Jared woke up with a start. He was surrounded by darkness, soft and suffocating. His ribs hurt and the silver band around his wrist felt tighter than usual. It took him a moment to clear his mind enough to remember what had happened.
He had been sold to yet another slaver, they were on their way to the next market.
Gods, if only his head wouldn´t hurt so much.
He couldn´t recall why he was here, where ever 'here' exactly was.
When he tried to move he noticed the iron cuff around his ankle, keeping him chained to the wall he was half propped up against.
Jared took a deep breath, feeling the cold of the stone seep through his tunic. He contemplated if he should try to sleep for a while longer or if he should stay up and try to clear his head further.
Just as he was about to try to relax, he heard something that made him bolt upright within a second.
There was a small shuffle somewhere right to him, something large, moving around.
Then a rasping, like someone cleared their throat.
And then a voice.
»So you finally woke up.«
Every muscle in Jared´s body was tense, his stiff fingers curling into fists, readying himself for whatever might follow.
He didn´t answer. He just waited. For what he wasn´t sure.
»Oh gods, please don´t tell me you are one of those poor bastards who got their tongue ripped out«, the voice said a few moments later, when the silence had stretched until it was almost as suffocating and thick as the black surrounding him.
He took another deep breath, uncurling his fingers, before asking in a clipped tone: »What is it to you?«
The answer was quick, yet calm.
»I have been down here for the Gods know how long, talking to no one but myself and now finally someone else is here. Would be a shame if they couldn´t talk to me, wouldn´t it?«
Jared thought about the words. He briefly considered how he would feel if he were locked inside this prison or whatever it was for longer than a few days. He would go insane.
»Then talk«, he said.
The voice chuckled. »The entire point is that I get to hear something different than my own voice for a little while.«
Jared huffed at that. Meanwhile he constructed a mental image of what the owner of the voice might be like.
The voice was rough around the edges, yet smooth underneath, warm and somewhat soothing. It sounded male, but the person it belonged to had to be young. Late teen years or early twenties. The voice was laced with something, a tone only few others had had in their voice when Jared encountered them.
It was the sound of a gifted who had once known what it meant to be free.
»You did not fall asleep on me, did you?«, the voice ripped Jared out of his thoughts again.
»No«, Jared answered. »No.«
»Do you have a name?«, the voice asked.
»I had one once and many since. Liked practically none of them«, Jared answered.
»Want to tell me?«, the voice said, tone warmer than before, guarded curiosity evident.
»Why should I? Do you have one you would tell me in return?«, Jared huffed.
»Because out there, no one cares if you have a name. To them you are nothing. I know how good it feels to have someone call you by your name. Makes you feel like a person again. But hey, maybe that´s just me. I haven´t heard someone else say my name in a long time. Longer than I dare to admit. Just thought you would like to hear yours as long as you still know that it belongs to you. Because trust me, you forget it with time.«
»What is your name then? When you want to hear it so badly?«, Jared said, his own curiosity awoken.
He didn´t know why, yet he felt himself drawn to the voice. He knew that it was dangerous. Curiosity, opening up, emotions. But he couldn´t help it.
The voice chuckled again, deep and rich.
»Jensen. My name is Jensen.«
Jared heard the words, picking up the name and rolling it around in his mind. Wrapping his thoughts around the sounds, before they morphed into something else. Another name.
The silence was stretching once more, this time not suffocating, more like a blanket, keeping him safe.
When he opened his mouth again, the words he said weren´t the ones he had intended to say.
»My father used to call me Jared. My mother called me Tristan. I have no idea why. Of course that was before...«, noticing he had already said too much he trailed off, locking away the memories that were about to resurface.
The voice, Jensen, Jared reminded himself, let out something that sounded like half a laugh half a sob, before speaking again.
»It is a pleasure to meet you Jared Tristan.«
Then there was silence again.
This time Jared was the one to speak up.
His tone was tentative, as if the wrong word would make Jensen disappear. Or worse.
»Are you...«, Jared didn´t know how to ask any other way, »are you gifted?«
»Yeah«, came the reply. Jensen sounded heartbroken. »Otherwise I wouldn´t be here, would I?«
Knowing that this topic was sensitive, Jared pushed further. He knew that he shouldn´t. Knew it had to be painful for Jensen to talk about it. But his own curiosity wouldn´t let it rest.
»How long before they caught you?«
»Almost eleven years.«
The following silence was crushing.
»That is a long time«, Jared finally said.
»It is. It still feels like they ripped out a part of me.«, Jensen sounded detached, like it had happened to someone else. Not him. »How about you?«
»Me?«, Jared thought about it. »I don´t know. I was a late-bloomer. Mother said it was a blessing, even before the war, when things started getting worse for us. They caught me when I was eight years and a few moons, I barely started sensing. I don´t know what gift I have. It is hard to miss something when you never knew it in the first place. So I guess I got lucky after all«, Jared thumbed over the silver bracelet on his left wrist.
»Wow«, Jensen whispered. »You really have no clue what your gift is?«
Jared shook his head. »No. Mother always said I´d be something like water. Said she felt it deep down. And now I´ll never know.«
»I´m sorry«, Jensen said, his words sincere, emotion returning to his voice.
»What´s yours?«, Jared sighed, trying to steer his thoughts away from his mother, from the look in her blank dead eyes after the soldiers had taken his home.
»Earth«, Jensen answered. »I hid in the woods for a few years. It was manageable, a little... lonely sometimes. But I lived.«
Jared turned his head towards where Jensen had to be. »I envy you. Your kind is rare.«
»Our kind is rare, Jared«, Jensen corrected him.
»Have you ever been up north? Like Thalor?«, Jared asked after another round of silence.
»Yeah... I spent five years up there«, Jensen answered, his voice sounding as if he was drifting away.
»Tell me about it?«, Jared whispered, hoping that Jensen´s voice would take him to places that he had only ever heard of.
»Okay«, Jensen said, »But then it is your turn.«
When he spoke again his voice sounded as if he was already far away and Jared eagerly followed him.
»The best about Thalor are the winters. When you are just at the edge of the woods and night is falling. The leafless trees are nothing but stark black shadows against the pale blue evening sky. The air is crisp and alive, there is snow for miles and miles to see. It is all glowing with the last streams of sunlight. And while that is breathtaking by itself, the most amazing thing you can witness is the night. The skies are so clear that you can see a million stars. And for every moment you watch the sky new stars appear. As if they just waited for you to show and look for them. They set on the tree skeletons like water droplets on a spider web. They shine like pure silver melting through the dark blue velvet of night. The stars are the reason the northerners speak so softly. Have you ever heard the northern tongue, Jay?«
Captivated by the story Jared shook his head, having entirely forgotten that Jensen could not see him.
Jensen seemed to understand him nonetheless. He continued: »When you look up at the skies and all life is frozen around you they seem to be the only thing that will keep you warm. You know the southern tongue, Jay, right? With its harsh sounds and that galloping rhythm. Northern tongue is the opposite. It is melody. The wind shaking the leaves in the summer and the velvet skies of winter nights.«
There was a pause, stretching until Jared thought Jensen was done with the story.
»Jay«, Jensen said. »Can you remember two phrases for me?«
Jared took a moment to breathe out his answering 'yes', not minding the nickname Jensen had already given him.
»Repeat after me, ok? Iò thánen.«
Jared was rendered speechless for a second. Jensen´s voice melted around the words spoken, the vowels soft and gentle and the th not as hissed as it would have been in the south but flowing like silk. Northern tongue was not at all like the southern one he was used to. He tried repeating the words back to Jensen, who gently explained what he could improve and how. It only took a couple of tries for him to get it right enough for Jensen to move on to the next phrase.
Again Jared repeated the phrase, this time not taking as long to get it right.
»Thank you«, Jensen said once Jared finished, smile lighting up his inflections.
»Jensen«, Jared asked then, »what do the words mean? I don´t want to accidentally insult anyone.«
»You won´t, trust me«, Jensen laughed. With a more serious tone he continued: »The second one means "Stay strong".«
»And the first?«
»I´ll tell you that the next time we meet, face to face«, Jensen replied, leaving a bitter sweet taste of hope in Jared´s heart. »Now, your turn. Tell me something, Jared. Anything.«
»Give me a second to think of something«, Jared answered, slowly retreating from the images Jensen had painted in his head to find what he could share in return.
The absence of any sound except for Jensen´s even breathing told Jared that he was waiting patiently.
»I think I´ve got something«, Jared said after a minute or two. »I grew up about a days travel from the Western Harbor on Kashawar. So sometimes my dad would take me there, back when I was really young. Before the war really started. I don´t remember a lot, but what I remember is this«, he cleared his throat, stalling a little to phrase his description so it sounded a bit more like Jensen´s tale. »The Harbor was always full of life. Humans, Shifters, Gifted. There was this energy in the air, it made me feel like nothing would ever change, like life would always be this perfect. The sailors brought stuff from all over the isles. Gems and fabrics from Cillian, small and bigger statues of stone made on Drashnikk, you name it, you could find it somewhere in the Western Harbor. And the colors, Jensen. The colors. Kashawar is mostly earthy reds and yellows, mixed with the occasional green, but there? Blues that changed like the ocean itself. Some gems sparkling and some just glowing from within. The many different stones of Drashnikk. Some grey, some almost violet, others like silver. It was breathtaking.
But what I loved the most was standing almost on the edge of the plateau, the market a constant buzz behind me, the wind in my hair. The sun burning the ground and the ocean at my feet.«
He paused. The next words hurt, even after all this time. »The last time I saw the ocean was two years ago when they shipped me here. Since then I have been just dragged around the isle, sold almost every few months. Nobody thinks I am useful enough to be worth the trouble. I guess it won´t be long until I end up at one of the brothels.«
Jensen was quiet and Jared was almost about to ask him jokingly if he hadn´t liked the story and thought about apologizing for ruining the mood. But then Jensen broke the silence, voice thoughtful. »You won´t, Jay.«
»Why would you think that? I have nothing left to offer, Jensen«, Jared whispered bitterly.
»Jared. You are smart. Just get one person, one person, to teach you anything you need your mind for and your value will increase immensely.«
»I am not smart, not smart enough. And even if, how? How do I get someone to teach me anything?«, Jared shot back, defensive but also a little bit curious.
»You already got me teaching you something«, Jensen countered.
»You offered, that doesn´t count.«
»I offered you the phrases, you asked for their meaning.«
»And you only told me one of them.«
Jensen sighed. »Jared, you can always learn. Keep your eyes open, I know you already do that. Watch people and learn. Ask other slaves if they can teach you. Don´t ask for too much or they will refuse in fear that you will replace them. Be smart but don´t be too smart. I know you can do it.«
Jared was stunned by Jensen´s little rant, so he did not reply immediately.
»Promise me, Jared Tristan, that you will learn everything you can. It will save your life.« There was an urgency in Jensen´s voice that made it impossible for Jared to refuse, even if he still couldn´t really believe the other man.
»Good«, Jensen responded, a little bit of relief evident in his voice.
They sat in silence again.
»How far can you move?«, Jared spoke up, an idea forming in his mind.
»Not far«, Jensen replied. »They chained my wrists together and connected them to the wall. Maybe a foot? You?«
»I don´t know, my hands are free, my ankle is chained though«, Jared responded, mind working. »The wall is at your back, right? Move left as far as you can, ok?«
»Ok«, Jensen answered. The next sound that filled the air was the rattle of the chains sliding against the floor, then pulling taunt. Jared reached out and could feel steel bars against his fingertips. So there were two or more cells down here. His heart sank a little.
»I´m here.« Jensen´s voice sounded much closer now.
»Can you reach the bars?«, Jared asked.
There was a clank followed by a sharp hiss from Jensen. »No. Jared, I am sorry, I can´t move any further.«
Jared sighed. »I can reach a little through the bars, maybe I can make up for what you are missing?«
He reached through the bars, straining to touch, moving his hand through the dark. He heard Jensen´s chain rattle again, accompanied by a sharp intake of breath as Jensen obviously struggled against the pain of the chains chaffing his wrists.
Then Jared´s fingertips barely grazed rough skin, but in the blink of an eye the contact was lost, his muscles protesting against the stretch.
He almost thought he had imagined it when Jensen spoke. »You are warm.«
Jared smiled as he rested his forehead on the cold bars.
»Jay, I don´t think I will be able to do this again. My wrist is bleeding«, Jensen mumbled, teeth gritted together.
»Don´t worry. This was. You. It´s ok«, Jared answered in a tumble of words.
»Thank you«, Jensen replied.
They sat in silence, hearing the other breathe so closely.