Tavros wheezed on air thick with the stench of uneasy beasts and sweat soaked lowbloods. He crinkled his nose despite the familiarity of the scents. They were not the smells of home. They were not the happy smells of a well run ranch and an overworked but loving family. A slavemarket, no matter how much it mocked illusions of a far gone home, was still a cesspool of broken lives and broken dreams.
The other slaves, not unlike the livestock that grunted on either sides of their large wooden enclosure built of high timber fences and bolted lock, huddled together in masses. Tavros sat alone on a far wooden wall. Rises of splinters pressed through the thin fabric of his rags and scraped against his bare skin. He was numb to the pain.
He was numb to a lot of things.
Somewhere in the crowd, someone started to cry.
At some point in his life, Tavros would have turned his head to see, to help, but those times were over. Not a single person looked up. Pity was in short supply.
Tavros closed his eyes. It made it easier to pretend he was still free.
The pen gate groaned open and a slave guard's gruff complaints complemented it like music. It was among the many sounds Tavros had grown accustom to the few short months he had spent in slavery. The human guards of that particular market were a small relief to the unforgiving trolls of past markets.
At least humans were soft.
The light of midmorning shone through cracks in the timbers into dust heavy air and Tavros opened his eyes. Other slaves, the ones who had been on open market far longer than himself, had told him with dead voices the inner workings of the market. High class citizens, troll and human alike, were given first choice with every new shipment.
By the looks of the young man that towered over the guard, he had trumped all other buyers.
He was dressed in fine lightweight leather armor that creaked with each step as he walked the length of the pen, eying the slaves as he went. Atop his head was a crimson turban, small, sleek, wound tight around his head before the rest of it fell to his shoulders. Blonde-white hair stuck out against the tanned skin of his forehead. It was the only light thing about the man.
The guard slipped away. He had better things to do than breathe the same stinking air. Tavros didn't blame him.
Veteran slaves turned their heads down like guilty dogs, eyes meeting everything but their potential master. Tavros kept his head propped back against the wall, his own apathy kept him from cowering with the rest. That and traces of a pride he refused let go. Even when the rod came down, he spit his earthy blood in defiance and wore the bruises like badges of honor.
When the man turned in the growing light, it caught something at his hip. A sword hilt, gold and intricate. Tavros let his eyes trace over the bends in metal and pristine leather. The craftsmanship was unlike anything he had even seen. Even from a distance he knew when something demanded respect.
“Like what you see?”
Tavros hadn't notice the man stop in front of him.
“Um.” Tavros bit his lip as he picked careful words. Most of his bruises were from talking out of line. “It's a very nice sword.”
Tavros looked up. He hardly noticed the smirk. Instead his attention fell on the man's bright red eyes. They seemed out of place on a human, but human eyes were strange. They were too small, too white, and too useless for anything other than daylight. They didn't even follow a proper hemospectrum.
The man's deep voice broke Tavros out of thought.
Tavros rose to his feet, not once breaking eye contact.
“Wanna hold it?”
“Uh.” Tavros blinked. It sounded like a trick question. “I-”
“Here. Take it.”
The man lifted the sword up by its sheath as an added invitation. Tavros cocked his head in confusion, eyes running up and down the man for any telltale signs of malicious intent. When he found nothing, he reached out and placed a hand on the grip. As an extra precaution, he glanced up at those red eyes again. They looked back with nothing but patient expectation.
Tavros unsheathed the sword.
Trembling slaves cried out and shrank farther away. In the slavepens, bare blades only meant death. But Tavros didn't hear the gasps and weeping. His entirety was focused on the blade and his eyes took in every crisp inscription, trying to find meaning he would never know. It felt good in his hand, unlike any sword he had ever had the chance to hold.
“Eh.” The man made a noise as he tilt his head to get a better look. “Your form is a little off, but I'd say you're a natural.”
Tavros mouth gaped. “R-really?”
The compliment had thrown him so off guard that he would have dropped the sword had its owner not pulled it from his grasp and resheathed it.
“How old are you, kid?”
“Um. Sixteen, sire.”
“Kinda old, but who says you have to do everything by the books?” The man shrugged and turned, motioning for him to follow. “Not Dave Strider that's for damn sure.”
Tavros followed with dazed steps.
After payment and Dave declining the offer to have Tavros branded, the two left and mounted Dave's large horse. As they traveled through the streets, people parted to let them through. A few called out in praise. Tavros gave them puzzled looks before he ignored them to take in the sights of the city. He hadn't seen it outside of barred caravans.
Cities were much different than the ranch and small village he was used to. The buildings were larger, made of brick and stone and so close that they lined up like soldiers. City folk were busier, quicker, rushing about like scurrying chickens. They were loud too. Merchants shouted out their wares over the buzz of the crowd and the grunt of beasts.
Tavros had never seen so many humans and trolls in one place before. They blended like they could have belonged together.
When they approached the castle, Tavros's eyes went wide. It dominated the city with huge towering spires and fortified walls, much thicker than the ones surrounding the city. Lines of guards let them pass as the horse clopped along.
They stopped at the stables and Dave led him to a large open courtyard with an elaborate garden. Tavros kept close to Dave. It didn't feel right to be there. He was just a lowblood. Even if he entered the castle as a slave, he was still treading on ground far too sacred for his kind.
A dark haired young man looking about Dave's age, possibly younger, scampered over to the two. A set of colorful marbles, which moments before had been levitating around each other, fell and bounced off the cobblestone walkway. Tavros dodged a stray blue one.
“Egbert.” Dave grunted as he was pulled into a death grip of a hug. “I need you to sign some papers.”
“Oh?” John pulled back, his face was serious for a moment before he looked over at Tavros with a grin. “Who's this?”
“This here,” Dave ruffled Tavros's hair, “is my page.”
Tavros's eyes shot wide open and he choked. “W-What?”
“Oh wow! You finally got one.” John cleared his throat and took a short bow, “Greetings, I am John Egbert, Prince of Prospit. At your service, young knight in training.”
Tavros forgot how to breathe.
“The nobles won't like this.” John grinned all teeth.
“I know.” Dave's tone changed to something more serious. “I need you to grant him citizenship.”
“A slave too, huh? Heh heh, you're really trying to piss them off, aren't you?”
“They need some excitement in their otherwise painfully boring lives.” Dave pat Tavros on the back and the boy stumbled forward. “He ought to twist their skivvies so deep they'll need a Sister to dislodge 'em.”
John laughed until he noticed Tavros sway. “Is he okay?”
Tavros gasped and nodded as his arms flailed for balance. “Y-Yes, Sire. Y-Yes.”
“Hey, no need for that fancy stuff. Just call me John, okay? We're friends now,” he paused, “what was your name?”
“Tavros N-Nitram, Sssi—John,” he huffed as he corrected himself, lips pulled back in a weak smile.
“You've got the best teacher, Tavros.” John beamed and Dave rolled his eyes. “You'll be one of the best knights, I just know it! I'll go get those papers ready for you now, okay?”
John ran off across the courtyard and passed a very disgruntled troll with gold eyes behind dark spectacles. He grumbled in the prince's direction then sneered in Dave and Tavros's direction before seating himself by a patch of bee buzzing flowers.
Every bit of Tavros's being shivered for hours.
After the prince directly granted him his freedom, after a trip to the royal tailor to be fitted and measured and dressed in new clothes, after a fine feast of a meal the likes of which only graced his dreams, after a cool bath in a private bathing room with richly scented soaps and after dressing in a nightgown far too large for him, his body still shook.
He was a page. The thought seemed as foreign as it had the first moment. His heart beat faster when he thought of what a page would become. A knight. A knight. Tears stung the edge of Tavros's eyes and his breath caught with tight heat whenever he reminded himself of that fact.
His father would have been proud.
The shaking finally died down when Tavros went to bed. For the first time in his life he had his own room, his own bed. No need to share with anyone.
As Tavros lay back he lifted the quilt up to his chin, allowing himself the grin he had been holding back all day under the watchful eye of his new life.
Life had been unexpectedly kind to him and he was certain his dreams would be just as forgiving.
He was wrong.
Always fire, raging and burning.
Tearing like the maw of a beast who had no flesh to bleed out. No flesh to slay. Its heart beating only to the tune of its destruction. Its life lasting only as long as its insatiable hunger.
A beast who only consumed, ripping all in its wake, turning it to dust and screams.
Clear as the night they first left panicked throats.
Chorused with the smash of timber and the strangled cries of terror. Terror in troll and terror in cattle. The flames blinded them and welcomed them with open arms into the searing jaws of death.
The flames consumed, burning bright through heavy rain. Rain that brought hope to slaying the beast, but did nothing to even wash away the tears.
Timbers licked by flame crashed, slammed, trapped, silenced the cries of the prey caught in fiery claws.
In the smoke, thick and black, in the rain and lapping flames, their eyes met for the last time.
One set knew. The other blurred with tears. A million things were said in a single glance, a million more put to rest by fate as it crumpled in on its kill.
And the thunder roared. The distant mother of the beast, spitting, grumbling, threatening to unleash her brood again and again until there was nothing left but emptiness and rain. Cold rain that turned dust to mud and dreams to unwaking nightmares.
Tavros bolted upright in bed, chest heaving and burning as he tried to pull air in through an open mouth. His face was soaking wet.
The light of a fayfire latern, set low, lit the room with long shadows as the door opened. Dave stepped inside, wearing only a pair of leggings that drooped down his hips as if he had been in a hurry to pull them on. His hair was still wrapped in the crimson cloth.
Tavros sniffled and lifted his arm to wipe his face.
There was a long pause as Dave set the lantern on the boy's bedside table.
“You're crying,” was Dave's blunt observation.
Tavros tried harder to wipe the evidence away. “I'm not anymore.”
“Knights don't cry.”
“I know.” Tavros hiccuped and looked up with gloss laden eyes. “I didn't mean to.”
Dave grabbed a wooden chair from the other side of the room and set it down by Tavros's bed before plopping down. His bright eyes so serious Tavros had to glance away. Even though they were human eyes, weak to darkness, they still felt piercing.
“You have to learn to control that, kid.”
“I know, I just--.”
“Do you miss them?”
Tavros looked up. Half of his mind was miles away, caught in the memories the question awoke.
“Yes, well, of course. But.” His fingers worried with the quilt. “I wouldn't cry over that. I knew it'd be like this.”
He closed his eyes then quickly opened them. It was too easy to see unwanted things with them closed.
“It was just a nightmare,” Tavros bit his lip. The edges of his eyes threatening to spill tears again.
Dave watched him for a moment before he sighed and rubbed his temples. It was very late. Though the villa was away from the bustle of the city, night had hushed it to distant whispers.
“There are a lot of nightmares in the world, kid. Can't go off crying about it. No. We're the ones who are supposed to do something about it. We're supposed to be the ones who bring 'em down and destroy them when others can't.”
Dave leaned forward as his voice deepened. “We're supposed to be strong where others aren't.”
Tavros shrank down under his covers with a slow nod.
Dave sighed again, much softer this time, and leaned back in his chair. It creaked under the change of weight. “What was it about?”
“Fire,” Tavros eyes were so wide that even the corners of white were visible.
Dave went quiet for a moment as his eyes read over the boy's face. The boy's trembling lip, his damp, squinting eyes, his uneasy fingers picking at threads of his blanket. Dave's eyes looked very tired.
And very understanding.
“You lost something important.”
Tavros closed his eyes and swallowed before he could speak.
“Y-yes. I did.” His words faltered, but tried to stay on their mark. “I did.”
A hand, large, warm, gentle, settled on his shoulder and Tavros's eyes snapped open.
The face Dave gave him wasn't unlike the regular stern, strong, confident and unwavering face the man usually wore, but there was something extra there. Something perhaps in the corner of his strange eyes or his mouth. Somewhere where the strength went lax and the edge was soft.
“I lost everything.” Tavros clenched his teeth in a frown. His canines clicked when they met. His brow was tight, determined, trying to hold everything in.
A few tears escaped despite his efforts.
Dave leaned back, coughed to the side and ran his hand over the loose fabric that covered his hair as if he had forgotten it was there. His fingers slid over the turban in an unusual motion before he adjusted it and he gave Tavros's shoulder a squeeze.
“Hey. Look at me.” Dave nudged him until he turned and obeyed. “Look. Life is all about loss. And I know you know what that's like firsthand.”
Tavros nodded and tried to sit up straight, to seem strong when every bit of him wanted to curl up and cry. He had a duty now. A duty he intended to uphold until there was no breath left in his battered body.
“The thing about fire is,” Dave ran his palm against his own scruffy cheek, “that yea, it'll take a lot. It'll lay down the destruction likes its nothing. But that's not what it's all about. ”
“Fire leaves something behind. In all that mayhem and ash. Burn a whole forest and what'd'ya got? Room for a whole new forest. New trees, new everything. And I know it hurts, I know it burns, kid. But that's what happens when you lose something.”
Dave pulled his hand away.
“So you have a choice here.”
Tavros questioned with his eyes. It felt out of place to speak.
“You can either cry about it, or,” Dave put his fist out in what he earlier described as an exchange amongst members of the Brotherhood, “you can turn it into something.”
“So what's it gonna be, kid?”
Tavros rose his fist to bump it against Dave's. It was not a time for hesitation. He had never been so sure of anything in his life.
Dave didn't try to hide the grin that graced his face. Tavros glanced at the man's odd pointed teeth before the same hand that bumped his fell onto his hair with a violent ruffle. Tavros laughed and squirmed, his eyes completely dry.
“So about those nightmares,” Dave reached over to turn off the lantern and the room went dark. The chair creaked as he made himself comfortable. “Don't worry about 'em, kid. I'll be right here.”
The replying grin was toothy and wide. “Really?”
“A knight's got to have his fellows' backs. Consider that your first lesson, kid.” Dave scritched at his turban.
“Shh, only dreams now, kid. Only dreams.”