.
Prince Dean shakes his head sharply and stands to step in front of his brother. “No!”
Ruby sighs through her nose and forces a smile while she continues her introduction. “My apologies, your highness, but the Matron is being removed from her services. She will only ensure that you attend your lessons for the time being. Castiel has his own training before he will take on his full duties, but he will be performing basic tasks for you until then.”
“I said no.” Prince Dean shakes his head again, his upper lip curling back in a sneer. “I don’t want him.” Even Prince Sam shakes his head while he peeks out from behind his brother. “We don’t want him. He’s one of the dirty people. Matron said they’re monsters.”
“Your highness –”
Prince Dean stomps his foot and glares up at them both. “Tell Father no. We want Matron.”
The simmering anger in Castiel’s chest flares brighter and his fists clench tightly at his sides while he stares down at the little Prince. Not one word has passed his lips to this child and already he knows that this is not going to be an easy assignment. Castiel’s predecessor, this Matron, has held this position for decades. Is that how long he will be expected to guard over these princes? Possibly Longer?
This is one challenge that Castiel does not relish undertaking.