Chapter 1: Anything to Survive
"I congratulate you, Mencius. Your gardens are impressive; you certainly know how to get the most out of your people."
Mencius dipped his head with a pretence of modesty. He knew that the older man's flattery was insincere, but, being well-acquainted with the game, he played along; his guest would be departing soon.
"There." Mencius pointed at a group of five elven men, all stripped to the waist, who were tilling a plot of soil in preparation for laurel trees to be planted. The elves chatted quietly while they worked, and, as they took a short break to draw water from the well, to outward appearances they were a group of friends enjoying a spot of gardening on a sunny evening.
Only, this group of friends were shackled at the ankles and wrists.
"Those are your bodyguards?" asked the older man, noticing that these particular men were muscular and well-nourished, and were obviously treated better than some of their contemporaries. "You put them to work in your gardens?"
"Some, yes," drawled Mencius, ensuring his guest knew that he was not without protection. "My Bellatori are my strongest and most deadly. Being in the sun affords them hardiness and gives them the illusion of freedom for a short time. They are more productive as a result."
The older man nodded distractedly. "You believe that giving them the illusion of freedom is a good idea, then?"
Irritated by the old man's questions, and deciding it was about time for him to depart, Mencius steered him closer to the group of elves. "The one with the black hair."
"That is your finest bodyguard?"
"He is the finest I will permit you to take. You will not have Ursus; we have already agreed upon this."
Suppressing a sigh, Mencius's guest eyed the dark-haired, wiry but muscular slave as he resumed work after taking a drink of water. "How is his temperament?"
"He is a skilled, fearless and vicious killer, and will defend you ferociously. He is also highly intelligent and can be wilful, and may occasionally show signs of independent thought, but a simple threat against his mother or sister will quickly subdue him. Only once did I need to have him beaten; he is a fast learner, and once was enough."
A smirk settled over Mencius's features. "Did you not know? They are also in my service, and have been for many years. If you want the best out of him, you had better take them with you, as well."
Angered, the older man crossed his arms and fixed Mencius with a hard look. "Our bargain was for one bodyguard."
"And I have fulfilled my part of the bargain," answered Mencius smoothly. "I give Leto to you. I am merely advising you that taking his family as well will ensure his loyalty. Heed or disregard my advice as you will; I care not."
Determined not to let the newly-appointed upstart see his displeasure, the older man stroked his beard and nodded. "And how are they?"
"Silvestra is a fair cook, but her hip is crook, and I do not use her for heavy labour. She is loyal and true, however. Varania is an adequate bed-warmer; I have taken her once or twice, but there are better. I let her service my bodyguards and perform domestic duties. Neither is outstanding, but then, they are free to you. Leto, however, is outstanding. I will miss him, in a way, I suppose."
"And his father?"
"He died last year. Leto accused me of working him too hard; that was when I had him beaten. He has not questioned me since."
"Very well, I will take them; I will find a use for them. I will speak to Leto now."
"This way." Mencius led his guest to a small outbuilding and snapped his fingers, a shackled elven male immediately arriving beside him and lowering his head. "Bring Leto to me," Mencius commanded without even looking at him.
"That's him, Leto-don't be so obvious! Don't stare at them!"
"He has come for me, has he not? Would he not want to take a good look at me?"
The elf quickly turned his friend around and thrust a shovel into his hand. "Don't jeopardise this opportunity, Leto; from what I hear, Danarius treats his slaves well. If you were to become his head bodyguard, you and your family would want for nothing. Don't antagonise him."
A dark eyebrow went up, along with one side of his mouth. "No doubt you are correct, Vionet. Very well; let him look at my posterior, if he so wishes." He bent slightly and began to dig.
"It's your best side."
An amused grunt came from Leto, turning into a quiet laugh. "So, what else do you know about this…Danarius?"
"Only what I've heard at Mencius's dinner parties." Vionet glanced around and lowered his voice. "Danarius has no idea that he's a joke among his fellow magisters. The things they say about him behind his back…that he is too old, weak, and is losing his touch. Once, he was feared and respected, but now there are many upcoming youngsters ready to take his place. They also say he's ill, but whether it's an illness of the mind or the body, I was unable to determine."
Leto paused, his eyebrow creeping higher, and the sun caught his green eyes as they turned on his friend. "Easily manipulated, then."
"Maybe. Aloisius certainly had him around his little finger; before he was killed in the tournament, he was Danarius's favourite bed-warmer. Danarius gave him his own apartment not far from his private chambers, so he was close by at all times."
Leto's hooded eyes slowly moved to the two magisters, who were talking at the other end of the garden, and he coolly regarded the grey-haired, bearded mage through his lashes. "He's not my usual taste, but I suppose it's better than being beaten. I can always close my eyes, can't I?" The dull timbre of his voice told Vionet that Leto was doing his best to convince himself of his words, but not entirely succeeding.
"You're fortunate, Leto," whispered Vionet. "Danarius is an old fool, and soft, from what I hear. If you please him, he will favour you."
A shadow passed over Leto's face. "So long as my sister and mother are cared for, I will give him whatever he wants. My own comfort is secondary to theirs. I will not have my sister being used as a bedwarmer. Mencius passes her around his guards like a bottle of cheap wine and wonders why I defy him. I would kill him if I could."
Vionet touched Leto's arm, alarmed by his glower and the low, harsh quality to his voice. "Leto, I want you to know that…your sister…I have never-"
"I know, Vionet. Have no fear. I know precisely who has." Leto's eyes moved over to a few of the other elves who were working with them, before – following a nudge from Vionet – he resumed his work.
"Here he comes," whispered Vionet, seeing one of Mencius's low-ranking slaves running over.
"Leto; the Master has sent for you," breathed the lackey. "Be quick."
Leto drove his shovel into the dirt, wiped his brow with his forearm and glared at the slave over his shoulder. "I will go because Mencius has summoned me, not because you order me to be quick. And you will address me in the proper manner."
"I-I meant no disrespect, Bellator," stuttered the elf, his eyes cast to the ground.
"Be off with you," Vionet directed, and watched as the low slave doffed a nod and scurried away.
"Vionet," Leto said quietly, placing his hand on the elf's shoulder, but averting his gaze. "If we do not meet again, it…was an honour to know you, my friend."
Vionet squeezed Leto's hand with his own before quickly releasing it and taking up his shovel. "The honour was mine. Amici aeterni."
"Amici aeterni," repeated Leto as he walked away. "Keep yourself alive. Anything to survive; remember that."
"Yes, anything to survive," sighed Vionet, daring one last glance at his friend's back. "Felicitas, Leto."
"I am here, as you commanded, Master." Leto stood before the two magisters, his hands behind his back, his posture straight, and his eyes fixed on the ground; even Mencius's elite Bellatori did not look their master in the eye.
"Leto, this is your new master, Danarius," said Mencius. "You will leave with him immediately."
"Master, may I speak?" Leto asked, his tone respectful and hushed.
"You may," Danarius answered, intrigued by the slave's bravado. His eyes wandered over Leto's bronzed, glistening skin, and, watching a bead of sweat run down Leto's neck, he felt a stirring in his loins he'd not experienced since Aloisius's passing. None of his other slaves had satisfied him since losing his prized warrior, and although he'd never before allowed himself emotional attachments to his servants, he'd been surprised at how much he'd missed Aloisius's company and loyalty.
"Forgive my impertinence, Master, but…what of my mother and sister?"
"They will accompany you," Mencius said impatiently. "Do not trouble Danarius further with inane questions. He requires a demonstration."
Leto's heart stilled momentarily and his breathing slowed; as long as his family were with him he would bear any manner of treatment. Having slumped slightly in relief, he straightened and nodded once. "Whom shall it be, Magister Mencius?" Once again his heart quickened, and he prayed that his friend, Vionet, had not done anything to displease Mencius. The life of a slave, no matter how prized, always hovered on a knife-edge, subject to the whims and fancies of their master.
"As reward for your service, you shall choose," replied Mencius. "But you shall not choose from the Bellatori."
"Gratias tibi ago, Magister Mencius." Leto bowed and released his pent-up tension in a long sigh, his eyes moving to another, nearby group of junior bodyguards who were also tending the gardens. Danarius noticed a grim, cold mask settle over Leto's face as his large, green eyes homed in on a red-haired, tattooed elf who was busy pretending not to watch.
"I give you leave to go, Leto," Danarius decreed. "Proceed with your demonstration."
"As you bid, Master." Leto once again bowed and stalked over to the group, who, although aware of Leto's imminent arrival, continued to work; the Bellatori, however, made no such pretence and watched with interest, leaning on their shovels.
"Did you enjoy my sister, Palaemon?" Leto demanded in a snarl as he moved behind the red-haired slave, who stilled his movements. "And did you enjoy her again, even after I warned you off her?"
"Bellator, please…" whispered Palaemon, knowing that his seconds were numbered.
"Have the courage to face me, degenerate," commanded Leto, his voice flat and cold.
His hands trembling as they gripped his shovel, a fleeting insanity took the doomed elf and he whipped around, his heavy implement swinging wildly at Leto's head; Leto had anticipated his move, however, and nimbly ducked, driving his shoulder hard into Palaemon's groin. Winded, Palaemon bent double, and, in less time than it takes one to blink, he was belly-down on the ground, his arms jerked behind his back.
"Think of her now," Leto growled, lowering his mouth to Palaemon's ear. "It will be the last thing you remember." With Leto's hands moving in a blur, Palaemon's neck was snapped quietly and efficiently, and Leto got to his feet, his shoulders and chest heaving as he dashed sweat out of his eyes. Immediately, the nearby slaves hastened to pick up the body and carry it away; such incidents were neither unusual nor unexpected.
"I will not forget any of you, or what you did to her," Leto threatened bitterly, his fists clenched at his sides as he eyed Palaemon's group.
"That will be sufficient," Mencius called over dispassionately, and Leto stood down from his aggressive stance, closing his eyes for a second and taking a deep breath before returning to the magisters. "As you can see," Mencius said to Danarius, "he is swift, clean and merciless. Does he please you?"
"He does," answered the older magister breathlessly, deeply stirred by such a display of strength and violence.
"Will you fuck him before you depart?" Mencius asked. "A long journey awaits you."
"Yes, I believe I will."
"I will have you shown to a room." Mencius snapped his fingers and one of his faceless, nameless lackeys once again appeared, as Leto halted next to them. "Take Magister Danarius and Leto to the Blue Room. Have a bath drawn for Magister Danarius in one hour's time."
"At once, Master."
"And have Varania brought to my chambers," Mencius ordered, smiling as he noticed Leto's sharp inhalation and stiffened posture. "I may as well get some use out of her while she is still here. Unless, of course, Leto has any objections?"
All eyes turned to Leto, his own eyes settling on Vionet, who stood a short distance away, mouthing, "anything to survive."
With a small nod to his friend, Leto vowed to himself that this would be the last time his sister was defiled. Whatever it took.
"Of course not, Magister Mencius. It is not my place to question."
"No, it isn't." With a wave of his hand, Mencius dismissed his servants. "I will await you in the library, Danarius; we shall take a drink together before you leave. Enjoy him, as I shall enjoy his sister."
Nodding at the younger magister, Danarius followed Mencius's slave, and Leto fell into line, two steps behind his new master.
As the door was closed by Mencius's servant, Danarius glided over to one of the large windows and looked out with his hands clasped behind his back. Leto waited by the door, trying not to think about what Mencius was doing with his sister. He watched as Danarius's shoulders rose and fell, and noticed the light tapping of the magister's foot. A sign of nervousness? Surely not?
Were the rumours true? Had Danarius lost his touch? Was he soft on his slaves?
"Mencius speaks well of you," Danarius said, still facing away, and waited for an answer. When none came, he turned his head slightly. "Well?"
"I am honoured by his kind words, Master," answered Leto.
"If I ask you a question, you may reply without waiting for my leave. I know that Mencius does not permit this, but I am your Master, now, and you may reply freely."
"As you say, Master."
Danarius slowly turned around, his hands still folded behind his back. Leto, who was determined to test his new master, did not avert his gaze as the magister stepped closer to him. Such a bold action would have invited severe punishment from Mencius, but Leto wanted to see what Danarius was about. If Leto was beaten, at least he would know where he stood.
If he wasn't beaten, however…
"You would look your master in the eye?" asked Danarius, his voice gruff.
"Would you have a wolf or a sheep as your protector?" asked Leto, bracing himself to be struck.
To his utter shock, however, Danarius grinned slowly, a deep, quiet laugh rumbling through him. "Mencius was right; you are wilful. Only one other slave I have known has dared to look me directly in the eye. Up until last month, he was my head bodyguard, and he served me well for six years."
"I will do my best to serve you as well as my predecessor, Master," said Leto with a dip of his head.
"You presume much," Danarius replied, a hard edge entering his voice. "I said nothing of your role. You will serve me in whichever capacity I see fit."
The blow came from nowhere and forced the air out of Leto's lungs as pain spread through the left side of his face. Drawing a shaky breath, he straightened his posture and once again met Danarius's gaze. "Of course, Master; forgive my insolence," he said with a steady dignity.
"You're a proud one," Danarius said, his smile returning as he rubbed his knuckles. "There is nothing more despicable than a simpering, pusillanimous slave. Do you know what pusillanimous means?"
"Yes, Master; it means cowardly."
Danarius's eyes narrowed slightly, and he nodded. "As much as I detest cowardice, let there be no mistake that you will know your place, Leto. I am your master. If you respect that, then there is no reason why we cannot have an amicable relationship, where you are free to speak your mind. Within reason, of course."
Leto bowed and then stood up straight. "I know my place, Master. May I presume to speak my mind now?"
Danarius cocked an eyebrow and folded his arms. "Do."
"My sister," Leto began. "Her name is Varania. I humbly make one request of you, Master, and I will never again impinge upon your generosity. I ask that you do not use her as a bed-warmer; for you, or for anyone else."
"And why should I grant such an impudent request?"
"If you do, Master, then I will serve you with unwavering loyalty and will protect you without thought or question."
"I expect you to do that, anyway," answered Danarius, his voice once again taking on a harsh quality.
His heart thumping, Leto decided to take another risk. "If you do not, then you might as well kill me now. I will do nothing you ask of me, and you will be forced to beat, torture or kill me. You will have wasted your trip here today and you will lose out on a fine and loyal bodyguard. Master."
Taken aback for a second, Danarius quickly recovered his composure. "A fine bodyguard? That remains to be seen. If you please me, then I may consider it. Strip and lie on the bed."
"Gladly, Master," Leto replied huskily, a lascivious gleam in his eyes. Years of servitude had made Leto an accomplished actor, and he suspected that if he played his cards right, he could rise to a prominent position in Danarius's household. He moved to the bed, his eyes never leaving the magister's, and slowly and gracefully removed his trousers, not easy to do while manacled. "How do you want me, Master?" he asked as he clambered onto the bed and got onto all fours, squeezing his eyes closed for a moment when Danarius could not see his face.
Hearing a heavy robe drop to the floor, he felt the bed shift as Danarius knelt upon it and heard the magister's heavy breathing, which matched his own. A large hand grabbed his wrist and he was flipped over onto his back. His knees were forced up against his chest, and he quickly took in the myriad scars that were etched across Danarius's flabby body as the magister bore down upon him, his cloudy blue eyes alight with lust and power.
"You do have something of the wolf about you," grunted Danarius, and Leto felt the mage's erection press against his entrance. "I am your master. You will be my wolf, and you will look me in the eyes as I take you."
"I will, Master," groaned Leto, his eyes rolling back in his head as he arched his back, feigning arousal. "I will be your wolf."
Anything to survive.
Chapter 2: Education
Before departing for Minrathous, Leto gets a taste of his new life to come.
Thank you so much, Mary, not only for your beta but for your support and encouragement.
And a huge thank you to those of you reading, and for your comments and kudos. Your interest in this story is heartening.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Mother is coming, Varania. You must not let her see. Be strong. Weep when you are alone. Do you hear me?"
Leto placed his hands on his sister's arms, gently stroking, as they waited next to the rickety wagon that would bear them to their new home. Varania, who had not been permitted to bathe after Mencius had finished with her, released a shaky sob and nodded.
"Sister…we agreed; we must be strong for Mother. Do you remember what I told you?"
She nodded again and wiped her eyes. "Our bodies are but containers for our souls. Our bodies may be harmed or misused, but our souls are forever…" Her voice broke and she drew a deep breath.
"…Our souls cannot be tainted by the Magisters' foulness," Leto finished for her. "That part of us remains pure, beautiful and unspoilt, and that is what you must remember."
"Yes, Leto." Varania steadied her breathing and slowly raised her head. "I will remember."
"She draws near," he told her as their mother, Silvestra, hobbled closer on her stick, flanked by two of Danarius's servants. "Stand tall; you have nothing to be ashamed of," he whispered to Varania, reaching for the shoulders of her drab dress and smoothing the fabric, his hands stilling momentarily when he spotted several fingertip-sized bruises on her neck.
Quickly, he covered the marks with her collar, and placed his own hands behind his back, balling them into tight fists as he fought to master the fury, fast and fierce, that seared his stomach and gullet, and the pressure that pushed against the sides of his skull.
Strong emotions were not a commodity that a slave could afford.
"And what of you, Brother?" Varania asked softly, and the pressure in Leto's skull eased slightly, before pinpricks of irritation stabbed into his gut.
"Do not trouble yourself over me," he said, his voice harsh. Varania lowered her head and Leto's stomach churned.
He had not been the same since their father's death a year earlier. He had always vowed to protect his father and he'd failed utterly. He would not see his sister or mother suffer a similar fate. He would protect them no matter what, and had slowly begun to detach himself from his emotions, convinced that the less he felt, the stronger he would become.
When he was shown kindness or empathy, however, his self-imposed barriers crumbled and he was reminded that he was just a man – a man with feelings – and that was also something he could not afford. His sister would recover from his sharpness; she would not recover, however, if he allowed her kind words to blur his focus.
"Onto the wagon, slaves!" ordered one of Danarius's men, and Leto assisted first his mother and then his sister to climb aboard.
"Not you, Scutum Domini." Leto turned around, finding himself at the end of a sword. "Over there," said Danarius's flunkey, pointing to the head of the magister's entourage. "You have been granted the honour of walking beside Master Danarius during our journey home. Take your place."
"But…he cannot walk to Minrathous!" Varania protested from atop the wagon. "I have heard that the journey will take five days and nights!"
She was silenced with a touch to the arm from her mother, who shook her head in warning. Varania desisted but gave Leto a pleading look.
"It is but a test," her brother answered. "The first of many, I suspect. Fear not, Sister, Mother; I am up to it." He then faced the sword-wielding man and folded his arms defiantly. "The edge of your weapon is dull, Subditus. I go because I choose to, not because you wave your training sword at me."
With a mocking smirk, Leto walked to the side of Danarius's carriage, leaving the magister's bemused servants to secure the wagon.
"I fear that your brother's swagger will one day be his undoing," Silvestra murmured resignedly to Varania as they sat on the wagon's base, their shackles secured to it by the servants.
"He knows what he's doing, Mother. Hush now, and worry no more. Lean on me."
"Thank you, Daughter," groaned Silvestra, settling herself against Varania to take the strain off her aching hip. "Your words do not convince me, but Maker bless you for saying them."
Varania knew that her mother's devout faith in the Maker gave her strength, but it was a faith she did not share. What kind of deity would doom His children to a life, a fate, such as theirs?
Varania also feared for her brother, but did not give voice to her concerns for her mother's sake. She knew exactly where her brother had been before he was brought to the courtyard; she could smell male sex on him, a smell that she was all too familiar with. What would his role in Danarius's household be, she wondered, as it meant she did not wonder about her new position.
And at least she had stopped thinking of Mencius.
Leto, however, had not.
Holding the bridle of one of Danarius's rounceys, Leto looked back at the sprawling estate that had been his home since his early years, when he and his family had been acquired in Seheron and sold to Magister de Ralaga, Mencius's predecessor. Only two years ago, Mencius had defeated de Ralaga in a fight that was the culmination of the bitter rivalry between the two, and Mencius had inherited all of de Ralaga's estate and chattels, in accordance with Tevinter law.
During his tenure in the victor's house, Leto had learned a great deal. He had learned how to lie, to scheme, and to manipulate. He had learned to kowtow to his betters, and to treat his lessers with scorn. He had learned how to kill without mercy. He had learned how to separate himself from his body when one of Mencius's guests had sought 'entertainment'.
He had learned the cause of his thirteen-year old sister's swollen belly, and why, one morning, it was no longer swollen, and why she had cried for days, asking where they'd taken her child. And he'd learned again when she'd been fifteen. After that, her belly had swollen a few more times, but it had not lasted for long.
He had learned that men did not need to bleed to die, when he'd caught his father as he'd collapsed in the fields, and had held him until his breathing had stopped.
He had learned so much in his young life, and had forgotten only one thing: who he was supposed to be.
But he was still alive, at least; many of his friends had not been so lucky.
He watched from afar as the two Magisters stepped into the courtyard, and began the ritual of back-slapping, empty handshakes and false well-wishes. His eyes lingered on his former master, Mencius, and he imagined the sadist's hand closing around his sister's throat, heard his grunts, smelled his sweat and semen.
Heard her sobs.
"One day I will return, Mencius," he avowed. "If it takes the rest of my life, I will see you on your knees. You will pay for your and de Ralaga's depravity."
Leto's eyes moved to the bearded, grey-haired magister who had taken him, dry, not so long ago, and had made him bleed. He rubbed his cheekbone, where Danarius had struck him four times, for reasons Leto could not fathom.
It would seem he still had much to learn.
Danarius's fourth strike had thankfully brought the magister to climax, and Leto had been grateful for that, at least; he was also relieved that he'd left his mother's side before the swelling had become apparent.
But Leto did not shy away from the pain; he embraced it, for it signified he was still alive.
Danarius began to walk away from Mencius, and Leto straightened up as best he could, awaiting his master's arrival. When Danarius reached him, he looked Leto up and down, turning his new bodyguard's face to the side with his hand.
"Regrettable," mused Danarius, "but this will serve as a warning to better please your master." He released Leto's face and watched him expectantly.
"Pray, tell me where I erred, Master, and I will endeavour to mend my ways."
"Four times you closed your eyes, Wolf, when I had bid you not to. Were you enjoying yourself?"
"Of course, Master, but your pleasure is paramount. I will be better next time," Leto promised with a small bow.
"No," uttered Danarius, moving so close to Leto he could feel the old man's breath on his face. "Next time you will close your eyes twice as many times, even if I command you not to. I find I rather enjoy it when you disobey me."
An unpleasant rush through Leto's chest quickened his heart, but his expression remained impassive, and he nodded. "As you command, Master."
Stepping back, Danarius swept his arm in an arc, and Leto turned around to see. "Take one last look at this place, Wolf. Your new life begins here. Now, you belong to me."
Watching as Danarius clambered aboard his carriage and closed the door, Leto turned his back on Mencius's estate and began to walk as the carriage got underway, with only his thoughts for company.
He had learned much, but, as he would discover, his real education was about to begin.
'Scutum Domini' - 'Our master's shield'
'Subditus' - Subordinate, or one of lower rank or social standing. Used in the pejorative.
Chapter 3: Rude Awakening
Leto's belief that life under Danarius's regime will be more civilised is soon quashed, and he quickly makes new friends - as well as enemies.
My earnest thanks to Mary for your honesty, guidance and invaluable brainstorming and beta services. I would be lost without you.
This chapter contains implied child sexual abuse but is not at any time graphic or explicit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After almost five days and nights of travel, Danarius and his retinue of servants and bodyguards arrived at his sprawling estate in Minrathous.
Danarius's latest acquisition, Leto, had had the 'honour' of walking beside his master's carriage during their journey from his previous home in Anariel, a trek of more than eighty miles. Although Leto had been permitted to remove his boots at night and tend to his feet, they were now covered with so many blisters and sores that he no longer felt pain from them alone; the whole of his lower body hurt, and he did not know from where exactly the pain originated.
All he cared about was that his mother and sister were in good health at the end of the journey. They had been fed and sheltered, allowed to stretch their legs at regular intervals and perform their ablutions in privacy, albeit under guard.
Leto was particularly grateful that Danarius had forbidden even his bodyguards from using Varania; the fact Leto had paid for his master's generosity with his own body was of little consequence to him. Danarius had even allowed Leto to sleep in his pavilion for short periods and had healed the worst of Leto's injuries arising from their couplings, although Leto guessed that was so he would be ready the next time Danarius wanted to use him.
The last day of Leto's journey had been blessedly free of his master's attentions, and he used much of the time to consider his new situation.
He would have to rein in his arrogance and smart mouth, at least for a time; his new master seemed to take pleasure in Leto's defiance, but Leto would not be living with his master. He would be housed among Danarius's existing bodyguards, who might not take kindly to a newcomer – particularly one that the master had taken to his bed. He would not show weakness to anyone, however, and if that resulted in a challenge, so be it. He was ready – mentally, at least. A jolt of pain shooting up his leg reminded him that he was not invincible.
The wagons halted briefly while the gates to Danarius's estate were opened by two servants, who approached the carriage and asked their master his bidding. While they waited, Leto saw a few slaves who were tending the gardens avert their eyes and busy themselves. There was a definite hierarchy among slaves and these were somewhere in the middle, fortunate enough to be allowed outside and to be given work that wasn't too back-breaking. The lowest – the Proletarius - were the ones who cleaned the latrines and mucked out the horses; the ones who were fed on the leftovers of the higher slaves like Leto.
Slaves with enough skill and strength to serve as bodyguards were rare and therefore highly prized among the magisters, and on the whole they were well-treated. During the journey to Minrathous, Leto had heard from Danarius's servants that Danarius allowed his elite bodyguards – his Scuta - six hours of unbroken sleep per night and training every day, out in the fresh air. They ate well – in comparison to the other slaves, at least – and had bread and wine at their table every night as well as a serving of meat three times a week. Regular tournaments were held to weed out the weakest in Danarius's ranks, the victors rewarded with massages and 'assisted baths', as well as their master's praise and good will.
This was more generous than Leto was accustomed to: Mencius had not allowed any of his slaves alcoholic beverages and they were lucky to get four hours sleep per night before being put to work. Any Bellator showing weakness was merely put to death, or – if Mencius was feeling particularly cruel – subjected to the ignominy of being relegated to the rank of Proletarius.
This was an opportunity Leto could not afford to squander. He would gain his new master's favour by whatever means, ensuring a better life for his mother and sister. And one day he would take them away from all of this. He didn't yet know how, but until now he had never dared hope. Perhaps his more lenient new master would provide a way somehow. Leto would have to watch, and wait for his chance.
After receiving myriad orders from Danarius, the servants at the gate moved aside, hurried along by two of the mounted Scuta. Leto glanced back at his mother and sister's wagon, catching Varania's eye, and she nodded to assure him all was well. He returned the nod and quickly turned back, staying alongside Danarius's carriage as it trundled up the cobbled path.
His new master's estate was vast, its limits beyond Leto's sight. In all directions he could see plots of tilled soil, some bearing crops and others awaiting them, and in the distance an immense vineyard blanketed much of the western side. Several elves, male and female, worked the crops and occasionally Leto spotted an overseer among them, issuing orders. Mature fruit trees lined the path up to the main house, and, as he approached, Leto spied several stables and farmhouses to the eastern side.
The main house was a disappointment, however. It was large and undeniably grand, but it had seen better days. The stone façade was crumbling and covered in lichen, and wood pigeons had fouled the balconies and upper parts of the house. Two bronze gargoyles, dappled with verdigris, stared down menacingly from above the doors and Leto noticed, much to his amusement, that only one of them possessed a nose. The house was almost a monument to Danarius himself, or at least what Leto had heard of the man: a neglected, dilapidated remnant of a more affluent era.
Household servants surrounded the carriage as it pulled up to the front doors, where a smartly-dressed human waited, hands stiffly held behind his back. Leto knew immediately who he was. Mencius also had a human steward – not a slave, but a highly-trusted employee - to take care of the house in his absence.
"Do not crowd the master!" the steward commanded in a strange accent Leto had not heard before. Immediately, the servants stepped back, and the human cast Leto a cursory glance as he swept past him to open the door to the carriage.
"Welcome home, Magister Danarius," he greeted as he helped the mage down.
"Thank you, Jorgensen. Is all well?"
"Yes, indeed; there are a few trifling matters, but nothing urgent. I shall have a bath drawn for you at once, and food prepared. What are your orders?"
"I have two household staff and one Scutum. See to their induction. They will bathe and eat. Varania and Silvestra may undertake light duties for today, and commence a full schedule tomorrow; ascertain what is best suited to them. Leto will be treated well and will rest for the remainder of today; have him sent to me after supper. And, if you can remember all of that and implement it with your usual efficiency, you may take the rest of the day off, my old friend; you're earned it," said the magister with a smile, laying a hand on Jorgensen's shoulder.
"You are too kind," answered Jorgensen warmly with a slight bow, and he moved closer to Danarius, lowering his voice. "Was your visit…fruitful?"
"Yes, Jorgensen; I have the information I sought. Tomorrow, we will begin preparations," he uttered quietly. "I am most pleased; I have also gained a very capable bodyguard." He turned to Leto, who stood patiently next to the carriage. "You have proven your mettle, Wolf. Jorgensen will see to it that you are rested. You are going to be very useful to me over the coming weeks, and I'll need you at your best."
Leto bowed, wondering exactly how he would be useful, and if he would cease to be useful when the coming weeks mentioned by Danarius were over.
After Leto had said a quick goodbye to his family, promising to call on them later if he could, Jorgensen assigned a servant to take him to the bath houses, where he disrobed and was handed a towel to cover himself with.
"Boy or girl?" asked the servant as he led Leto into a small, fully-tiled room with a sunken bath in the floor filled with clean, hot water.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want a boy or girl to assist you?" the servant asked again with a confused frown.
"I need no assistance," declared Leto. "I can bathe myself."
The servant laughed and then he stopped, stunned that Leto really had no idea what he was talking about. "I'm sure you can, but nobody in their right mind refuses an assisted bath. If you don't want it, then I'd be happy to take your place."
"Oh," mumbled Leto, still uncertain of the servant's meaning but unwilling to show his ignorance. "In that case…a boy, I suppose."
"Get in the water, then, Scutum, and I'll send him in."
The servant exited and Leto glanced around before sitting on the edge of the sunken bath, wincing as his sore feet made contact with the water. He eased them in slowly and then withdrew one leg when it threatened to cramp. He was desperate to enter the water, though, and wash Danarius's smell off, so, gritting his teeth, he removed his towel and slid into the waist-deep water.
"Ungh!" he grunted, gripping the sides to steady himself when his legs buckled beneath him. Panting, he squeezed his eyes closed as his entire lower body seized up, and then, gradually, the stiffness and pain eased as the hot water gently buffeted him, soothing his tired bones and muscles.
"Good afternoon, Scutum Domini."
With an effort, Leto turned around as a naked elven boy - who he guessed to be eleven or twelve years of age – entered the water and waded over to him, carrying a pitcher and a bar of soap.
"I…did not expect you to be so…young," Leto muttered, averting his eyes. "When I asked for a boy, I thought…"
"Oh, I can assure you that I am experienced and quite capable, Scutum," said the boy with a deep bow, and, as he filled the pitcher with water, it struck Leto that his voice had not yet broken. "May I cleanse your hair for you?"
"Um…very well." Leto turned his back on the boy and ducked a little, closing his eyes as the contents of the pitcher were tipped over his head. After a pause for the boy to lather his hands, Leto felt small fingers massaging his scalp, but his tension did not leave him.
"Have you another bar of soap?" he asked the lad, whose hands stilled. "I can wash my body while you do that."
"No, Scutum," answered the boy warily. "I…I am here to perform that service for you."
Leto ground his jaw, a seed of discomfort taking root in the pit of his belly as a further pitcher of water was poured over his head, followed by another. A towel was passed to him and he blotted the water out of his eyes, and, when he looked at the boy, he appeared even younger close up.
"How old are you?" asked Leto.
"Twelve, only this autumn," he answered proudly.
"Give the soap to me," commanded Leto, holding a hand out.
The boy looked stricken, then, and passed the soap over with a trembling hand. "Have I…done something to displease you, Scutum?"
"No," answered Leto shortly, and he began to lather his chest and armpits.
"You-you cannot wash your own back, Scutum," he stammered, and Leto, suspecting that the boy might be punished for not performing a thorough service, relented.
"You may wash my back. Nothing else," he directed, slapping the soap onto the boy's outstretched palm, and he slowly turned around, his jaw clenching again as the boy's hands moved over his back.
"What is your name?" Leto asked to distract himself.
"Er, Lars," he answered hesitantly, seemingly startled by the question.
"You speak with the same accent as the steward…Jorgensen," said Leto, gulping as Lars's hands moved to his lower back. "From where do you hail?"
"The Anderfels; that is where Master Danarius acquires most of his slaves and servants," he replied matter-of-factly. "My family was brought here when I was ten, but there are younger ones than me. Some are born here. Would you like me to gratify you now, Scutum?"
Leto froze as he tried to process everything Lars had said all at once. "What?"
"Would you like me to gratify you?" he asked again, his hands sliding down to Leto's hips and moving toward his front.
"No!" cried Leto, surging away from Lars, cursing the water for slowing him down. He moved to the far side of the bath and stared, aghast, at Lars. "No! Why would I…what?" he spluttered as nauseating heat flooded his core.
"But, Scutum," the distressed boy pleaded, moving toward Leto.
"Stop!" he commanded stridently, thrusting his palms outwards, and Lars halted, his face a mask of panic. "I do not require…that."
"But that is what I'm here for, Scutum!" protested the boy, his face reddening. "I'll be beaten if I do not perform my service!"
"You will not be beaten," Leto said, deliberately, softening his tone and placing a hand over his eyes. "I will-I will tell them that you have performed your…service."
"I don't understand," mumbled Lars. "Were there no young slaves where you came from?"
"Yes, but none of them…as far as I know…they were part of a family." Leto uncovered his eyes and turned away from Lars, ducking under the water to rinse himself. He then moved closer to Lars and retrieved the towel, quickly drying his hair, and, gripping the side of the bath, he pushed himself up and out, wrapping the towel around his waist as soon as he was able.
"Go," he ordered the boy. "If I am asked, I will tell them that you were…" He struggled for the appropriate words and sighed. "…experienced and capable."
Lars hung his head, clearly confused, but he nodded and pushed himself out of the water, walking over to the far exit.
"Lars?" Leto asked, and the young lad turned around, worry marring his brow. "Are there others like you? With the same duties?"
"A few," answered Lars with a shrug.
"And how often are you expected…? How many times a day?"
"Oh, only when I'm called. Some days I'm not needed at all. I have other things to do as well."
"Such as?" Leto asked carefully.
"I look after my baby brother when Mother and Father are working. I prefer doing that; even when he messes himself I don't mind. He can't help it."
Leto nodded and stared at the water, lost in thought.
"If-if you've finished with me, Scutum, you should go through for your massage," advised Lars. "I know you're new here and might not know what to do."
"One moment," said Leto, and he walked around the bath and removed his towel, covering his genitals with one hand. "Take this."
"No, I mustn't," whispered Lars. "Don't worry; I can dry off in a minute. Have…have you finished with me now?"
"Yes," Leto uttered, and Lars nodded quickly before moving to the door.
"You're nice," Lars said with a bright smile before turning the handle and walking through the door, leaving it open. "He's finished!" he called out and Leto covered himself with the towel and waited, feeling anything but nice, and in dire need of another bath. Not that it would rid him of the shame he felt; he told himself he'd done nothing wrong but the gnawing ache in his gut persisted.
Before long, the same servant Leto had seen before entered. "That was quick," he remarked, raising his eyebrows at Leto's glare. "Suit yourself. Was he all right? Any complaints?"
"No, he did very well," answered Leto quickly. "What now?"
"You're to have a massage, and then Apprentice Hadriana will tend to those feet of yours. The master likes his Scuta to be tip-top. Through here."
He limped to an adjoining room, also fully tiled, where – to his relief – an elven man stood next to a long wooden table with a sheet draped over it. The masseur patted the table and Leto sat upon it.
"My name is Fridmund, Scutum. What do you require?"
"You tell me," Leto snapped, still reeling from his experience with Lars. "I was sent here; I did not choose to be here."
"Fine," said Fridmund airily, coating his hands in fragrant oil. "I heard you walked here from Anariel, so I'm guessing your legs and back need some attention, yes?"
"My legs." Leto brought his legs up onto the table and he lay on his back, ensuring his towel was securely in place.
"I also offer a full-body massage to those that want it," murmured the masseur, laying his hands on Leto's thighs, "so long as I get one in return, if you understand my meaning."
For a second, Leto was tempted; Fridmund was a handsome man, and it had been a long time since Leto had engaged in fully consensual sex, but then Lars invaded his mind again and the nausea returned. "Just my legs," he insisted.
"I get it. The boy did a good job, eh?"
"Just get on with it," commanded Leto, a warning in his tone.
Sighing, Fridmund began his work and before long, the pain Leto had carried around for the last five days began to acquiesce under Fridmund's expert ministrations. Fridmund made small talk during the massage but Leto was taciturn, answering only with grunts or single words, his mind elsewhere.
A further fear crept into his thoughts: would Danarius keep his word not to use his sister as a bed warmer? A man capable of using children in such a way was surely capable of anything? A rush of fury coursed through him, causing sweat to bead on his brow, and he pushed Fridmund's hand away.
"Enough," he growled. "I wish to rest. I was told I would be permitted to rest."
Pursing his lips, Fridmund wiped his hands on a towel and laid his hand on Leto's chest when he attempted to sit up. "Wait here for Hadriana. A word of advice, friend; drop the prickly act. Hadriana is Danarius's favourite apprentice, and she will not take kindly to your attitude. Neither will Danarius."
Leto closed his eyes, embracing the darkness behind his lids. He wanted quiet. He wanted sleep. He wanted to see his mother and sister. He did not want to be touched any more. Had his sister had to fend off similar offers of sex? Provided they were offers, he thought grimly.
He drifted into a troubled sleep, filled with whispers and half-glimpsed faces, waking with a jolt when his arm was sharply prodded.
"Wake up, slave!"
He slowly opened his eyes, a tall, human woman coming into focus. She was young, but her face was pinched and cruel, adding years to her. She tossed her dark hair over her shoulder and stared at him with icy blue eyes.
"I'm to heal your feet, then. Danarius must think well of you to have you walk beside his carriage."
Leto almost snorted at that, and then fancied he detected a hint of envy in her voice.
"I am Hadriana," she declared. "You will do well to remember that name. When Magister Danarius is absent, I am your master."
Leto had never heard of a female magister, let alone any woman being afforded a position of power within a Tevinter household, but stayed his tongue in case her words were true. Still, he found it difficult to see her as his master. "I thought you were going to heal my feet?"
"Do not dictate to me, slave," she spat, and Leto inwardly smirked; he'd riled her. "I will heal you when I choose. Do not think yourself special, slave; I am only here at the master's behest."
"Then perhaps you had better do as he orders. I do not imagine he will be pleased should his newest Scutum be ill-treated."
Knowing he spoke the truth, Hadriana laughed, hiding her irritation. "Beware, Elf; I could hurt you and leave no trace." She raised her hands, tiny arcs of lightning leaping from finger to finger.
This time, Leto laughed. "Do you really think Danarius will not detect another mage's touch? From what I can see, he is thrice the mage you are. Desist with your idle threats, and do what you were sent here to do. Your master ordered that I should rest. Your master, who is of higher rank than you."
His eyes, full of mocking derision, locked with hers, and her face tightened, her skin paling. She roughly grabbed one of Leto's feet and he held back a wince as she sent healing energy into his feet, glaring hatefully at him throughout.
"You are healed," she announced tautly, letting his feet drop to the table before moving to his side and leaning over him. "Danarius will not always be here," she threatened, "and you may come to regret your insolence. Scuta are still slaves, and one day I will be a magister. Think on that, Elf."
"Thank you, Apprentice," Leto called as she turned her back. She halted briefly before continuing to the door and slamming it behind her.
His head fell back against the pillow and he exhaled, his sense of smug triumph giving way to uncertainty. So much for reining in his smart mouth. Would she run to Danarius? Leto suspected not, as she would probably not want to show weakness in front of her master, but still he reprimanded himself; he would have to be more careful. At the moment he was useful to Danarius, but who knew how long that would last?
He was both relieved and annoyed when the ubiquitous but nameless servant again called for him, this time bringing clothes. He shrugged on the simple tunic and trousers and followed the servant, willing him to engage in conversation, but knowing he would be irritated by any such discourse. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts but was loath to give shape to them. He was exhausted and wondered if his legs would bear him to his next destination. He pushed all thoughts of his family and of the young boy – Lars – aside, having no energy left to commit to them.
He was eventually led outside to some old stables which housed approximately sixteen rough beds. The smell of horse piss lingered there, but it was still better than most slave quarters, and it had a roof. Leto no longer cared where he slept as long as he slept.
His guide led him to a bed at the far end, where a tray holding bread, cheese and grapes awaited him, along with a goblet of wine. He collapsed onto the bed and stretched out, too tired even to draw enough breath to yawn.
"Eat and rest," his guide directed him. "Be ready when the master calls for you after supper."
"Where is my family?" Leto drawled, seeing only the servant's midriff through his half-closed eyes.
"Go to the back of the house," the servant whispered. "The scullery, by the second largest of the fountains. Ask for them there. Go before supper," he warned.
"Th-thank you." Leto's lids closed, and he slipped into a dreamless sleep, his food and drink untouched.
Quiet chatter and laughter woke him sometime later, and he watched the three elves – obviously fellow Scuta, judging by their build - who were seated on the bed opposite for a while before one of them spotted him.
"Ah, he has awoken," one of them said to the others, and all eyes turned to Leto. "Welcome, friend. You are Leto."
"News travels fast, I see." Leto pushed himself up, a renewed ache in his legs, and he rubbed his eyes, yawning long and loudly.
"Come, join us," said another of the elves, and they all moved up the bed, allowing room for Leto to sit. Not wishing to offend his contemporaries, he moved over to the bed, wondering if they, too, were about to make advances towards him. If so, they would be disappointed; he had little strength, and knew that he needed to save every ounce of that for Danarius.
"I am Cecil, and this is Cornelius and Lindor," introduced one of the elves, and Leto nodded at each of them, detecting no hostility in their expressions.
"Are you well rested?" Lindor asked, and Leto smiled wryly.
"Ask me again in the morning…of next week," he replied, and the others laughed.
Lindor moved off the bed and walked over to Leto's bed, bringing the tray over to him. "Eat this, before it's stolen," he advised, and Leto took the food gratefully, offering the others a sip of wine before drinking the rest himself.
"We hear that you upset Hadriana," Cornelius remarked coolly, and Leto looked up from his food, his eyes betraying his anxiety that she would tell Danarius. "Have no fear," Cornelius reassured him, his tone warming. "She is too cowardly to tell the master. She will take out her anger on others; she will not defy the Scuta because Danarius prizes us so."
"She is lower than a worm to us, and so we always welcome news of one of her hissy fits," Cecil supplied. "You have done well to show your hand from the start. She is nothing but a bully. She barks and growls but has no teeth. And always she threatens that 'one day I will be a magister'. When it snows in Seheron, maybe!" he joked, and when Leto snorted, Cecil stole one of his grapes, cramming it into his mouth.
"Take them, if you wish," offered Leto, who, after eating some bread, felt quite full.
"You will make friends quickly here," quipped Cornelius, and the three Scuta helped themselves to Leto's leftovers. "Tomorrow we partake of meat. Should you feel as generous then, I will gladly relieve you of your burden."
"Do not encourage him, Leto," said Cecil. "He is a glutton whose breath gives out during training. Were we not to cover for him, he would be cleaning the clinkers from the master's backside."
"A vocation you yourself have coveted for many long years," Lindor jested, and all four elves fell about laughing; Leto, however, was the first to regain control of himself, wary of his words and actions.
"Ah, we must go," declared Cornelius, and all three of them rose. "Continue to rest, Leto, and we will see you back here for supper." Lindor nudged his arm, then, and whispered something to him. Cornelius sat back down next to Leto, his expression serious.
"Leto, have you met Maciel, yet?" he asked. "He is one of us."
"No; you are the only other Scuta I have met, besides the ones who travelled with us," answered Leto, and the other two elves sat back down.
Cornelius remained quiet for a moment before taking a deep breath. "Beware of him, Leto. Aloisius was Danarius's Scutum Primus until his death several weeks ago. Maciel sees himself as the natural successor. He is welcome to it, as far as we are concerned; no role is as dangerous. But he sees you as a threat, Leto; he wonders why Danarius brought you here and why you were permitted to walk alongside his carriage. He will not risk the master's wrath by directly challenging you, but he may seek to discredit or dishonour you; that is his way. He is raven-haired, as you are, but his hair is longer and he is very thin, and his eyes blue. You will know him; he is very striking."
"We must return," whispered Cecil.
They rose again, and Leto thanked them for the warning.
"You have no need to fear him yet," Lindor advised, "but be discreet in your dealings with the master. He has something in mind for you, that is clear; do not brag or boast of the time you spend with him. We sleep in the beds next to you, and we will be vigilant; we have had this in mind since we learned of your arrival. Now, we must go, before we are missed."
"Please," said Leto, rising and following them to the door, "how long before supper? I wish to speak with my mother and sister. I have been told that they are in the scullery."
The three elves glanced at each other, and Cecil grabbed Leto's arm, leading him outside, and he pointed at the main house. "Go to the rear and ask one of the maids. Be swift; supper will be taken in less than an hour. And Leto," he said gravely. "Do not tell anyone else that your mother and sister are here. Many of us – Maciel included – were torn from our family at a young age. It may come out in time, but do not draw attention to it. Now, be quick."
"Thank you," Leto said to the three of them before they went their separate ways.
Quietly, Leto made his way to the back of the house, ducking behind a shrub on occasion when he spotted another slave or servant. He found the second largest fountain and waited behind it until the doors to the scullery were opened and one of the maids emptied a large pail of dirty water.
"You there," Leto hissed from behind the fountain, and the maid stopped, looking around.
"'Oo is it?" she queried.
He slowly stepped out and walked over to the door, pressing himself against the wall. "Please, miss," he whispered, "I wish to speak with Varania or Silvestra; I was told they are here."
The maid glanced around. "You Leto, then?" she asked, and he nodded. "They's all right, but can't come right now; 'sour busiest time before supper, what wi' gettin' the napkins and tablecloths all pressed an' ready. I'll tell 'em you called in," she whispered back.
"Is Varania safe?" he asked, and the maid cocked her head, not understanding his meaning. "Has she been…called away? For the men?" he asked, his heart stilling in his chest.
"Naw, they's no men in 'ere. An' we all sleeps in the same place, all women, like. The men 'ere don't go after the scullery girls; find us too sweaty, they do. She's safe, an' your mam's fine; she's got a little chair all to 'erself."
Tears welled up in Leto's eyes, and he nodded, unable to speak for a moment. "Please," he cleared his throat, "please tell them that I am well."
"Course I will. Now, run along; we gots a pile o' the men's britches to scrub. They don't make brushes 'ard enough for some o' them gussets, I tell 'ee that for nothin'."
Leto grabbed the maid's hand and kissed it before disappearing into the bushes again. The stunned maid placed her hands on her cheeks before shaking her head and closing the scullery doors.
When he returned to the old stables, a frantic-looking servant met him outside. "Leto, where have you been?" he demanded.
"Do I know you?" asked Leto suspiciously, recoiling as the servant brushed a few small twigs off his shoulders.
"The master has sent for you; you are to take supper with him," the servant babbled. "Hurry up! We mustn't keep him waiting!"
Leto nodded and quickly walked alongside the servant, both of them failing to notice the raven-haired elf who leaned against the side of the old stables, his blue eyes following their every move.
Scutum/Scuta = shield/shields
Scutum Domini = master's shield
Scutum Primus = first/highest shield
Proletarius = the lowest (relating to social rank)
Bellator = warrior/warlike. Mencius's bodyguards are known as the Bellatori and Danarius's bodyguards are the Scuta.
Chapter 4: Pride Before a Fall
Leto doesn't know who to trust, so decides to trust no one at all.
Thank you, Mary, for looking over (at? :P) this chapter twice, and for your always excellent suggestions.
If any of you remember this story - because I'm so hopeless at updating it - this will be the penultimate introductory chapter. From chapter six, each chapter will tell of a specific event in Leto's life which will eventually become one of Fenris's buried memories.
That night, sleep evaded Leto for a long time as the events of the day replayed in his head. His mother and sister were safe at least, but he was not, it seemed. Not only had he been warned about the elf, Maciel, but Danarius wanted something from him, a fact that seemed to arouse curiosity – if not outright resentment - among his fellow Scuta. The question Leto asked himself was: what would happen when his master had what he wanted? Would Leto cease to be useful?
Danarius had summoned him at suppertime but had not used his body as Leto had expected. Instead, his master had questioned him on his former home, the numbers of Mencius's Bellatori and their individual skills, when the slaves rose and when they were put to bed, Mencius's security arrangements and several other subjects that Leto could no longer recall. During the civilised interrogation, Leto was plied with wine and fine food and Danarius's steward, Jorgensen, made notes.
What did it all mean? Was Danarius planning to seize Mencius's estate and chattels, just as Mencius had violently acquired Magister de Ralaga's assets? Such campaigns were not uncommon among rival magisters, and Leto would welcome Mencius's passing, but what of his friend Vionet? Did Danarius plan an absolute liquidation or a selective one, if that was indeed what he had planned?
Leto had barely escaped with his life during the assault on de Ralaga's estate, and many of de Ralaga's bodyguards had been killed. The few survivors – Vionet among them - were captured and immediately inducted into the Bellatori.
Would fate smile on his friend twice?
Perhaps this was the point at which he should foreswear his friendship with the blond elf. After all, if he was wrong about Danarius's schemes he would never see Vionet again and so there was little point dwelling on the close bond they had once shared. If he was correct, however, a situation might arise where he would be forced to kill his friend - former friend - in defence of his own life.
Could he do that, though? Could Vionet kill him?
Eventually he drifted into a troubled half-sleep. He was vaguely aware of where he was, and the sounds of shuffling, snoring and the inhibited, rhythmic grunting of the scutum in the neighbouring bed were faint and fleeting, only occasionally breaking into his consciousness.
Sudden pressure on his mouth and nose obstructed his breath and the reality of his surroundings crashed into him. He writhed and grabbed the hand that covered his lower face, digging his fingernails in, but his assailant did not flinch.
Slowly, the hand uncovered his nose but remained firmly clamped over his mouth, allowing him to draw several rapid breaths through his nose, not knowing when they would be stolen from him again.
He focused on the figure that loomed over his bed; a wiry elf with long, ebony hair and piercing blue eyes, who, with his free hand, held a single finger to his lips.
Leto ceased struggling and glared defiantly at the other elf until he'd regained control of his breathing.
"I do not intend to injure you, unless I am given reason to," whispered the black-haired elf, slightly easing his grip on Leto's face. "Will you be silent if I release you?"
Leto did not blink, nor did he acknowledge, or gesture his agreement to, the elf's terms.
The elf knelt down next to Leto's bed and slowly removed his hand; Leto breathed deeply through his mouth, flexing and stretching every muscle in his body, preparing to attack.
"Forgive me for causing you fright, but it was necessary," the elf explained reasonably.
"I do not fear you, Maciel," Leto spat out, his hands curling into fists, the tautness of his muscles at their peak, adrenaline coursing through his blood.
"You know my name. Good," said Maciel quietly. "And you do not fear me. That is also good, for you have no reason to."
"And yet you sneak up on me in the dead of night like a fox on the hunt. Do you not have the courage to face me openly?" challenged Leto, slowly coming up onto his elbows, his eyes fixed on Maciel, who smiled grimly.
"I come to you for your sake, not mine," he uttered. "You will hear me out, or you will not." He nodded to the far end of the stable, where the slaves' ablutions were undertaken, and stood up. "I require but a few minutes of your time." He walked away, his light footfalls not troubling the rotting floorboards to creak, and melted into the shadows.
Leto remained on his elbows as he stared into the gloom and rotated his head, his muscles protesting at not being given the release they needed. Did Maciel intend to kill him? Ravish him? Nothing would surprise him in this lair of depravity.
Well, Maciel would be in for a surprise if he believed Leto would be easily subjugated. The Scuta were not permitted weapons or sharp objects in their quarters, so Leto had had to call on his wits in order to protect himself. Reaching under his pillow, he retrieved the crust of bread he'd saved from earlier, which had now hardened. Snapping small pieces off, he fashioned a rough pointed object which he concealed in one hand. It would not deal a fatal blow, but it might inflict a nasty scratch or gouge, which could give him an advantage in combat.
He sat up and watched the shadows, seeing brief glimpses of movement as Maciel slowly paced back and forth, hands behind his back, occasionally pausing to look in Leto's direction. Leto stood, his eyes on Maciel's hands as he carefully approached. Was he also concealing a weapon?
The three Scuta who'd warned him about Maciel – Cornelius, Lindor and Cecil – were all asleep, or appeared to be. Leto was alone.
Arriving at the crude bathroom in his own time, he moved beside a window where he was visible and indicated that Maciel do the same. Maciel did so, his hands still behind his back, and Leto assumed a standard defensive stance.
"Whatever you have there, you will not need it," Maciel stated, pointing at Leto's closed fist. "I, myself, am not armed." He brought his hands to his front and flattened his palms before holding his arms out to his sides, turning around and once again facing Leto.
Leto remained in position and did not show, or relinquish, his weapon.
Maciel sighed and slicked a few stray strands of hair off his face. "The master has something in mind for you. What is it?" he asked, more a request than a demand.
"If you are set on becoming his Scutum Primus, then you are welcome to it," Leto answered. "But you know as well as I do that neither of us has a choice in this. If you consider me a threat to your counterfeit throne, then let us have it out now." His eyes glittered in the sickly light cast by the waxing moon, but Maciel did not mirror his hostile demeanour and he nodded, moving closer to the window.
"I do not desire the position, but it seems I am destined to be considered for it," Mencius murmured, a faraway look in his eyes as he glanced out of the window. "And, as you correctly state, none of us has a choice." A fierce frown took him, then, and he turned towards the blackness that filled the corner of the room. "Aloisius was popular, loved, even. I was the one who ended his life…it was a choice between killing and being killed. Had I the same choice now, I would have…no. It doesn't matter."
He turned back to Leto, noticing that Danarius's newest acquisition had not altered his stance. "The others despise me now, not because I bested Aloisius but because they fear that they will have to replace him - Scutum Primus brings many rewards, but at great cost. I am certain that your new friends have warned you about me. I will not advise you to disregard their advice, as you do not know me and have no reason to trust me. Have a care, though – you do not know them, either."
"Is there a point to this?" Leto demanded, not as sure of himself as he had been only a few minutes earlier.
"Consider this, Leto. When your new friends warned you about me, why were there no other Scuta here? Because they were training, that is why. What were those three doing in here? Taking a tea break?" he asked in a snide tone.
Leto's eyes lowered as he considered Maciel's words.
"What did they say to you?" asked Maciel.
Leto eyed him warily before speaking, choosing his words carefully. "They spoke of you, and congratulated me on unsettling Hadriana."
To Leto's surprise, Maciel laughed. "You upset Hadriana, did you? And how exactly did they know that?"
Leto's eyes flitted to Maciel's and anger bubbled up inside him. "And how exactly do you know they warned me about you?"
"I was standing outside," he answered simply. "To be honest, I was also curious about you and wished to find out why Danarius favours you so." He nodded to the opposite end of the stable, where the three men in question slept. "They are cronies of Hadriana," Maciel explained. "They fawn over her when she is present and declaim her when she is not. They are nothing but cowards. Do not trust them."
"Why should I trust your word?" snapped Leto, furious for allowing himself to be made a fool of.
Maciel shrugged. "There is no reason you should." Pushing his hair out of his eyes again, he sighed and looked at the floor. "Aloisius was my friend," he confessed in a hush. "When my sword passed through him, a light was extinguished inside me. I do not care what befalls me, but perhaps there is hope for you, Leto. If you remember any of this conversation, remember this – trust no one, and do not allow yourself to become close to anyone, for you may be the one forced to end it. That is all I have to say."
Maciel walked past Leto, who stood as still as a statue, and turned back briefly. "Aloisius thanked me for ending his life," he added, bowing his head. "Each time I close my eyes, that moment is replayed."
He disappeared back into the shadows, and, after a minute, Leto heard the creak of a cot as Maciel settled onto it. After waiting a while, he relieved himself into a bucket, glancing behind himself, and returned to his own cot, noting the lack of snoring, fidgeting or any other sounds, for that matter.
He sat down, trying to ascertain the approximate position of Maciel's cot in the darkness, determining that they were roughly five cots apart. He then looked at the nearby cots where the three alleged cronies of Hadriana lay sleeping quietly – very quietly.
Feeling a renewed ache in his muscles, he stood and, not knowing who to trust, grabbed one end of his cot in his hands and dragged it to the far end of the stable, not caring who he woke.
The Scuta rose early the following morning and Leto watched them carefully, mimicking their actions as he was unfamiliar with the routine. They made their cots up neatly and dressed, but there were no ablutions, nor was there any breakfast to be had. A few introduced themselves to Leto, while others watched him from a distance, wary of the master's new favourite – or so they'd heard.
Leto kept to himself, however, mindful of Maciel's words, and did not engage in conversation with anyone, only grunting or nodding when absolutely necessary. Lindor, Cecil and Cornelius did not speak to him and Leto wondered if they'd heard the conversation in the bathroom during the night. Maciel was also taciturn and made no effort to speak to him or anyone else.
After a while, the reinforced stable doors were unlocked and a human man ordered the Scuta outside. They walked across the estate in single file and Leto positioned himself at the rear, not trusting anyone to be at his back.
They arrived at a large, fenced concrete square. As they were ushered through the gate, Leto noticed two mounted humans who carried whips and knives – even Danarius's bodyguards were guarded. In one corner was a large trough which several of the Scuta ran to, drinking from it and splashing themselves with water. Leto patiently waited his turn and also splashed his face, but did not drink from the trough as the water was unclean.
Then, the Scuta each selected a training weapon from the rack. Some chose daggers while others selected a longsword and shield. The rest, like Leto, favoured the broadsword. He held the blunt wooden sword in one hand and found it pathetically light compared to what he'd been used to training with – at Mencius's estate the Bellatori trained with real weapons, albeit under heavier guard.
No commands were given, but the Scuta seemed to know what to do and Leto followed them as they stood in a line, facing a third human who had supervised the weapons rack. The man walked towards them and removed small pieces of coloured ribbon from a pouch at his hip, and each scuta held out their arm as a ribbon was tied around their bicep. At first, Leto surmised that they would be split into teams according to their colour, but it quickly became apparent that this was not the case, as Leto was not given a colour but was ordered to spar with a fellow scutum whose designation was green.
After easily defeating him, Leto was given a green ribbon and was moved to the sidelines where he watched the others. At the end of each bout, some ribbons were exchanged while others remained unchanged. After Leto had fought two more times, he was given a red ribbon and noticed that only five of the Scuta wore red ones while the others wore either green or blue. There was one exception to this: Maciel wore what appeared to be two ribbons, intertwined – one red and the other white.
Eventually, Leto was pitted against Maciel. A hush fell over the scuta on the sidelines, who had clearly been anticipating this fight. Maciel also fought with a broadsword and he held his hand up for a moment as he tied his long hair behind his neck before doffing a small bow to Leto, who returned the salute.
They circled each other for a few moments. Unlike the other bouts, where the Scuta had been ordered to get a move on, the mounted guards remained silent and allowed the two combatants time to feel each other out. There was obviously a special significance to this particular bout.
The scuta suddenly became animated as Maciel made the first move, but Leto anticipated his manoeuvre and blocked him. Both men stepped back, shaking themselves off, before re-assuming fighting stances.
This time, Leto moved first, but Maciel easily parried his blow. Whistles and cheers came from the crowd and even the mounted guards moved their horses a little closer.
They circled each other again, each taking the opening when it came, the other skilfully blocking, dodging or parrying the attack. Sweat glistened on the opponents as the match continued. After several similar exchanges, neither contestant seemed to have the upper hand, nor had either of them inflicted a 'deathblow' – which would have ended the match.
Maciel's ribbon denoted that he was undefeated and the Scuta grew more and more excited as never before had one of his bouts gone on for so long. Many of them would have loved for him to lose his white ribbon, while others just appreciated watching a good fight. They were to be disappointed, however. When it became clear that Maciel and Leto were tiring, the bout was ended. The small crowd of scuta dispersed, some grumbling as they gravitated towards the trough.
Leto and Maciel stood alone in the centre of the square and Leto watched as one of the mounted guards approached the gate, which was opened. The guard then whispered something to another man who stood outside, and he nodded, briefly glancing at Leto and Maciel before departing in a hurry.
"He will inform the master," Maciel told Leto, who turned around and eyed him warily. "You did not best me, but I did not defeat you, either. Danarius will be intrigued." With a smile and a nod of his head, Maciel turned in his weapon and went to the trough. Leto did not follow him.
Food and clean water were brought in shortly after and Leto sat alone as he ate, meeting some of the curious glances that were sent his way with a cool, unwavering stare. Although he'd hoped to make friends here, it was clear that he could trust no one. He certainly didn't trust Maciel, but his advice had been sound. He sighed quietly and thought of his friend Vionet. He felt his absence more acutely than he'd imagined possible.
Vionet had been seriously wounded during Mencius's attack on Magister de Ralaga's estate and had travelled to Anariel in the same wagon as Leto, who had tended to his injuries during the journey. Vionet had barely been eighteen years old at the time and was an orphan, his parents having been put to death only a few months earlier for defying de Ralaga. Leto had taken pity on him as he'd seemed naïve and fragile. After some time had passed, they'd become closer than brothers, and Vionet was the only person outside his family that Leto completely trusted. How he wished he could speak to him now or hear his laughter.
A twist of his stomach reminded him of the questions Danarius had asked pertaining to Mencius's estate and personnel. With a heavy heart, he closed his eyes, knowing that he could not distance himself from his friend so easily, nor could he kill him.
Not for the first time, Leto steeled himself in preparation for his impending death. If he accepted it as a possibility now, he would not quail when the time came. Or so he hoped, for he knew he could not run a sword through Vionet's body as Maciel had with Aloisius.
That refusal might earn him his death but he still clung to a shred of honour, and knew his family would understand that. They would be fine without him. His mother and sister had secured work at the estate and his sister was free of unwelcome attention from the men.
But…after his death?
He grimaced as his stomach knotted painfully and didn't notice the shadow pass over the ground in front of him.
"Are you all right?"
Leto quickly stood and turned around, coming face-to-face with the 'green' Scuta he'd defeated during the first round. "Fine," he answered shortly, irritated that his thoughts had been disrupted.
"Oh, I was worried I'd caught you in the ribs, but those swords couldn't cut through butter, could they?" asked the elf cheerfully.
"I said I'm fine," Leto snapped.
The elf nodded, his cheery expression waning as he offered his hand. "Well, I just wanted to say well done. My name is Rainier."
When Leto said nothing, and did not shake his hand, Rainier shrugged his shoulders. "Nice to meet you, Rainier," he muttered sarcastically as he walked away.
Leto watched him go, his heart sinking before he inhaled deeply, and then again, willing the unpleasant sensations away. He didn't need friends. Rainier's words appeared innocuous on the surface, but who knew what schemes or ploys they were hiding? It would be better if the Scuta knew from the start that he was unapproachable. At least then, when a knife was plunged into his back, he would not be surprised; and, more importantly, he would not look like a fool.
He had his family, and that was all he needed. He began making plans to see his mother and sister later in the day when time permitted. He didn't need friends.
Except one. And he wasn't there.