Callum was a slave, an obedient one. Though he tended to be careless at times, and his carelessness had gotten him in trouble one too many times.
This time, however, it had nothing to do with carelessness or ignorance. Wagons and carriages just made him sick; it had always been that way, and it was still like this even now that he was older.
But he’d never had to be on one for so long; not while being conscious, anyway. He could feel his stomach churning, protesting, clenching and unclenching painfully, and all he could do was wrap his arms around his belly and hope nothing bad happened.
Unfortunately, hope alone didn’t turn out to be enough. A few minutes after the wagon took a turn to an especially bumpy path, he leaned on his palms and emptied his stomach of the little food and water in it. He didn’t even have the time to reach the opening of the covered wagon.
Once he realized what he had done, he felt panic take over his senses. The wagon stopped in the middle of the deserted path and all he could do was stare down at his own vomit, sweat sliding next to his brow as he heard the man get off the coachman’s seat and approach him.
“What did you do, you little shit?” the man growled angrily, grabbing Callum by the hair without a moment’s hesitation.
The boy failed to hold back a quiet yelp as the man pulled him and forced him to exit the wagon, roughly throwing him to the ground.
“My orders are to have taken you to the auction house by nightfall, you think I have time to clean up after you like I’m some maid?!” he shouted, giving his hair another yank, this time forcing his face in the mud. “Answer when you’re asked a question, brat!”
“No, sir,” Callum whispered weakly, his voice shaky and uncertain. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“I don’t need your apology! What I need is for this mess,” he pointed at the wagon with his finger, “to be cleaned up, right this fucking instant!”
“Yes, sir,” Callum said, somewhat raising his voice along with his gaze. He felt relieved and grateful that it was over so quickly, with so little pain.
It seemed that he was going to be forgiven if he just corrected his mistake, and he was thankful for it. Perhaps the man was actually going to go easy on him, since he was to be sold soon and all…
A sudden kick to the stomach knocked all air out of Callum’s lungs, and he wheezed and wrapped his hands around himself, in an attempt to shield his body from another blow he knew was coming.
The next kick found him on the shoulder, and he curled up further into a ball. Tears escaped through his eyes despite them being squeezed shut to the point they hurt.
Apparently, he had been wrong. It wasn’t over. Far from it; the man had only just begun, Callum knew him well enough to be able to tell. This was all supposed to be about being late to the auction, but when it came to punishments, this man had all the time in the world. Just as he received another blow, Callum realized just how silly his earlier assumption had been.
He saw the man prepare to kick him again and closed his eyes, instinctively raising his arms to protect his face. The blow never came.
“What is going on here?” Callum heard somebody say instead.
The boy hesitantly opened his eyes to search for the owner of the unfamiliar voice, curious to know who the person delaying his punishment was, and what their reason for doing so could possibly be.
People rarely ever paid attention to masters punishing their slaves, even when it was done in public. And when they did, it was almost always just to ask them to go do it somewhere else, or at least make their property scream quieter.
But Callum doubted that a man beating his slave bloody on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere was something that could possibly bother anyone - not somebody of importance, anyway. And the road was supposed to be deserted in the first place.
“What do you care?” the man said.
For a moment Callum thought he was going to spit. On him, on the ground. On the traveler. Anywhere, really. He didn’t. That meant he was feeling at least a little threatened by the stranger’s presence.
Now curious as to what this oh so intimidating person looked like, Callum raised his eyes slightly.
The figure wore a black hooded cloak that was quite short, only covering their head and shoulders. They appeared to be taller than himself, and he thought he could spot some white hair somewhere under the cloak.
Callum was a little surprised when his eyes caught the glint of two weapons hanging from the traveler’s belt. And the fabric of the hood that covered the top of their head had an odd shape, almost as if…
The stranger met Callum’s eyes, probably having noticed his staring. Caught off-guard, he immediately turned his gaze back to the ground, where it belonged.
“This is elf territory,” the stranger continued in a harsh tone, their words confirming Callum’s theory. “What business do you have here?”
“Hah.” The man scoffed, but still answered the question. “I’m takin’ this slave to an auction house. It’s on the other side of your territory so I’m just passin’ through – I have a permit if you need to see it…”
He searched his pocket and then handed a piece of paper to the elf. “Honestly, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t spend another damn second on freakin’ elf grounds,” he added. He emphasized the word ‘elf’, like it was an insult on its own.
The traveler –who Callum was beginning to think was probably not a traveler, but a scout- took the paper and examined it carefully. Callum leaned a little forward and noticed that they were frowning under the hood’s shadow.
“I can’t read this,” they said as they returned it to the man. “It’s human writing.”
“Well, of course it is,” the man protested, folding the paper and putting it back inside his pocket. “Not my problem if you can’t read it, elf.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you pass,” the stranger said after a pause. “In fact, I am trying hard to think of a reason not to kill you right here and now, trespasser.”
They moved before the man could even see it happening, and in an instant he found himself threatened by two firm blades on his throat.
“Wha-“ The man took a step back, exclaiming in shock. “Are you crazy?!”
“Am I?” the elf smirked, their weapons sparkling under the sun. “Hey, shall we find out?”
“P- Please,“ the man stuttered, his whole body sweating. “I’m a mere trader, unarmed! I didn’t harm any of you elves, and human travelers like me pass from here all the time! Our people have peace, you can’t do this, it’s- it’s murder!” he shouted.
“Not if nobody finds out, it’s not,” the elf muttered, grinning. “Well then…”
“What do you want from me?!” the man asked, seemingly scared out of his mind. “What is it? I’ll give it to you, just spare my life!”
Callum had watched the scene unfold without moving an inch from where he was, on the ground and covered in dirt.
He blinked several times, trying to comprehend what was going on, why the man was the one begging around the same time that Callum would have probably been, had his punishment been carried out normally.
But things were changing, perhaps a bit too fast for him to properly process anything at all.
Suddenly, the stranger’s eyes were on him again, and he almost flinched from his surprise.
“Him,” they said then, voice quiet but certain, like an order. Their expression had changed, turned calm and neutral.
“I believe I could do with a human slave,” they continued, just as Callum was wondering whether he’d heard right. “I want him.”
The man hurried next to Callum and grabbed the boy roughly by the shirt, offering him to the elf. “Take him! He’s all yours!” he shouted. “Please… I have a wife and kids! Please let me go!”
He sounded on the verge of tears.
Callum was starting to panic, but with the elf’s eyes still fixed on him, he didn’t dare struggle in the man’s grip. He remained still, doing his best to conceal even the sound of his breathing. He was too scared to look up.
The stranger smiled slightly, apparently satisfied. “You can go,” they said, and the man threw Callum to the ground and ran for his life.
In no more than a couple seconds, he was already on the wagon and leaving the same way he came, looking back once as if he’d expected for the elf to chase after him. The stories about elves that humans told each other and apparently truly believed in were crazy, the stranger thought as they watched him go.
Once the wagon had disappeared from their sight, the elf turned to the human on the ground, who had yet to move from where he had been thrown. He remained perfectly still, like a rag doll, and even his breathing was completely hushed and silent. A few seconds later, he slowly sat up and knelt in front of the elf, making sure to keep his head lowered.
“Oi, human,” the elf muttered after inspecting his new position for a few moments. “Get up.”
Callum shivered. His heart was racing, and he felt like it was going to jump out of his chest at any given moment.
His life had already been bad enough as it was. He’d had to work until he could barely stand, and his body had become thin and kept growing weaker and weaker with the passing of time. He’d been beaten almost every day for minor mistakes, some of which weren’t even his own. And, finally, he’d been sent to the auction house and forced to leave his brother behind.
The last one had been the most painful, by far.
But even if he had this huge collection of unpleasant memories (some of which were each accompanied by scars to tell the tale), being owned by an elf, the enemy (former enemy, according to some piece of paper, but clearly not in humans’ or elves’ minds) had to be the most horrifying thing to happen to him during the almost fifteen years he had been alive. And if even a single word he had heard about elves was true, then he was in serious trouble.
Not to mention, the elf that he now belonged to was clearly a hostile one. They obviously despised humans, and they seemed violent, too. As a slave, fear had always dwelled inside Callum’s head and his heart, but he rarely ever felt this scared and helpless.
At least with humans, he knew what to expect. Which, frankly, wasn’t anything good, but at the very least they were humans just like him, not… monsters. Elves.
Having put the blades back on their belt, the stranger placed a hand on their hood and pulled it off their head. Callum could finally see the elf’s face clearly.
He was more than a little surprised to find that she was a young girl, probably about his age, and with a face a lot less scary than he’d expected. It was actually pleasant, and there was no scowl, just two slightly furrowed brows.
She had light skin, and indeed there were two actual elf horns poking out of her skull – Callum had never seen real ones before. All of her hair was pure white, not quite reaching past her shoulders. She wore dark clothing, the sort that would allow her to move and run around with ease.
More importantly, not only was the scary expression he remembered from before gone; it had been replaced by something that looked a lot like genuine concern.
Once he realized that he was staring, Callum lowered his eyes immediately, fixing them on a random stone next to the elf’s boot like it was the most interesting thing he had seen in his life.
Soon after, he realized that he had failed to carry out his very first order from his new mistress – even worse; he’d completely ignored it. Even though she’d so clearly commanded him to stand.
The realization was like a punch to the gut; it certainly did make all the air disappear from his lungs like one.
Mad at himself for doing something so idiotic, Callum thought he probably didn’t deserve the right to stand up anymore. So he stayed where he was, kneeling.
It’d be great if he didn’t have to crawl the rest of the way, his knees still hurt from his having been thrown on the ground earlier –although they hurt most of the time anyway, because of all the kneeling- but it wouldn’t be the most painfully thing he’s had to endure. Or the most humiliating.
The elf looked at him for what felt like a really long time, and Callum was growing increasingly nervous with every passing second. He barely managed to keep himself from fidgeting, because he feared what might happen if he were to show just how uneasy he felt.
Finally, the elf spoke, though her question wasn’t one that Callum had expected. “So… Do you have a name?”
Her voice was calm and quiet. Callum looked up at her for just a moment, and she still didn’t look angry, or like she was running out of patience.
“It’s Callum,” he ventured. Then, nervously, he added: “If it pleases you.”
The practiced words still felt strange in his mouth even after all these years, but he figured he’d have to use what he had been taught as a slave, now more than ever.
The elf raised an eyebrow. “…oookay,” she muttered. “I mean, I don’t really care, so. Ahem. Can you stand?”
She offered Callum her hand, palm up, but all he did was flinch.
“Huh? Are you afraid of me?” she said, frowning. “You don’t have to be, I’m not interested in hurtin’ you. Peace treaty and all.” She shrugged. “You plannin’ on getting up?”
The peace treaty hardly mattered in Callum’s situation, and he was painfully aware of it. A slave wasn’t viewed as human, after all. According to human laws, her whipping his back raw or cutting his arms off would be considered perfectly legal, save for the fact that he didn’t quite belong to her; she’d technically just stolen him from that man. Or maybe unrightfully confiscated?
So if she were to hurt him on human territory, she could get in trouble for ‘damaging another person’s property’. But they weren’t. They were on elf territory, and with the way things were between humans and elves at the time, nobody would willingly start a commotion over a mere slave like Callum, who wasn’t even worth that much.
Callum wondered if the elf knew that.
He eyed the elf’s still hand warily, but as he didn’t want to try her patience, he eventually took it and allowed her to pull him back on his feet. He kept his eyes directed downwards, hoping that the proper slave etiquette for elves wouldn’t turn out to be much different from humans’. It was all he knew, all he had to protect himself. And even that was up to a certain extent; after all, a slave could only do so much to protect themselves.
But being perfect was the only way to avoid getting badly hurt, he’d been taught that for years, so if he couldn’t be that, he at least wanted to be as good as possible.
Careful, obedient. It wasn’t always easy for his clumsy self, though.
In fact, it was never easy. Callum had always been too… hopeful, for a slave. And he was aware that he only made things harder for himself, but he couldn’t really help it, could he?
“Can you walk?” the elf asked, and Callum instinctively straightened up. “Earlier, it looked like that guy hit you pretty hard… I’d gone out to get some berries and saw you guys from a distance, then I joined when things got bad,” she explained.
Callum found he couldn’t read her expression at all.
Ah! Eyes back to the ground!
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” the elf said in a neutral tone, crossing her arms. “Look at me. I’m not gonna bite ya.”
Callum did, knowing full well that he probably shouldn’t.
But even when he met eyes with his new mistress, nothing happened; she simply stared blankly back at him. Her face looked pretty normal, too.
“Since you were a slave,” (“were”?), “I don’t suppose you have anywhere to stay?” she asked.
Callum shook his head, hoping that the answer to her slightly odd question wouldn’t anger her. She didn’t show any signs of being upset, at least not because of something he did.
“Runaan will kill me if I bring a human back,” she muttered, mostly to herself, “but if you have nowhere to go, I can’t leave you alone in the middle of nowhere…”
Callum stared at the elf expectantly, one eyebrow raised in confusion. Finally, she sighed and pulled her hood back on with one swift motion. “Okay, fine. Let us go back.”
The boy hesitated. “If I may ask,” he started quietly, “where are we going?”
“My home,” she replied. “Not to worry; you’ll be properly taken care of.”
The words sounded kind of threatening, at least to Callum, but there was something about the elf’s gentle tone that made him unable to worry about it too much. He took a deep, inaudible breath, and spoke:
“It’s Rayla,” the elf said, failing to hide her surprise.
“Yes, Mistress Rayla,” Callum corrected, and the elf –Rayla- could only stare in bemusement.
Eventually, she mumbled something about humans, those weirdos to herself and began walking, expecting Callum to follow her – which he did, without delay.
At some point, she turned back to make sure that he was able to keep up. He’d just been beaten, after all, it was only normal that he wasn’t in perfect shape.
“You okay?” Rayla asked, and there was nothing threatening about her tone.
Despite that, when the boy looked up, his eyes were panicked.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” he apologized in a low voice. “I’ll walk faster…”
Rayla sighed deeply, then turned back and approached the limping boy with five wide steps.
He flinched violently and then froze in his tracks, expecting a blow or some sort of threat; at the very least, a scolding.
But instead of taking her pick from these options, Rayla instead chose to place an arm under his shoulder and help support his weight.
Callum trembled, until he finally realized what was going on. His body relaxed, somewhat, although his thoughts were still loud and panicked.
Why would an elf do something so nice? He had to have gotten it wrong. Perhaps she was about to flip him over and throw him against the ground, then proceed to kick him until he spat blood.
She didn’t. They resumed walking, and she didn’t let go of him, not for one second.
In about half an hour or so, she stopped, and Callum instinctively looked up to see a house. It was fairly small, but it looked warm and welcoming.
“We’re here,” Rayla announced. “This is my house.”