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The room was dark, oppressive.

Trembling hands shift beneath thick manacles, an attempt to keep the chains from rattling too loudly, lest the guard on the other end of the room chooses to make an example of her.

Again.

She’s cold from standing there in nothing but what could only generously be referred to as a dress, the draft from the dark room climbing between her skin and the fabric and robbing her of warmth. Her body trembles, her muscles sore from the constant locking. Beyond her physical shivering, she fights against the overwhelming urge to bolt. The others at her right and left manage to keep their peace, but she feels on the verge of panic, reliving this fate a dozen times in memory and of fear for the future.

Since she can remember she’s been battered about by masters, swallowed up by their greed and reckless cruelty. With each new master came a new set of vindictive rules that were written into her back with the snap of a whip, and if she was not currently owned, she was thrown about in this hell, of standing stock still for hours waiting for someone to find her worthy enough to spend a few gold coins.

She used to listen to the conversations about her and the other slaves, about any nobility that was coming to look them over. Perhaps in younger days, might have held fantasy of a gentle owner--perhaps even a woman, but at this point she’s had most of the hope of youth beaten out of her.

She feels dizzy, heavy with fear and pain from an earlier beating she had sustained stepping in front of an errant child and her former master. One thing had yet to die from her spirit--her fierce dedication to protect innocence.

Even at cost to herself.

The heavy door swings open to her left. The sound strikes straight through her soul, a jolt of terror that makes her move against her chains, gaining her the cold, predatory glare from the guard to the left.

The intimidation does nothing to ease the consuming need to bolt, to slip loose her chains and flee. Especially as she hears the dark voice of the merchant, purring to a prospective buyer about his…. stock.

“Not sure what your pleasure is,” she winces at his voice, dripping with syrup. And the word pleasure… it makes her stomach lurch. “But I’ve a fine crop here. Should be at least a few that meet her ladyship’s needs.”

Ladyship…

The word lifts Lena’s chin, away from the manacles crushing her wrists. A woman...

Men seem to have been her lot before. Men of all sorts--of war, of field, and of lust. They had been thorough to strip of her of every last humanity.

Women over her were never so much better, the jealousy rising to cut Lena to ribbons over their husbands’ misplaced lust. Always her. As though she caused it. As though she chose to be there. But it is never a wife that chooses Lena for purchase--she’s only been dragged home by men.

But this buyer….is a woman. A beautiful one.

She cuts an intimidating silhouette in the darkness, standing head and shoulders over the merchant. Most women shy at the thought of a line up of slaves, but a confident step bring the woman close. The single shaft of light catches on her hair first, a dark chestnut carefully pulled into a tight tail high on the back of her head, cutting eyes dark with the focus of a shadow swallowed room. She’s wearing a tight  waistcoat that cuts her already slim form slimmer as thorough sharp eyes browse the selection.

“A personal servant is what I need,” she says over her shoulder, staring up and down the lineup.

She looks far from pleased, dark brows fastened over unforgiving eyes. Lena feels herself pull against her shackles again, unconsciously angling herself towards the door.

There is something of a relief, when those eyes fall--not to Lena’s far too thin, bruised form, but instead towards a pair of young men on the end of the line up. Except that--they do not hold her interest for long.

Her gaze drops from the woman when those piercing eyes suddenly slide in place on Lena’s face, sending a jolt of fear so strong up Lena’s spine she fear’s she’ll collapse on the spot. And when those boots click in a practiced, powerful movement towards her...Lena, without meaning to, pulls back against her chains.

The merchant is quick to interfere.

“Ah, my lady, if you’re looking for something more...domestic, the two on the end--”

To Lena’s horror, that only seems to intrigue her more.

A gloved hand falls to her thigh, pushing up the threadbare cloth. The trembles from the cold suddenly climb until Lena can hardly breathe, especially when leather clad fingers find her mark.

It’s still only a few weeks old, burned into her right thigh for running. Something the local constabulary requires, lest merchants attempt to sell slaves for more... submissive than they are. The pain of the mark has healed, but to feel fingers brush over it nearly puts tears in Lena’s eyes.

A hand suddenly winds with bruising force into her hair, twisting her head backwards with vindictive pressure.

“Stay still,” the guard’s dark voice hisses, forcing her head forward and down, where she should have had it the whole time. Tears spring to her eyes, scalp bruised from her hair being her consistent handle…

She suddenly becomes aware, again, of that hand still on her thigh, looking at the brand that marks her as obstinate-- a circle with two slashes underneath. A runner.

She’s well used to the touches she’s subjected to as property being examined for purchase. The hands that crush her flesh with bruising force, the way she’s batted about and slapped for any resistance--real or imagined.

So when a hand slides up her side, a noise of fear escapes her lips and she shifts her weight back--earning her another twist, threatening to take her hair off her scalp.

Arrêtez.”

The tone is a sharp hiss, not a yell of an order or a plea. And it’s not for her-- but the man behind her.

Oh so rare is the day where someone correcting her is told to stop, and despite her fear of this woman, it does soften something in Lena’s panic addled brain.

The hand slowly unwinds from her hair, shoving her head down in one last vindictive strike. Lena exhales, the breath caught in something like a sob, especially when the woman’s hand climbs up her ribs. Tears well in her eyes--somehow the brutal hold on her hair has brittled her resolve into dust, her panic showing through unsteady breath and the sting and blur of tears…

Bruising pressure fails to come, however, just the steady stroke of a hand against her side. She feels the woman’s breath paint across her cheek as she’s examined, eyes lifting to the ceiling as a tear finally breaks loose and streams down her left cheek.

The touch is soft. It’s perhaps the gentlest she’s received in many years. A touch in actual search for health, not for if she can work. Not if she’ll live through a harvest season...

The hand smoothes up her neck to take hold of her hair, though unlike the guard, the touch is smooth. She doesn’t force Lena’s head down--gentle pressure from those fingers encourages her down.

She goes. Not even because of the threat of pain from the guard, or even from the woman herself.

Lena knows she’s at the end of her rope. The growing number of reasons she’s not worth the food to keep her alive seem to be stacking daily, made all the worse that she was sold off just a few weeks ago. The number of masters she’s had now is higher than she can remember. She always seems to be the newest slave at any manorhouse, and always seems to be the first to go, too.

If she’s not sold within a few days…

The fact that a woman has taken interest in her does stir something deep inside her, something she thought was long dead. And it only grows when, after bowing her head to the silent order, those fingers scrape pleasantly against her hairline.

Lena fights back an audible sob, holding her breath in her throat.  The subtle praise hits her hard, the soft touch of a woman pleased with her. Her eyes flutter closed, hiccuping in effort to keep herself quiet.

The small moment of peace evaporates when those fingers shift to her collar--Lena fearful, from experience, that it will be used to yank her.

Instead…

Those gloved hands slide along her neck, brushing against her skin as they grasp the collar. Lena exhales roughly when the pressure on her neck suddenly yields, fingers smoothing over the mark left behind on the back of her neck...

The lift of such a heavy, crude metal brace off her collarbones draws a low whimper from her lips, a subtle, tiny plea for just a few seconds longer of such bliss.

The weight on the collar shifts, and Lena realizes the woman is aware of her plea--that perhaps she would have set it down by now but instead continues to hold the metal for just a few moments longer.

The weight slowly comes back down, an effort made to lay the metal gently over her tired, bruised flesh. And she is grateful.

Hands come to rest on her jaw, and she wishes she could feel warmth from beneath those gloves. Fingers press gently into her neck, searching for illness, Lena knows. And maybe it’s her exhausted mind playing tricks on her, finding gentleness where there certainly is none.

Dulled amber eyes slowly lift from that tightly tailored waistcoat, lifting until she sees a smooth jaw, full lips. Higher still does she climb, until she sees those eyes.

Up close she can see they’re a dark brown, not unlike her hair, with arched brows that make her face look severe. Lena’s heart threatens to stop in her chest.

They’re...different from other eyes, the boundless cruelty that most men would stare her down with. She knows beneath the bruises and overgrown hair she might be considered beautiful--or, perhaps more realistically, fuckable. That would always be shown in greedy eyes, the small tail of a smirk to show Lena that she was nothing and that she should be grateful for her fate.

But the eyes before her are cold and dark, emptied of the gentleness Lena realized she was foolishly searching for.

There is no gentleness, for someone like her.

Her eyes fall, long lashes slipping closed.

Those gloved hands lift to her shoulders, pushing off the sleeves and tugging the cloth down until it bunches against Lena’s bound wrists. Fresh humiliation sweeps over her, but she knows better than to shift to cover herself. Modesty is a privilege, one she is not allowed partake in.

The woman’s  examination continues, a hand sliding down from her neck to look at her ribs. Despite how often she is stripped for a potential buyer, it never fails to make her shiver, eyes suddenly darting to the chains holding her in hope that she could find a path to slip through.

She’s good at that, she found. So good in fact that she wouldn’t even remember the process of working herself free from her chains, only coming back into awareness with wrists aching and legs burning as she ran as fast as her bruised feet could take her.

“How old…?”

She already figured this woman wasn’t English, the single word spoken before, unrecognizable for meaning--was still recognizable for language. Even her english is swallowed in French, something that a younger Lena would have possibly enjoyed. But it only presents a fear, now. She was French--an unknown quantity.

Though if the French were kinder to slaves, surely she would have heard such rumors already.

“Ah, 18, my lady.”

Lena’s brow furrows down tightly. The lie is so blatant-- her body that of a woman’s, not an adolescent’s. She doesn’t know her true age, since years seem to melt by in sluggish, hellish rhythms of being bought, being worked until she bled, and then being sold. She figures she’s much closer to the woman’s age, high twenties, perhaps.

But they say she’s 18. To admit she’s nearly 30 is to sell her at a remarkable markdown for what they could get if she’s far younger, especially considering most female slaves do not live past 35.

Her eyes lift in time to see a subtle quirk in that brow, those eyes sharpening over Lena’s form. A terror jolts through her worn body. An unliked purchase would be taken out on her, as merchants like this usually vanish after making their sale.

Her breaths come in tight wheezes, diaphragm spasming as her panic begins to take hold. She sees those sharp eyes flit over her, and knows either she’ll be punished for messing up a sale, or punished for not being good enough. And what kind of cruel fate will she face then? She’s known slaves find their death at the end of a whip. She’s been dragged behind a horse before--locked in a cage, starved, driven to extreme thirst, there’s no end of cruel possibilities for her.

The wheezing becomes audible, and it only tightens when she hears the shift of the guard behind her. Her limbs suddenly feel numb.

She doesn’t feel the woman before her pull the cloth back up and over her breasts. She can barely feel those fingers slide back into her hair, rubbing at the back of her neck.

Détends-toi.”

It’s whispered only for her, something that makes the glassy haze in her eyes clear a bit. The wheezing eases after a moment, and, under those watchful eyes, she takes her first deep breath, shuddering and trembling as it is.

She doesn’t know what it means, but it’s spoken gently, accompanying a more than agreeable little stroke to her overgrown hair. Those fingers press with pleasant pressure into the back of her neck, and slowly, her shoulders begin to drop.

“I see you are interested in cheating me out of gold,” the woman says, her gentle tone from just a moment before turning sharp. An edge of something dark accompanies the tone, those eyes turning to fasten the merchant in her gaze.

“This one seems far older than 18. And...don’t tell me, a virgin?”

The word is always tossed around when she’s up for sale. No slave was a virgin. She learned that early. She was reminded of it often. Yet she was still labeled one, as were most women. An extra selling point, the thrill of breaking and defiling.

It’s spat from that tongue, though. Vindictively. As though the woman before her wanted a virgin.

Lena’s heart sinks.

The merchant must have thought her an easy sell, the way those beady eyes turn a bit wide, and the way he trips over his own tongue.

“W-well, tracking them from year to year is--”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

The man goes silent.

Lena suddenly feels dizzy, cast back and forth between hope and despair. What should she even look forward to, with that sharp of a tongue? Any attempt to cover a mistake--many as she makes--would be met with that tone, those blazing eyes, that terrifying posture. Beneath that waistcoat Lena suddenly knows is the muscle to back that tone.

Her wheezing returns.

“And how much were you planning to charge for her…?”

That tone mimics the sickening sweetness the merchant had bathed his words in before, except hers have a much darker edge to them.

“...80.”

“80? For a flight risk? For an age far from accurate and for a body I will not receive?”

She does not wait for a better offer.

“I will give you 20, because you know it’s what you could get for her off of any other market.”

It’s an insult to the merchant, but Lena feels it straight through her heart.

Worthless. Haggled down to mere coins, something that when she was younger deeply bothered her. But now? She’s nearly resigned, to watch her price drop with every new master, a quiet recognition that they’re using her life up. Dulled amber eyes fall to the ground, biting the inside of a bruised cheek to keep her emotions still.

The merchant buckles.

“Ah….yes, my lady.”

Lena feels dizzy, her heart pounding like a drum in her chest. She watches the merchant with wide eyes as he comes to unlock her collar from the central chain linking the slaves, jolting with resonating terror when his hands brush near her.  

Still. Her eyes find what is now her new mistress, terror tight in them as she’s cast from the line and over to the woman that now owns her.

What do you want with me…?

She watches the exchange, her life, her hopes, her dreams, all purchased with a bag smaller than her fist.


 

Once away from the merchant, her mistress’s mood improves drastically. She’s still nearly unreadable, but those eyes soften away from the darkness in them before, and Lena finds herself the object of her new mistress’s attention.

The trip to the woman’s home isn’t pleasant, but it’s far from the worst she’s experienced. The carriage is cold, but the scenery is nice. It’s been awhile since she’s been taken out into the country, and the slowly changing leaves...it’s soothing, to her panic addled brain. She slowly lets her head rest near the window, ever aware of the slightest discomfort in her new mistress, but...she seems more focused on her window anyways.

The woman’s manor is far greater and more impressive than anything she’s ever worked in before, and she realizes with a swallow that her mistress is likely nobility, especially when she spots the crest outside the small castle, a crown overtop.

She stands stiffly, when her mistress steps out of the carriage, the sharp autumn air stealing the breath from her lungs. Though the sun lights upon the chateau, beyond, dark clouds swallow the sky.

Fingers curl around the chains connecting her wrists, and attempt to keep them quiet lest they jangle and disturb her mistress.

She needs to make a good impression. Lena knows she doesn’t have another chance.

Observation has saved her life in the past, so when they step into the chateau, coffee brown eyes scan frantically. Her mistress is a hunter--she can see that from the antlers displayed proudly on the walls. The walls are lined with rich tapestries and paintings.

Most of the houses she’s served in barely have one such tapestry. Her mistress...must be rich.

It’s a frightening thought.

She follows behind her mistress, nostrils flaring as they pass the cellar. She can smell cured meats down there, feeling her stomach clench a little...

It’s been so long since she’s had a proper meal--learning to be grateful for table scraps when they came. Still, she stares, perhaps a bit too long towards the cellar, enough that her mistress pauses in step.

Lena doesn’t see the look she’s given, eyes planted on the stone floor in terror that she’s already slighted her mistress. She doesn’t see the way those eyes soften over her, the way full red lips part.

But Lena does feel a hand come to her shoulder, to slide up her neck and settle near her nape. At first she’s sure that hand will grab a fistful of hair, that she’ll be dragged and thrown onto unforgiving stone. Instead that same pleasing scrape of those leather clad fingers along her hairline is her offer, a thumb rubbing muscle that has been tense since she was first collared.

Allonz-y.”

The tone is soft, whispered French that Lena does not understand. Normally having a master say something she cannot understand would terrify her, much as she spent a few short weeks in a German man’s house to be beaten raw with every order she got wrong. But he screamed his orders, terrifying eyes boring into hers when she showed the slightest hesitance. The merchant that sold her assured the man she understood German.

She’s sure he told her master that just to torture her.

But this is different. Her mistress doesn’t seem to expect her to understand, instead using her tongue to soothe. Those fingers continue a soft stroke at the nape of her neck, until her eyes grow half lidded.

When they exert a small pressure, she follows it, falling in step behind a woman of long legs, tight fitting cloth, and sharp eyes. She notices the powerful stride, the sharp click of a heel onto the stone beneath.

A day of standing still for potential buyers has left its toll, however, and as they round another corner, Lena’s strength wanes severely. She finds herself falling against a wall, catching herself before making a scene--and a mess--but she knows she won’t make it to whatever her first task is without some basic decency.

“...Mistress,” she tries, her tone soft. She bites down on her lip when that rhythm stops abruptly, and Lena suddenly finds herself once more the object of this woman’s undivided attention, as that head turns and she’s fixed with those eyes.

Her eyes fall suddenly, swallowing against a dry throat. Her head bows, hands reaching to clasp but only jangling the chains in the process.

“...can...can I have some water? Please?”

It’s rare that the question earns her much, but with her legs burning and head swimming, she knows that the beating for falling will be worse, far worse, especially if she smashes her head against one of those expensive wall tapestries and bleeds upon it.

She sways, trying to set her spine when that form turns to face her entirely. She listens to the click of those heels, swallowing her own panic.

Those gloved hands reach for something on her belt, Lena anticipating a knife. But instead she’s handed a small flask, her mistress’s hands now free to rest on Lena’s back.

“It’s not fresh,” comes that soft tone. “There’s cooler water in the kitchens.”

She unscrews the top and takes a shy sip of lukewarm water. In fear she had assumed she’d be subjected to something else--vinegar, perhaps, as a cruel joke--but what meets her tongue is water. A noise escapes her throat.

She doesn’t know how much she’s been offered--a single shy sip seems appropriate, but she’s thirsty. and it tastes so good...

Amber eyes lift to her mistress’s in unsure, silent pleading.

“Not good?” she asks, reaching for the flask. “Would you rather something cooler?”

It seems like a joke, and Lena’s breath catches in her throat. A trap perhaps. A test to see if she’s greedy.

“N-no, Miss, I just...I want more…”

When that gloved hand reaches for the flask, the woman seems confused when she still feels the weight of water inside. And then her eyes round, brows lifting in mild surprise, followed by a small tilt of her head and a pained, half smile.

“By all means, then. Finish the flask.”

She takes a small step to steady herself but her knees buckle, perhaps from held anxiety, perhaps from thirst. The floor would have met her with bruising force--except that those gloved hands are quicker. Tears of panic spring to her eyes, breath coming again in those short, tight wheezes, even when she’s drawn to a warm breast.

“Ça va aller… breathe….”

Those strong hands guide her out of the hall, to a room at the left. Plush chairs surround a large fire place, and it is in the longest and softest of these that her mistress sees fit to place her.

Those gloved hands commit the flask back into her hands.

Boire ça… drink this.”

She takes small sips at first, then relaxes into deeper ones, until the flask is empty, handing it back to her mistress.

A hand reaches for her neck, and this time Lena offers no resistance. She finds the hand pressing down on her until she gives in, slowly laying on her side.

“Rest, for now,” comes that soft voice. Those hands reach for her manacles, sliding the lock and pushing the old rusted hinge open. “I’ll bring you something to eat in a moment.”


 

It was always upon waking that Lena found her panic the highest. And waking, after either falling asleep or, more likely, passing out on her mistress’s furniture…

The panic overcame any dizziness, any physical weakness. A fear of being where she’s not supposed to be overrides all else, and Lena pulls to her feet with a lurch, stumbling across the floor and all the more panicked when her mistress is not immediately in view.

She never...intended to do it. Every time it’s happened, she never intended it. But when she fails to find her mistress, an open door becomes a siren’s song.

Everything else is a haze, as she slips out the door. She doesn’t remember racing down the cobble stone bridge crossing the river to the chateau further out. She doesn’t remember racing into the woods.

Awareness only returns to her when the spires of the chateau are no longer visible, when her sense of direction is warped, useless.

It’s freezing out in the forest, something that hits her with a powerful jolt, autumn coming in full force. Her arm hurts, something that, upon inspection, she can see is bleeding profusely. A vague memory of brambles buzzes in her mind, catching into her flesh and ripping.

She brings her hand over the injury with a faint whimper, still trying to peer past the treeline for the tall spires. But there are...none. Not a single indication of her mistress’s home.

Hot tears stream down her chilled cheeks, diluted by the soft mist of evening rain. She’s done it now, her panic overcoming her need to be taken in. She supposes a death in the forest would be better than what would face her at her mistress’s house. Runaway slaves….it would not be gentle.

She stumbles through the forest on sore feet, arms huddled around her form and breath coming in soft, wheezing huffs. She bites hard into her lip, staving off shivers..

Her mistress...had not been cruel to her. And...if she survived whatever punishment she deserved for trying to run...perhaps…

She scoffs at herself. She isn’t strong enough at this point to endure a lashing. And she’s seen those eyes lit with fury. She will not survive.

And even on the off chance her mistress doesn’t kill her, she’ll be returned to the market. And then…

And then…

A small whine rises in her throat, growing in urgency. The light is beginning to fade--the sun setting behind the trees from behind the mist she’s soaked in. She’s lost.

And every direction ends with death.

Time passes, she doesn’t know how long. The cold seeps into her bones and her shivers slow, along with her stumbling pace.

The exhaustion, the thirst and hunger are making the shadows at the corners of her gaze turn sinister, voices of old masters and cruel mistresses hissing at her, the limb of a bent tree resembling an upturned fist poised to strike.

Her pace is slow, save for the brief, terrified flinches when such hallucinations catch her off guard.

The forest is nearly silent around her, the cold rain her only companion apart from her own anxiety addled mind. But it is the steady break of twigs and brush beneath a heavy weight that finally makes her snap her head up.

At first she thinks it another hallucination--the image is so strident, so terrifyingly sudden, the tall, dark horse standing stock still only but a few meters from her. Those nostrils send puffs of steam into the cold air at twilight, but what turns Lena’s blood to ice is the visage of her mistress atop the beast, staring down at her with eyes freezing and unreadable.

The silence breaks with the beast slamming his back hoof into the dirt, agitated as his mistress angles her jaw up, staring down her nose with what Lena can only assume is a glassed-in expression of rage.

Lena’s head bows. Tears stream down her cheeks as her eyes squeeze closed.

She hears the small ting! of clean boots sweeping free from stirrups, followed by the dull thud of them taking weight on the forest floor.

“Come here.

The tone is sharp, cutting straight through Lena’s frozen posture.

It’s no hallucination.

No, she’s been hunted down, like a terrified fox. And now...the end is here.

She stumbles closer, turning the motion so that she goes down to her bruised knees. An attempt to communicate submission.

“I’m so sorry, Mistress,” she whispers, her voice trembling with repressed sobs that wrack her chest. “I..I was trying to come back…”

Internally, she scoffs at her own voice. She won’t be believed (she never has been) and the punishment will be all the greater for lying.

Those clean boots step closer, something Lena can see from beneath the soaked fringe of her hair. The closer she gets, the more vocal Lena becomes.

“P-please, I’m sorry…” she starts, her head lifting enough to try to glimpse that face. “Please don’t send me back…”

She trembles. When her mistress shifts her weight--and, worse, when she hears a small snap of something being loosened, Lena’s eyes widen.

Death will come now. Perhaps not swift….but sure.

“Please!” she tries, tears now streaming openly down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, please don’t do this!”

When the shift of weight brings her mistress closer, Lena panics, stumbling backwards in fear. She knows, consciously, she should remain still for punishment. But...in the moment...she knows only raw terror.

Her sobs nearly mask it, hands lifted and eyes squeezed closed so she doesn’t see it.

But she feels it--a warm weight coming to rest on her freezing shoulders.

Upon her, not a whip, nor a fist, nor a slap --but her mistress’s cloak.

Those eyes soften upon her, a hand brushing her cheek, along her jaw bruised from the merchant’s fist.

But the woman’s touch is tender, a gloved thumb sweeping along the corner of her mouth. And then...those arms wrap around her, engulfing her in heat that she was afraid she’d never feel again.

“You’re so cold." comes that soft voice against her ear. She earns a stronger squeeze when her trembles begin to pick up in intensity, her body limp in those arms.

Unresisting.

She fears a trap, which is why she does not dare return such a gesture--her arms hang limply at her sides as she’s drawn into a tight, tender hug.

“...you’ll catch your death out here…”

There’s sadness in that voice. A pain. A loss ...that if Lena were to die…

She trusts the emotion in that voice, enough to lift a timid hand to rest upon her mistress’ breast, to tuck between them and huddle all the closer.

A hand buries gently into her hair. Lena exhales, leaning now fully upon her mistress.

The warmth is addictive, becoming a drug to numbed senses. She can smell the cloak, her mistress’s scent on top. Faint rose perfume, the smell of leather and horse, of steel polish…

Her nostrils flare to take in the scent, letting herself go finally--and truly--limp.

They linger this way, for several minutes, a hand sliding along Lena’s spine overtop the thick cloak she’s wrapped in.

Slowly, her mistress moves, shifting to rise to her feet. Careful hands bring Lena up as well, holding her in case her weak legs buckle. That hand at her back, so warm, burns into Lena’s mind, past the haze of error and consequence, past the agony. Her mistress wants her, and she cannot pretend it otherwise.

Even were it so.

She finds herself being hoisted onto the back of that horse with such little effort--she thinks of all the game her mistress must have done the same with. But she is not treated like a carcass, her body lifted with attentive care paid to pain.

Her slim legs dangle off of the saddle, head bowed in exhaustion. She feels the saddle shift beneath her as her mistress mounts behind her, the motion smooth and practiced and strong.

An arm wraps around her waist, the other reaching to take the reins.

It’s not comfortable-- Lena in only a threadbare shift of cloth beneath the warmth of the cloak, and her legs are woefully exposed to the air and rain. But there are points of bliss even in such an arrangement, like the way the hand rests just below her breasts, to keep her set in place against that strong body...the one that presses against her back such that she can feel the pure power in the muscle, in a body toned from riding hours and hours in the saddle.

Lena focuses on the bliss of a head so close to her own, a jaw resting just over the top of her head, Lena tucked to her breast.

Her mistress keeps the mount to a walk in the thickest part of the forest, but once those hooves reach a familiar path, the woman gently nudges him into a rocking canter. That hand tightens beneath those breasts, to keep Lena staid.

Anyone else would have beat her to death. Perhaps bound her to a tree and left. Perhaps dragged behind a horse, screaming and sobbing until death came….

This would have been her fate. Yet her mistress is holding her, the agony and terror of death replaced by the warmth of an arm around her middle, of a cheek pressed to the top of her head, a cloak tightened around slender, trembling shoulders.

The spires of the chateau come into view, piercing up into a cloudy sky.

Home.

She surprises herself thinking it. She’s almost home.


 

She’s taken gently from the saddle, her mistress reaching to draw her from the horse into her arms. From there, she’s half carried within the walls, carefully laid to rest on a thick bearskin rug in front of a dying fire. Lena’s shivers are ignited ten fold, her body taking full advantage of the warmth to renew itself.

She turns to look at her mistress when she steps beside her, taking hold a log and setting it in place over the coals, prodding at them. Lena’s eyes glaze slightly, half lidded, as she watches a fire rise from glowing embers, the warmth from them growing until it’s nearly uncomfortable so close.

But she’s been cold for so long that it’s a siren song to her.

Her mistress rises after reviving the fire, Lena too exhausted to keep focus on her for any longer. She trusts--too exhausted to do otherwise--that she will not be punished for ill attention. If she wasn’t beaten to death for running, perhaps her mistress is merciful enough to let her sit in peace for a few moments.

Time passes, she’s not sure how much. Glazed eyes open when she feels a shift past her--her mistress putting something on the hook over the fire--a kettle, perhaps?

Her awareness slips again, only coming back when a whistle grows from soft to loud, blinking a few times to watch that hand take the kettle from the fire, pouring something steaming into a small cup at the hearth.

She blinks past her haze, eyes clearing as she watches her mistress move to sit down intimately close to her, pressing to her side and reaching for the cup.

Tu as assez chaud?” comes that soft voice, spoken in a low purr, again--not something Lena can understand, but she reads the tone, the gentleness in it. And she’s surprised when her hunch on what it means seems to be true--a gloved hand reaching to rub at her uninjured arm as though encouraging warmth. A motion to translate, to encourage Lena to learn.

Her heart swells at that kindness. The kindness of being treated human, of being taught something...

Lena’s reply to the question is a shiver, something that earns her a soft look--and most shockingly--those lips pressed to her temple in a warm, drawn out kiss. Against her own senses, Lena leans into it.

A hand reaches for hers, taking hold of her wrist and turning it. Into her palm, that hand presses the small cup, something that Lena can see now is tea. When her hand shakes, her mistress responds by resting both of her hands around Lena’s--an intimate kindness so she doesn’t drop it.

A gloved thumb rubs softly at Lena’s knuckles.

When Lena tries to lift her hand--to take a sip--those hands follow, carefully supporting.

The taste is sweet-- how often had Lena steeped tea for her owners, never knowing beyond a brief taste test, what it felt like to have a cup made for her?

She could cry. Tears well in her eyes. She takes another sip. One hand remains on the cup to support, but her mistress’s other hand lifts, to carefully tug loose burrs and leaves from Lena’s hair.

When that hand comes to rest on the nape of her neck, Lena pauses in sip, the motion feeling so very good . It’s not dominant--not demanding, the sense that her mistress is simply enjoying her. Not for what she can do, but for her simple presence...

But it’s when that hand slides lower that Lena’s eyes widen.

The collar.

The thick, heavy, crude collar that had been put there to weigh her down, to mark her. It had left scars and bruises upon her throat, against her collarbones…

For the second time that day, those fingers lift the metal, relief swelling in Lena’s throat. A whimper escapes from her lips.

This time, however...the weight does not come back down.

Ever.

The rusty hinge screams as it’s pushed open, an awful sound that heralds merciful consequences.

The breath in her lungs stalls until she sees, out of the corner of her eye, that awful mark of servitude come to rest down upon the bearskin rug. She exhales--then draws in her first breath with an unfastened throat. It trembles there, caught in her swelling throat. She knows, distantly, it will be put back. Perhaps replaced in time...but for now, to feel that small taste of freedom, the tears that had welled in her eyes now stream freely down.

The sobs are soft, the fire before her blurring as tears take her vision. She inhales sharply when gloved fingers brush her jaw, lifting it, a thumb stroking over an old bruise from months of that collar jostling carelessly over her skin…

Her neck feels light now, she doesn’t have to guard herself against too fast of a turn to avoid antagonizing those bruises. And there’s something so painfully intimate about those fingers, sliding across her jaw, a thumb sweeping just beyond her pulse…

“Breathe,” she’s instructed by a gentle voice, Lena realizing she’s held her breath in her lungs when those fingers found her jaw. A trembling sigh brings with it new trembling sobs.

She’s been saved.

Shyly does she turn--shier still do her eyes find her mistress’s. Those eyes are deep, focused upon her, the edge that made Lena so fearful softened by openly shown compassion and concern for the marks on that throat.

But Lena becomes lost in those eyes, those warm brown eyes, the way they flit from her own to her abused throat and back up. A hand lifts to her cheek and Lena’s eyes flutter closed, feeling that thumb push away frightened, exhausted tears…

A bath is hers, her exhaustion clouding her eyes as she listens to the sound of pouring water, when she’s ushered in to strip and step into a deep tub filled with hot water. She watches as those hands shed their gloves, a hand resting to the back of her neck and working soap into her hair.

More often than not, her ‘bathing’ is swift, cruel and terribly cold--a bucket of water thrown on her, scrubbed harshly if she’s going to be presented to someone. But this time, gentle hands work a soft cloth down her body, careful around bruises, around old scars…

Her glazed eyes fall to those wrists, feeling by the subtle scrape beneath the soft cloth that those hands are calloused from work. But it’s the thin white scars that etch around those wrists that truly captured Lena’s exhausted attention.

She turns her own wrist over tiredly, observing the selfsame marks--hers far more red and bruised… fresh...

The question burns in her mind, too exhausted and shy to voice it, but she suddenly exhales past the lingering fear…

Whatever past she’s had, her mistress, apparently, has known the pain of being bound. Of fighting against those shackles….

She blinks tiredly, eyes fluttering closed as that cloth cups over her neck, bringing wet heat over the old bruises left by the collar, her breath leaving her in quiet bliss.

After being drawn from the tub, after being dried off, Lena wonders if she’ll be allowed to sleep beside the fire. The fur was comfortable, warm, and to be so near the fire…

It’s far better than what she’s had before, made to lie on the cold stone floor in the cellar, or in the leaking hayloft in the dead of winter…

She supposes the servants’ chambers will be where she’s shooed away for the night, however. But a small cot, a blanket? It would be a privilege.

She’s left by the fire, wrapped in the linen used to dry her off. The flames dance in her exhausted eyes, the tea doing well to bring her eyes half lidded, the hope for rest burning like the fire. She would lay there now, curled on the rug, but she has not yet been offered permission to do so.

Her fingers toy with the fur, tugging absently.

“What are you called?”

The question startles Lena out of her haze, that head turning to look back. Her mistress stands, a long white cloth draped over her left arm, her face painted with a curiosity.

When Lena hesitates--out of a combination of confusion and exhaustion, her mistress continues.

“I never asked. And I would not bother asking the merchant. I doubt he troubled himself to learn.”

A name. Her mistress is asking her name. No inquiry about the validity of her body, her age, her ability to work. No...instead...she’s asked for her name.

Lena’s voice trembles in her throat.

“L-Lena...Miss,” she answers after another moment’s hesitation, still half convinced her mistress would not care.

Those eyes seem to warm at the information.

“Lena…”

It’s not the start of an order--Lena can see the way she seems to taste the name on her tongue, repeating it to commit it to memory. Still, hearing it from another’s mouth...seeing her mistress of all people wrap her lips around the name…

She cannot remember the last time she heard her name. Far too soon is she removed from house to house--the other slaves don’t learn her name anymore than she is able to learn theirs.

“Lena.”

This time it’s to get her attention, and she is quick to respond, to lift her head.

The woman kneels before her, slowly reaching to tug off the linen from her bath-warmed shoulders. In its place comes the white cloth in those hands--an oversized undershirt, made to be tucked into slacks, lacing at the collar. It hangs off her shoulder, but the linen is comfortable, smooth against her skin. And she’s grateful to be covered.

But something is missing, and it hits Lena harshly. She suddenly jerks her head to look about the room, searching desperately for it.

She spots it, draped over the back of a chair by the fire--the cloak her mistress had wrapped her in. She bites her lip around the question burning in her breast…

Wherever she’s sent for the night...she should like to sleep in that, at least. A reminder of the kindness, when nightmares threaten to steal what little peace she’s managed here.

“Miss….”

She bites her tongue, hesitant to voice the request.

“...May...may I borrow your cloak for the night?”

Out of her mouth, the words taste presumptuous-- what right could she possibly have to ask such a thing? It’s already made dirty from her blood, the dirt she had tracked from the forest, and now she’s asking to sleep in it?

That head bows, the silence making her curl into herself. Her lips part to retract her request.

“Of course.”

Of….course?

She watches her mistress stand, reaching for the rich cloth and bringing it to Lena’s shoulders for the second time that night.

“I’ll have one made for you, if you like it so much…”

Lena doesn’t dare speak of the reason she wants this one, content that it’s being offered to her at all for the night. It smells like her, a little damp on the surface from the rain, but beneath it’s warm. It’s safe.

“Or...is it just this one you like, Lena…?”

Dark eyes lift to her mistress’s, in time to watch a hand come to cup her cheek. That thumb brushes her jaw, a touch so gentle and encouraging…

“It...it feels safe....”

Lena exhales softly, bracing her hands to the ground and slowly rising to her feet.

“...where is it that you want me to go for the night, Miss?”

To her surprise, her mistress’s gaze falls to the ground, a hesitancy as those lips part but do not immediately speak.

“...I can...of course, find you a room, but…”

….but?

“But...I would offer to share my bed. That way you will not wake disoriented and run…”

Her mistress’s bed…

Never had she been invited to sleep somewhere so...extravagant…

It feels like a trap but she’s too tired to care, tears welling in her eyes.

“And I will know you are warm enough, and that if you need anything during the night, that I can help…”

A sob catches in her throat and, with hesitancy, Lena leans closer, to press her cheek to that breast, yielding herself to her savior..

Her answer is a soft nod, hesitant but eager…

Arms wrap around her--a brief, gentle squeeze. From there, she’s led to the bed chamber, eyes glazing over at the bed.

She’s made them over, time and again, pulling tight wrinkled linens and straightening the mattress and furs atop. But to approach it now, knowing that she’ll be allowed to lay upon it…

Lena watches those hands pull back the covers, gesturing towards the exposed linens…

Wrapped in that cloak, Lena slowly sits down, then lays, curling near the edge for fear that she’ll be taking too much space…

She hears the shuffle of cloth, the slip of silk, and the covers being pushed back the rest of the way. The bed dips slightly as it takes her mistress’s weight, and suddenly Lena feels that warmth to her back, an arm looping around her to pull her towards the center, deeper into the warmth, and into a loose embrace.

Perhaps she died in those woods, her mind providing her a fantasy to ease her into the afterlife. It’s her only explanation for how she is now laying, clothed in her mistress’s expensive cloak, held softly to her…

She knows only warmth and peace, with that arm looped loosely around her torso, the scent of her mistress swallowing her.

“Thank you…” she whispers, to the darkness as she listens to her mistress’s breathing deepen. Those arms squeeze gently, Lena drawn even tighter to that breast.