The snow had come far earlier than Jared would've liked. It packed down his boots, blew into his hood and danced in front of his eyes like moths. Dusk bruised the landscape. He was starting to lose sight of the trail, the white deepening around his legs, but he'd been on this path before, cutting through the narrow clearing between the forest and town. He figured if he kept the treeline to his left, he wouldn't stray too far off-course. He could walk through the night if he had to; he was more than accustomed to ignoring sleep. Sometimes he thought he could sleepwalk and actually get where he was supposed to, pulled along by instinct or some innate sense of direction. Like a pigeon.
The cold was merely a nuisance. As the snowflakes hit his skin, they disappeared, and the wet evaporated almost instantly when Jared even vaguely thought about it. When his feral magic bubbled up.
Almost sweating, his breath steamed as he plodded, one heavy footfall in front of the other, and he grimaced as his hollow stomach complained. The only food left from his rations were two rock-hard biscuits and a few strips of jerky. Gods, he hadn't seen a vegetable in a week. It took considerable fuel for him to maintain a comfortable body temperature in mid-winter, and Jared didn't have the heft to burn these days. He tried to convince himself that ignoring hunger was as commonplace as ignoring sleep, but it was a lie. He hated being hungry.
He lifted his head to the cloud-heavy sky and opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue. Caught snow. It felt good, the cool on his tongue, and he pretended it was like eating something, anything. He walked on, humming to himself, tuneless pieces of a song that his owners' children were probably singing for the Winter Celebrations. It would've made him a bit wistful if he weren't fucking glad to be rid of them all.
Gave him away to the cock-sucking Magi, they did. He'd been a compliant and uncomplaining servant—even as he was sometimes screaming inside—but his owners didn't hesitate for one heartbeat to offer him up for The Glorification. It wasn't an honor or a blessing, no matter how they couched it. It was death, and Jared wasn't having it.
So he ran. He steeled his courage and pinched as much food and coin as he thought they wouldn't miss, and slipped out in the middle of the night. He kept to the sordid parts of town and smuggled himself out in a poultry wagon, among the cages and dirty straw and bird shit. Noisy, smelly creatures, but no one wanted to search through the mess.
Jared had no intention of dying anytime soon. He would've died years ago, if he'd felt no sense of purpose, no place for him in the world. No hope. Traded from household to household, until this one stuck. And then it didn't anymore.
But he wasn't just a slave; he had feral magic, and that had to count for something. Fuck if that wasn't worth more than a sacrifice to the Winter gods. Fuck all of them.
He planned to trudge all night, hopefully make it to the edge of Greedcross by morning, as the gates opened. He could snug his ratty cloak up around his throat and hide the metal collar there, slip into the city, lose himself among the merchants and traders and other foreigners. Maybe they wouldn't notice his angled eyes or his height—hints of his heritage—if he slouched and kept his hood up. With luck, he just might be able to get away with it, and he'd been lucky so far. Two fortnights, and no one had been sent after him, at least not that he was aware.
Jared firmly believed that if you planned to be lucky, sometimes you were.
He hiked on, occasionally humming to himself, but quieted when he thought he heard voices echoing, albeit muffled by the weather. They grew closer, blunt hoofbeats and men whooping. Jared paused, but it only took him a moment to decide to scramble for the woods. It was that dull, twilight-ish time of evening, where the shadows merged with the disappearing light, and no one was likely to notice his tracks.
Watching from behind the briars that rimmed the forest's edge, he saw two men thunder by on horseback. They were roaring with laughter—unkindly, Jared could tell—and he held his breath as they passed without so much as a glance in his direction. He stayed hidden until they were nothing but a distant haze of kicked-up snow, and then he exhaled and plowed back onto the main trail. He didn't look back.
Perhaps half a mile down the path, he happened upon what was likely the riders' handiwork. A dead horse, still barely warm. Its saddlebags had been ransacked, torn to pieces. Anything of worth had been taken, and whatever wasn't of worth had been destroyed. It felt like simple malice.
He briefly pondered cutting into the animal for food, but butchery was never Jared's strong suit, and it might also attract wolves. Nor did he want to be blamed for the crime if someone happened to stumble upon his inept attempts at hacking into the carcass.
“What a waste,” Jared murmured.
He stood tall and scanned the colorless drifts, searching for the horse's rider. A dribble of blood in the snow caught his eye; it looked black in the almost-night. Jared still didn't hear any other travelers approaching or returning, so he followed the blood some twenty feet off from the horse.
It was a man, judging by the size of the body, covered by a powder of snow. Expectedly, the marauders had taken his cloak and whatever supplies he'd been carrying. Jared squared his own pack between his shoulder blades and crouched for a closer look. There seemed to be a big, purpling bruise in the middle of the man's forehead, but no real clue as to where the blood was coming from.
Jared brushed his fingertips across the man's face, the snow melting instantly under his preternaturally-heated touch. The skin was pallid, ice caught in his hair, angry spots of cold on the cheeks. There was something familiar about the face; Jared recognized it in the features—the crow's feet, a slightly crooked nose, but especially the mouth. Full lips, almost womanly. Perhaps he was a merchant Jared had dealt with before. No, not a merchant … a blacksmith. That's where he'd seen him. Last spring, Jared had accompanied his owners when they'd commissioned latches for the stables. He couldn't recall the man's name, if he ever knew it, but he would never forget that face nor the shoulders and arms that came along with it. And how, at the time, they'd made Jared resent the fact that the collar around his neck would always mean he could never have nice things. Like this man.
Now, it was almost certainly too late. More waste. Jared rocked forward and put his ear next to the man's slightly parted lips, concentrating. Waiting. Even chancing to hope.
Despite an almost entire lack of movement, not so much as a flutter of lashes, Jared thought he sensed something. Not once, but twice. Against all odds, there it was again. Breath. The faintest whiff of air. Jared hadn't realized he'd been holding his own breath until he was certain of what he was witnessing.
He smiled, relief flooding his chest, though he wasn't altogether certain why. The man was another complication he didn't need, another witness to Jared's fugitive status, but he couldn't bring himself to leave the blacksmith to freeze, even though he probably should. So much for sneaking through the night and a clean get-away.
“Looks like today's your lucky day, friend,” Jared said, before circling around and getting his hands under the man's arms. He began the laborious trawl from the trail to the forest.
The man's dense muscle made the drag slow-going, and by the time Jared got him pulled from the snow and into the relative shelter of the towering pines, he was breathless and his heart was pounding. He backed under a cave-like arch of branches, the tree so massive Jared could almost stand upright beneath its lowest boughs, and tipped backwards with a grunt. The blacksmith sprawled atop him, and though the ground was padded with a layer of fallen needles, Jared was quite certain he'd just bruised his tailbone. A wedge of snow was melting between their bodies
Jared wormed out from beneath the man, who was still unconscious and oblivious. “Don't put yourself out. I've got this,” Jared panted as he stood, batting the snow from his trousers. Despite the pull of exhaustion and the ache at the base of his spine, Jared dropped his pack and decided to call this camp.
He snapped a branch from the tree and stepped into the snow again, using the branch to fan backwards over his tracks. It was likely the storm would bury any signs of his passing within the hour, but it never hurt to be cautious, as there were clearly highwaymen on the roads and Jared's best weapon was a stolen carving knife and his sharp wit. Neither of which were particularly effective.
In the vanishing light, the man was almost blue. Jared swept away whatever snow they'd dragged in with them, tossed the branch aside, and made another abrupt, surely unwise, decision. He stripped off his hide gloves and pulled open the blacksmith's outer coat, then his vest and undershirt, exposing the man's chest to the air. It was every bit as solid—and appealing—as Jared assumed it would be. Surprisingly hairless, despite the man's gingery beard. The source of the blood droplets in the snow was actually a burst wineskin, red liquid soaking the left side of his shirt and trousers. Small blessing. Though Jared, by necessity, was fair at triage, anything he knew had been gleaned through trial and error, and was therefore, not the most reliable practice.
Jared buffed his palms together, took a breath, and knelt. The fever of magic, a prickle of warming, bubbled into being in the center of his chest. It skittered around inside of him, though lungs and belly, like a frenetic creature that he had to bargain with, tease and corral into doing what he asked of it. He coaxed it down his arms, through his veins and bones and tendons, until it pooled at his wrists for a moment before breaking free into his hands. His palms were pink and tingling, nearly steaming, when he pressed them flat over the man's chest.
The feral magic bit hungrily at the cold, and Jared sucked in a gasp. He rolled his hands over the blacksmith's flanks and knotted abdomen, up his chest, forcing a wash of warmth into the frigid planes of muscle. He flicked aside some sort of talisman on a cord, and kneaded heat into the man's shoulders. Sweat was beginning to track down the small of Jared's back, along his brow and beneath the metal collar. The magic was a greedy furnace, and it strained to keep to his hands.
He could barely see, hardly any light breaching the weave of evergreen branches, so Jared was constrained to go by feel alone. The man still hadn't made a sound, silent as death, and the heat was building in Jared's core like a bonfire.
Jared hissed out a “Fuck,” and threw off his tattered fur cloak. He fumbled out of his coat and shirt, almost glad for the icy air, and carefully shimmed himself between the blacksmith's clothing and skin. He reached an arm back and grabbed his cloak again, settled it over the both of them, and then allowed himself to relax.
And as he did, the burn that had been simmering in his middle washed throughout his body like molten metal. Jared lamented that tomorrow, he would feel like a wrung-out rag and need to eat whatever nourishment he could get his hands on—which meant powering through the last of his cherished rations.
“You'd better be worth it,” Jared whispered into the blacksmith's scruffy, sour neck, but they were just words. He clutched this stolen moment, this nice thing, with a pathetic sort of greed. He tightened his arm around the man's chest, draped his leg across the sturdy thighs. Wherever Jared touched, he left a pool of warmth on the cold, unappreciative, beautiful body. Jared decided if one, or both of them, were dead come morning, at least they wouldn't have died alone. Yes, it was worth it.
The murky fog of sleep drifted away, a smudge of pale wakefulness dragging itself into being, and then suddenly, the earth slid sideways. No forewarning, no ceremony, no cock crow or birdsong at dawn, just a hard jar to Jared's sore tailbone and the scrape of pine needles across his back.
The telltale day-after sogginess from plying too much magic was stuffed behind his eyes, and he couldn't stop the world from spinning. It was too early and neither his brain nor body was even close to prepared for consciousness, but here it was, bitter cold and barely light enough for him to make out the silhouette of a man looming over him.
Last night's heroics crawled back into memory as a voice swam in and out of comprehension. A booming growl. Something about “the fuck” and “you” and “what”.
Jared blinked. The cold washed over him, and he wrapped his arms around himself, vainly trying to stave off shivers. His collar was an icy sting around his throat.
“I asked you a question, boy.” Finally, the words congealed into something that made sense, and the figure swam into focus.
“Y-you were jumped on the road to Greedcross,” Jared stuttered out, avoiding the furious glint in the man's eyes. “Probably don't r-remember.” He lifted a quivering finger to gesture at the dark welt on the blacksmith's forehead.
The man paused, digesting the scene. As he prodded his brow, his expression slid from one of rage to pain. “Son of a bitch.”
“I'm s-sorry. They killed your horse, too,” Jared said quietly. He cautiously went for his cloak, not a few feet away, half-expecting it to be snatched out of reach, but it wasn't. The man just swayed slightly on his feet and watched with wary confusion in his eyes.
Jared donned the cloak and slowly moved to stand. The branch ceiling was barely tall enough for the blacksmith—who was by no means short—yet still too low enough for Jared. He was forced to stoop.
“Slave?” the man finally asked, buttoning his own jacket, watching Jared all the while.
Jared swore to himself. “What gave me away? The c-collar?” he said dryly.
“Well, yes, that's the easy answer.” The man stepped forward and brazenly pulled open Jared's cloak, his stare tracing the brands of ownership burnt onto Jared's ribs and chest. Most were well healed, but a few still displayed the fresh red of recent injury. In the half-light of dawn, Jared could see that the man's arms were sun-freckled. Gone was the gray pallor of death.“What are you doing out here on your own? Where are your owners?”
Slaves were almost never sent out unchaperoned, unsupervised. Jared took a moment to clench his jaw, steady his voice for the lie he'd prepared.
“I'm on an errand. I—”
Jared snapped his glance up to the man's eyes. “Why w-would I lie? Sir.”
The blacksmith folded his arms over his chest, sighing out steam. “Because you're probably on the lam. You look like a sorry bag of bones.” His voice was unamused.
Jared lowered his stare and grit out, under his breath, “But I managed to save you.”
“What?” The word made Jared flinch, and the man took a step closer. A broad and serious presence. “How did you manage to save me, slave?”
The weather was biting into every fiber of Jared's being, the cold driving his teeth to chatter harder. Fortune favored the brave, or so it was said, and Jared felt that if there were any moment to earn said fortune, this would be it. Failing that, the man could overpower him, drag him back to town, or if he managed to make a break for it, wouldn't take but a day for Jared to be reported, recovered, and slaughtered, like a rabid fox. Though more likely, he'd die a miserable death of starvation.
Jared held out his hand, shivering, and dared to lift his gaze to the blacksmith's face, watching the man through a tangle of filthy hair. The blacksmith arched a brow, and Jared twitched his fingers, insistent. His palm was pinkening, and he prayed the man would take the hint before Jared was completely drained.
Making an unsettled noise in his throat, the blacksmith slowly slid his hand into Jared's, the scuff of callouses chafing across Jared's palm.
Jared closed his fingers, fast, and the blacksmith's pale eyes went wide. “By the gods … ”
“You were nearly fr-froze, clean through,” Jared said matter-of-factly, though he was frantic inside. “I laid with you. Kept you warm.”
The man jerked his hand back, scowling. He looked as though he'd just kicked a hornets' nest but was angry at the insects for stinging him. “I don't know how you did that, slave, but it doesn't give you a pass.”
“M-my name is Jared.”
“I don't care if—”
“And I saved your life.”
“HOW?” the man demanded. “Your people can't work magic.”
Jared tried to shrugged, but it came out more of a cringe. "I didn't ask for it. Just happened."
"Do your owners know?"
Jared shook his head. "No, not owned anymore."
"Mmmhmm." The blacksmith started to pace the small enclosed space under the trees, rubbing his arms for warmth, keeping Jared in his peripheral vision. "Am I to believe you've been freed? Collar and all?"
It sounded ridiculous, no way Jared could get around that. His heart was hammering, and he just didn't have the strength to keep up the charade any longer. "I was being g-given to the Magi for the Glorification. I … I don't want to die. Please … "
"So they'll be looking for you?"
“I d-don't know."
Again, the man hummed, disgruntled. "I don't need a headache like you in my life."
Jared blinked slowly, fell to his knees. His legs were as weak as a newborn foal's and everything was getting blurry and dark around the edges.
The blacksmith approached. He stopped in front of the kneeling slave and looked down with hooded, inscrutable eyes. "Show me how badly you want to live."
Of course. Wasn't the first time Jared had tasted a cock in his mouth, likely wouldn't be the last. His mouth was currency; it had paid for a great many things and was probably the sole reason Jared was still alive today. He dragged in air, forcing back a wave of faintness, and lifted a hand to fumble with the lacing of the man's leather trousers. This wasn't the way he wanted to have this desperately beautiful man. Jared was stupid to want anything. He should've learned by now.
He felt the blacksmith toying with his hair, and a rough hand snaked under his chin, lifting his face. Jared held his breath. The man's fingertips played down the sharp ridge of Jared's cheekbone, thumbed at his lip before settling on the collar. Then, the man stopped.
He had both hands on either side of the metal band encircling Jared's throat, and he just stopped. His brows pulled sharply, an expression of discomfort, or maybe annoyance, Jared couldn't tell. The man canted his head, as though listening to some distant sound, but there was nothing to be heard, nothing save the same wind that had been moaning all night. Still stroking the collar, the thick lust that had painted the man's face softened, drifted away like melting snow.
Jared finally took a breath, for fear of passing out.
The blacksmith murmured words to himself, low and unintelligible, before dropping a hand to grab Jared's arm, helping him stand as much as the space would allow.
Jared blinked through a wave of dizziness. “I … I don't unders-s-stand.”
The blacksmith pressed his lips together, settling Jared's cloak back on his shoulders, strangely gentle. “Two biscuits and barely enough jerky to feed a weasel won't get you far.”
“What? How did—”
The man tapped his temple. “The metal speaks to me,” he said eventually, and then no more on the subject.
Jared watched him in stunned silence, as the man went about tying his trousers again, fastening his coat more tightly around his body.
“Get dressed, Jared. It's going to be a long, cold walk to Greedcross for us if you don't.”
“F-for … us?”
“You want that collar cut off, don't you?”
Jared swallowed, staring.
The blacksmith shook his head, and maybe there was half a smile on his face. He pushed aside a drooping branch and headed out into the white world beyond.
Jared hurriedly grabbed his pack, his own discarded clothing, fumbling into the garments and stumbling out behind. “Thank you, sir. Th-thank you.”
“Jensen.” The man grinned over his shoulder. “The name's Jensen.”