The warriors know about the enemies of the Kingdom. They are trained to fight, to win, because defeat means death. Their lives are hard and short, with wounds and scars. The King's warriors are the best, better than soldiers, or the sheriff's bailiffs, or the hunters providing meat for the King's table.
They are men and women who fear neither the pits of Hell nor the Wood dwellers.
The fae are feared for their deviousness. Hiding in the foliage and brush of the Great Woods, they kill with poisoned arrows because they are weak cowards, with beautiful faces, but faint hearts.
The dwarves are broad-shouldered smiths, winning ore and forging weapons. They don't like humans, but they kill rarely without warning.
Demons are huge black beasts, ripping their quarries to shreds with bare hands. They roam about the Woods in groups, and very seldom do humans survive a confrontation, usually badly mutilated.
Jared has killed fifteen demons until now, being victorious with only a few scars.
Jared started training when he was ten. Now he is reaching his thirtieth year, and he is the best, elite of the elite. No other warrior is as tall or strong as he, no other has killed as many enemies. So it's no wonder that he is sent alone to bring the most talented weapon smith to the King.
It takes him three days to find a lumber camp where they tell him about the Ackles.
“There're no other axes like the ones he forges,” they say, eyes shining.
“He lives alone in the Woods. He uses magic to protect himself.” They nod, drinking strong mead.
“No, no, he's big as a bear so no creature dares touch him.” They nod.
“I know someone who knows someone whose friend bumped accidentally into the Ackles. He cut his arm off.” They nod, drinking more mead.
Obviously, this Ackles guy is dangerous. Jared is glad that he brought his fighting armor instead of his parade armament, which is shinier but far less effective.
It takes him another week, killing two fae, one demon and one bear, and bribing a bunch of dangerously drunk dwarves, to find the Ackles' dwelling. It is at the edge of a dwarf village, far away enough for Jared to enter the workshop unnoticed.
He expects to find a huge man, a giant, near the chimney, but the man wielding the sledge-hammer is not overly big. He is well-built, face and bare chest streaked with sweat, soot and grime, but he is not a serious adversary for Jared. He stops hammering, looking curiously at the entrant.
Jared bows, keeping his eyes on the smith.
“Greetings to the Ackles,” he says. “Mighty King David, Ruler of the fertile Plains, most trusted Leader of his powerful people, sends his regards.”
Obviously, the Ackles is staggered. “Oh. Hi. Ahm, I mean... greetings.”
“I am the Pada Lecki of the Mighty King David, Ruler of the fertile Plains, most trusted Leader of his powerful people. My name is Jared. I come in peace.”
“In peace? Oh, that's... nice. I'm... uh, I am Jensen, blacksmith of this nice village, and uh. Yeah, blacksmith.”
“I lay the King's generous offer at your feet to come to Stronghold. You will be the Most Reverenced Instructor of his Majesty's blacksmiths and teach them to forge the fine weapons you are known for. I am here to escort you to Stronghold, averting any harm or danger on the way.”
The blacksmith puts his hammer down. It's obvious he is thinking things over, looking into the blazing flames of his forge, and after a break, he looks at Jared, his eyes hard.
“You want me to come with you, to give up my life and everything I own, in order to teach the King's men to forge weapons they can use to kill everyone who is opposed to the King and the Kingdom?”
Jared shifts on his feet. When put that way...
“That is correct,” he says.
“Alright. Then I'm sorry to say that you came all this way in vain. Return to your King and tell him that I'm unwilling to teach anybody, least of all his men. I ceased forging weapons a long time ago, and I won't start again because he wants me to.”
Jared tilts his head. “I acknowledge your choice, even though I am grieved. And I am truly sorry.”
“Sorry? What for?”
“This,” he says, grabbing the club that is leaning right next to him against the wooden wall. It only takes one targeted blow, and the blacksmith is collapsing in a sooty heap.
The King said Bring the Ackles alive, and Jared is bringing the Ackles alive. No one ever said a thing about voluntariness.
Packing the blacksmith's belongings into a heavy bundle doesn't take long. After loading it onto his pack horse and tying the unconscious man on his own horse, he sets the house and the workshop on fire.
He regrets destroying the home of an innocent man but orders are orders, and burning the house down will distract the villagers long enough for them to leave unnoticed.
With the precautions Jared has to take in the Woods and two horses in tow, the journey takes a whole day longer than he thought. He can't risk the blacksmith running so when the man starts coming to, he first makes sure that he is unharmed, then feeds him the sleeping drug he borrowed from the healer.
Of course he is taking good care of his captive. He wants him to be thankful (maybe a bit cowed, too) so that he will change his mind about working as the King's instructor. King David is not a bad man, but his commands should never be rejected, even if they come in guise of a request.
After setting up a camp near a clear brook, he begins cleaning the sleeping man. There was so much soot and dirt that his skin looked almost as black as a demon's, but now it is pale and pink, sprinkled with yellowish-brown dots. Jared has never seen anything like this.
He does this every night, cleaning his captive, helping him to relieve himself, and then feeding him bread, and meat, and the sleeping drug. Sometimes he can see a hint of glazed-over green eyes before the drug takes hold again, and they close.
The need to use drugs is annoying. Jared just caught a glimpse of the real Ackles – a strong-minded man with great physical power, wielding a sledge-hammer like it was nothing. Now he's just a pliant kitten.
Jared can appreciate strength when he sees it.
After five days of slow traveling, they arrive at Stronghold. It's the Kingdom's biggest stronghold, sitting defiantly on the river bank, all stone and power.
The King is pleased.
“Well done, my Pada. He is alive and unharmed, I take it.”
“Of course, sire. He's in my chamber sleeping the drug off. Unfortunately, he was not willing to come voluntarily. I had to resort to violence.”
“Otherwise, he'd be a weak man. Prepare the chamber next to yours as a holding cell. I put you in charge of his well-being.”
“He's your charge now. I give you one week, then he'll agree to tutoring my blacksmiths or we'll adopt other means. I'm pretty sure he won't like them.”
“Of course, sire.”
“Very well. Now tell me about your journey. The Queen is indisposed, and I'm in need of diversion.”
Jared is a warrior, not a storyteller, but if the King wants him to tell tales, he does it. Unfortunately, the King is frequently in need of diversion, as it is an open secret that he is detested by the Queen. After giving birth to the crown princess and her brother, she turned to a liaison – the King though is too stubborn to do the same.
After almost an hour, he is dismissed. Now he can finally take off his fighting armor, take a bath, and get some rest – of course after arranging the accommodation of his captive.
“I think it's better to constrain his mobility, my Lord,” his body servant says while washing Jared's hair.
Jared opens one eye. It's too cozy in the warm bath water to move more than necessary. “Hmm? What do you mean, Steven?”
“Shackles, my Lord. The Ackles is a man of great strength, with a strong will. He'll never yield unless coerced. You should beat him into submission.”
“No, that's the last resort. I want to convince him, not...”
There is a loud crash in the chamber next door.
The Ackles is awake. Jared sighs – so much for some well-deserved rest.
“Remove the bathtub and prepare another bath for our – hmm, guest. Two guards,” he orders, getting out of the tub and grabbing a towel.
Two servants are carrying the wooden tub out of the room while Jared dons his parade armament. In this matter, he is the King's official representative – he has to be dressed accordingly. Sighing, he puts on his formal headgear, the helmet with a royal stag's antlers.
Though he is still proud of it, he hates wearing it indoors. It is pretty much impossible to go through doors, and he has to watch out constantly not to hurt other people when moving his head. It's part of his formal attire though, so he wears it.
When he was nineteen, he killed the stag as part of his initiation rite. It was the biggest red deer ever killed as initiation. At the time, Jared was glad he didn't have to face a wild boar (and he didn't want to wear tusks as helmet decoration) but now, short tusks have greater appeal than giant antlers on his helmet.
He only makes it into the other room through the narrow door because of many years of practice. Straightening himself, he strikes an imposing appearance, and Jared knows it.
The Ackles is sitting on the floor, his back resting against the sturdy bed. Though he still looks rather out of it, he's holding a big piece of the earthen jug he smashed on the floor, threatening Jared.
“Who are you? Where am I?” he rasps, trying to keep his shaking hand steady.
“I am Jared, the Pada Lecki of Mighty King David, Ruler of the fertile Plains, most trusted Leader of his powerful people. You are guest at Stronghold, the most splendid city of Mighty King David, Ruler of the fertile Plains, the home of-”
“Cut the crap. What do you want from me?”
“Alright.” Jared sighs, taking his helmet off. “King David wants you to instruct his blacksmiths to forge weapons. At the moment, you're his guest and allowed to move about freely in his castle, even though guarded. If you don't agree after one week, your status will be revoked, and you will be treated as a prisoner.”
“You're the guy that came to my house, aren't you?”
“Yes. I apologize for hurting you. My orders were to bring you to the King, and when you refused, I had to take drastic measures.”
The Ackles lowers his hand. “You call a blow to the head 'drastic measures'?”
Like Hell Jared will tell him about the drugging or burning of his house. “I did what I had to. Do you agree to instruct the King's blacksmiths?”
“Certainly not! A long time ago, I vowed to never forge a weapon again. I won't break it because the King's men are untalented dabblers.”
“Very well. I arranged a bath for you. After, a servant will bring you food. I strongly advise you to reconsider your answer. The King's dungeon is not a nice place.”
Saluting the Ackles with a tilt of his head, Jared retreats into his chamber. He hopes his 'guest' won't be as pig-headed as he seems to be.
Jared is enjoying a meal in the common hall when Lady Felicia flops herself in the seat next to him.
“Hey, Jared,” she greets.
“Lady Felicia,” he replies, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
“How's your special guest? I heard he's pretty stubborn. And handsome.”
“He's strong-minded. And I don't know about handsome, I didn't look.”
She laughs, sparkling and light-hearted. “Oh Jared, I know you looked, everyone looked. He earned some fame, being a dwarf and all.”
“A dwarf? He's not a dwarf.”
“No? I thought they said he was:”
“That's just gossip. He's not dwarfish at all.”
“Too bad. I'd like to see a handsome dwarf for a change. Recently, we had some butt ugly bastards here.”
“What? They can't hear me, can they? We're not in negotiation with them, their spies are dead, I can say what I want.”
She steals Jared's bread, leaning back against the back rest and popping chunks of bread into her mouth. That kind of behavior is tolerated because she is royalty and not expected to have heirs of any kind as she is the Queen's older sister.
“Anyways. My sister's birthday party...”
“I'm on duty that evening. Full attire.”
Felicia pauses eating, squinting her eyes disappointedly. 'Full attire' means the antlers helmet, which means no moving the whole evening, which gets in the way of her plans.
“Oh. Alright.” She continues eating.
The following silence is like awaiting his execution. Finally, Jared rises, saying, “Please excuse me, I'm... needed elsewhere.”
“Of course.” Felicia smiles disarmingly. “Maybe we can have a picnic or something soon...”
“Oh. Yes, of course. Soon.”
Jared bolts. Felicia is a great woman, smart, and a fierce warrior. She's also his superior though and a woman. And that's the problem.
He is not interested in her as a possible spouse (he is not interested in any woman), but to be able to act on his feelings, he needs to be married (and have children) first. As it is, as a single man, he can't have either husband or liaison. And he just can't bring himself to marry a poor woman solely in order to be able to live out his proclivity. All that remains are stealthy trysts with...
“Hey, Jared. Look, I made a bet with Corin. Your prisoner, that blacksmith guy, he's a dwarf, isn't he?”
“No, he isn't!”
It is the third day of the Ackles' house arrest. He hasn't left his chamber and, until now, never spoke a word to Jared, only gazing through the window opening at the city below the castle. He acknowledged the servants tending to his needs with little head tilts and small smiles though.
“Fae die,” he says, lost in thought, “when locked up all alone. They wither and fade away.”
He looks at Jared, just turning his head, embracing his own arms with strong fingers. He didn't eat much during the last few days, only bread and vegetables, and the dark circles under his eyes make them shine brighter, greener than usual.
“You won't let me go.”
“No. The King's word is law. The only way for you to leave unharmed is by agreeing. You teach – you live. As I already said, the dungeons are not a nice place, I highly suggest avoiding them.”
The Ackles turns back to the window, making a dismissive noise.
“I highly suggest killing me now, it would save all of us a lot of time and trouble. I won't yield, and you know it.”
“Yes, I know. But I won't be derelict in my duty. I'm the King's warrior.”
“Sense of duty should never make you close your eyes though.”
“I'm not...” Jared breaks off because – what should he say?
After a minute of awkward silence the blacksmith says, his back still turned to Jared, “How many people are living in the city?”
“Approximately nine thousand.”
“It's huge. I've never seen a city this large. The dwarves live in little hamlets, the fae in small groups, but only the humans build cities of wood and stone.”
“You got about a lot.”
“The clan chief made me come along.”
“The dwarves' clan chief?”
But Jared never gets a reply.
The next day it is late when Jared visits his involuntary guest. He went hunting with three of his comrades, and it took them the whole day to kill the herd of wild boars that was devastating the northern villages.
The blacksmith is sleeping, his clean-cut features relaxed.
He really is handsome, too handsome to be a dwarf who are squabby and proud of their body hair. Admittedly, he is bowlegged.
“You're a creep, watching other guys sleep?” the not-dwarf says, his eyes still closed.
“I just didn't want to wake you.”
Opening his eyes, he gazes at Jared, intense and piercing in the night's pale light.
“Why not? I don't have much else to do but stare at the walls or out of the window. You're the only one visiting, and all you want me to do is yield.”
“Yeah, well, that's the general idea. Is it working?”
“No. I swore a blood oath that can be broken only by blood. I'll never forge a weapon again.”
“A blood oath? So you are a dwarf?”
“No. No, I'm not.”
“Then you don't need to keep your oath. There are no gods to punish you.”
“I don't believe in the dwarves' gods, but they do. There may be no gods, but it would be me, I'd punish myself for the rest of my life, and that would be so much worse than any god's wrath.”
The sadness and bitterness in his voice is chilling Jared to the bone. He can't disagree because he knows the gnawing teeth of self-doubt, of I should have made better. He never broke an oath, though, never had to.
“So you're not a dwarf but you live with them, and you don't share their belief yet you conform. What are you?”
The blacksmith hesitates, then sits up, pulling his legs against his chest, embracing them. “I'm half-dwarf,” he says, resting his chin on his knees.
Of course Jared can see it in his mind. The poor woman raped by an especially ugly dwarf because she is too weak to fight him off, then giving birth to an ugly halfling... or not so ugly. Wait...
“You're a halfling?”
“Why, yes. My mother is dwarf, my father human. That makes me halfling.” He sighs. “Dad never liked living in stone houses and caves, so we lived in the Woods. It was pretty easy for mom to get used to... What?”
Jared still gapes open-mouthed at the blacksmith.
“Your father is human?”
“I think I just said so. Why, is it important?”
“Uhm... no. No, absolutely not. It's not important, not at all.”
Dark eyes squint incredulously at him. “I don't think I believe you.”
“But it's really not important what your parents are.”
“My parents are happy together, they are in love, and you can fuck off!”
The Ackles swings around, turning his back to Jared who is quite flustered. What did he say?
Tahmoh is petting Jared's bare chest in slow, easy strokes. After the literal roll in the hay, they are lying comfortably in a haystack in a secluded corner of the horse barn, coming down from their orgasmic high.
“A copper coin for your thoughts,” Tahmoh teases.
“Hmm? Oh, I'm not thinking,” Jared replies.
“Yes, you are. Pretty loud even.”
After a short, significant pause, Jared says, “You know, I don't understand why he tells me all that. I'm his guard, and he tells me about his parents... I just don't get it.”
“You're talking about the Ackles? Do you retell what he told you?”
“Of course not! It's personal.”
“So you don't know each other, and yet he tells you personal stuff?”
“Well, it's obvious. He doesn't believe to survive.”
“What? What do you mean?
“He thinks it doesn't matter whether he airs the laundry or not because soon, he'll be dead. If he really is as stubborn as they say, that's quite possible.”
“No! I don't want him to die, I'd fail in my duty if he died!”
Tahmoh sighs. “I don't envy you, dear. You're assigned to make him obey the King's orders, if need be with violence and torture. He's determined to not yield...”
“It's a blood oath.”
“It's a blood oath. He won't forge a weapon ever again.”
“Oh crap. A blood oath can only be broken by blood. He'd bleed to death. Now that's a dilemma.”
“The best part about this is, he's not a dwarf, he doesn't even need to keep the oath.”
Rubbing his hands over his face, Jared sighs. “I tried to talk with him today. I told him stories about the King, about the conflicts at the Wood's edge, and how the settlers are suffering from the fae and demons. I say we need to protect them, we need good weapons to keep them alive, and you know what he does? Nothing! He's standing there in front of the window, closemouthed. I only have tomorrow left, and he's not talking to me anymore.”
He has a hunch that the Ackles may still be mad. Somehow Jared managed to offend him or his parents. He knows that he is prejudiced against halflings (he never met one personally until now). They are said to be descendants of weak women, too powerless to fight against their attackers, therefore weak and frail themselves. Jared can't imagine the Ackles being a weak man though.
“Only tomorrow? Hmmm... how about showing him what he may gain if he agrees? Let him have some delicious food, some pot roast or venison, and maybe he'll see the amenities of working for the King.”
Jared thinks. “He doesn't eat meat, only bread and vegetables. But he can have other treats, like pie or pastries. And today, he asked for mead.”
”Oh, that's good! Show him how life at court can be. He'll surely prefer it to the dungeons.” Thumping on Jared's stomach, he adds, “Now, let's raid the kitchen, I'm hungry.”
The Ackles hardly touched anything of the food Jared had sent. There is still goat's cheese, apple pie and sweet bread rolls, pears and freshly baked bread, butter and a bowl of vegetable stew left. Apparently, all he ate was some bread and cheese, but the mead jug and wine tankard are both empty, and the blacksmith is – drunk.
“There he is, my favorite jailer,” he welcomes Jared. He is sitting on the floor in a corner, kneading bread crumbs into little balls and aiming at a cup a few feet away. Half the floor is littered.
Sitting down on the bed, Jared needs to restrain a smile. The other man looks too cute, pink cheeked, trying cheerfully to hit the cup with the pellets of bread.
“Looks like you're having a good time,” Jared says.
“Oh yes. Your wine is eggs-... extraordinarilily delocious- delicious.”
A pellet hits Jared's boot. He picks it up, rolling it between his fingers. Unfortunately, he can't point out the court's splendor anymore.
“Actually, I wanted to take you to the Queen's birthday ball. Though looking at you, I think that's not a good idea.”
The Ackles snorts with laughter. “I can't stand on my own two feet anymore. It's really not a good idea.”
Jared sighs. “Today's the last day. If you don't accept the King's offer, you'll be in the dungeon tomorrow. I don't want this.”
“The King's offer,” the blacksmith says, snickering. “Nice offer. Accept or die, that's the choice. Betray everything you believe in or rot in the dungeons. Nice offer.” He is wiping his face with his hand, and Jared can see the glitter of tears.
“I'm so sorry. I don't know what to do. This life is everything I know, I can't antagonize the King. I just can't.”
“You'd help me?” Green eyes are looking hopefully at him, making Jared squirm on the bed.
“No, I can't. I wanted to be a warrior since I was five years old. I can't betray my warrior's oath for a man I hardly know even if I think the King's orders are objectionable.”
There's sadness and hurt shining in the green eyes now, then resolve and resolution.
The man raises his cup of wine to his lips, emptying it to the last drop. Dropping the wooden cup to the floor, he says, “You never asked me why I made that unbreakable oath.”
He sighs, his hands resting in his lap. “Sometimes I wish I'd been born without hands. They take pieces of metal and forge the deadliest weapons. The dwarves only permitted me to live in their midst because of what my hands could create. They enticed and urged me on, and I was proud of my work.
“One day, the clan chief made me go to war so I was able to repair the swords on the battlefield. I saw them kill, they killed women and babies with the swords I had made, and I saw them die, my friends died a miserable death in the mud. We- they were victorious and returned home, laden with treasures, but I was... I was dead, inside.
“I refused to go on working on weapons, only forged trinkets and household items. The chief tried to force me, threatening my family. That's why I made the blood oath. There was no need to hurt my family anymore because I couldn't resume forging even if I wanted. But I don't want to, not at all. I feel like I'm drowning in blood, sometimes, in the night.”
He searches for the wooden cup. It's empty though, and he throws it against the wall, without heat. The Ackles is baring his soul to the core, and Jared knows that Tahmoh is right. He doesn't expect to survive long.
Jared comes to a decision. He'll ask the King to set the blacksmith free – this evening, sometime during the party. Maybe he'll need the Queen's help.
Leaving him makes his heart hurt. He wants to console the shattered man, but instead he orders Steven to bring him more wine.
The party is a blast – for the people who aren't working, that is.
Jared is bored to death. Tonight, he's the King's bodyguard but it's more about performing official duties, impressing the guests from other countries and kingdoms. And he does impressing really good.
Being the tallest man at court, he is the only one who is able to wear the antlers helmet, his armor shimmering in the candle light. The ladies' glances at him are lustful, the lords' ones envious (and lustful). He knows he is good looking (maybe even really good) and usually enjoys attracting attention, but he hates official gatherings.
His body is thrumming with energy, with the need to move or fight (or fuck) but he can't. He is expected to represent the Kingdom's strength and power, not to enjoy himself.
He really could do with a cup of wine.
It's not because he needs some liquid courage. There's nothing the King would do to him, he's too valuable to be downgraded or exiled or the like, and the King indeed is able to take justified criticism.
Nevertheless, Jared could do with a cup of wine. A big one.
It would just help with his aching back and feet. It's not easy standing still (impressing) with that damn heavy helmet. Some nice little tusks would be significantly lighter and easier to wear.
It's only a little party. The noble guests are enjoying themselves with chatting, swaggering and flirting. Soon, when the dinner starts, the servants will bring tables and food, and they will be allowed to participate. That's the part Jared is looking forward to, when he is free to join his comrades and the domestics at the tables.
Lady Felicia is looking really pretty tonight in the embroidered uniform of a warrior Maior. Surely she will soon find some pretense to join Jared, and he will need some pretense to twist himself free.
She shouldn't waste her time. He will never marry her, but he doesn't know if she knows, if she understood his subtle (or not so subtle) rejection. She's a proud warrior princess, it wouldn't be wise to offend her.
Like her, there are a lot of other girls and women who would marry Jared here and now. Jared in turn came to terms with the fact that he will never marry, never have a liaison, never find love. Of course there's Tahmoh, and his wife knows about them – but they can never be officially liaisoned as long as Jared is a single man. He likes Tahmoh, maybe even loves him in a certain way, but there's something missing in their relationship.
Out of the corner of his eye, he notices movement – it's Steven, trying frantically to gain his attention. With a little gesture, he has Colin take his place by the King's chair and walks over to his body servant.
Steven's face is ashen, a bloody fingerprint on his cheek.
“What is it?” Jared is worried – Steven would never fetch him for little problems.
“Pada, it's the Ackles. He... he killed himself.”
Fortunately, Steven was exaggerating.
The blacksmith is still alive, though badly hurt. All that is left of him in his chamber is blood on the floor and pieces of the broken bed.
“What did he do? How did he do it?” Jared's body is still thrumming, this time with anger and concern.
Shaking his head, the guard, Misha, replies, “He ripped the bed's legs off, then tied his wrist to the fireplace screen, I think as a leverage point. Somehow he used the bed legs to break his arm.”
“And the blood?”
“He shredded his skin with a wood splinter. And that pool of blood is where his head hit the ground when he was falling down. The healer said he's severely concussed.”
“Damn.” Rubbing his hands over his face, Jared sighs. How is he supposed to tell the King? He doesn't think though that the Ackles really tried to commit suicide, more likely he tried to compel the King to set him free.
“Where is he?”
“In your chamber, Pada. The healer said he couldn't be moved, and your chamber is right next door.”
“Well done.” Jared pats the guard's shoulder although he doesn't feel grateful. What a mess.
After giving orders to clean the chamber and repair the broken furniture, he enters his own room where the healer is cleaning an unconscious blacksmith,
He is too pale, almost as pale as the bandages on his head and right arm.
“Healer Kim. How is he?”
“I don't know yet. It's a bad fracture, it could become infected and cause a fever. Steve told me how much wine he drank so he'll have a hangover from Hell. And a concussion. I'm pretty sure he won't enjoy waking up.”
She sighs. “As things are now, I can't say if he's going to be able to use his arm properly ever again. I'll do my very best but...”
“I know that, healer. I know.” Jared reassures her, but... The blacksmith won't be able to forge again, either trinkets or swords – if he survives. And it's Jared's fault. He knew about his state of mind and didn't help him. He could have talked to the King days ago but he didn't.
“Maybe you should get some rest, Pada,” the healer says. “It's late, and you can't inform the King until tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, I think you're right. I'll need another bed though.”
A few minutes later, there's a straw tick in the corner where his chest used to be, and Steven is making a bed with clean linen.
Taking off his armor, Jared strips down to his tunic and breeches. It feels weird, stripping down in front of the healer without being hurt, but she only has eyes for her patient.
When he finally falls asleep, it's a short and fitful sleep, laced with weird dreams and pricks of conscience. Way too soon, he is woken by whispering. The Ackles is awake.
“Hey,” Jared says, and dull green eyes are turning to him, glinting in the pale early morning light.
“My favorite jailer,” the hurt man says tiredly.
“Yeah. How are you?”
“Don't know. Hurting everywhere.”
“Alright,” the healer pipes up. “Now that you're awake, Pada, I'll try to get some sleep. Make sure he doesn't fall asleep until I return.”
“Me? But I-”
“Good night. Or good morning.”
Murmuring something that sounds like I'm too old for playing the night nurse, the healer leaves, and Jared is alone with his injured captive.
Sitting down on the stool Kim occupied before, he leans closer, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Um... well. Do you need anything?”
“No. The only thing I need is something you won't give me. Just leave me alone.”
“I can't, sorry. You're my responsibility, and I care about you. I'm sorry you had to hurt yourself to make your point clear.”
The tiniest grin is tugging at the blacksmith's lips. “I had to because you're so pig-headed.”
Jared is baffled. How can this man smile at him, actually making a joke (even if it's a bad one)? Why is he not furious, not trying to kill Jared, not even yelling at him? Maybe he didn't realize the fallout of hurting himself so badly yet, or he's still drunk, or...
There's an awkward silence until Jared starts talking. He talks about the rooster that hurt his leg when he was a kid and how he ate it with relish a week later. He tells about his little sister, how much he loved her and how devastated he felt when he wasn't allowed to attend her burial when she died because he was a warrior in training. He even tells for the first time ever how the tutor found a way to let him go. He tells children's stories his grandfather told him and what happened at his cousin's wedding when all the wedding guests were completely wasted.
He holds the bucket when the other man is sick and prods him with pointed fingers until he opens his eyes again. He eats nothing but bread for breakfast because the smell of food makes the blacksmith nauseous, and he holds the cup for Jensen to drink in tiny sips.
The King is hungover, but not particularly moody, which is surprising.
“You want to tell me that all the efforts I made are in vain?”
Jared nearly asks, What efforts? It was me who had all the trouble, but he doesn't. Instead, he says, “Regrettably. He won't be able to forge anything again. The healer says he's lucky if he'll be able to cut his food.”
The King paces back and forth, murmuring curses, his dressing gown billowing behind him.
He stops in front of Jared. “This is not the result I expected when I ordered you to bring him here. How do you think we can get rid of that demon riff-raff in the Woods? We need to protect the settlers or we'll never get to claim the territory.”
“Sire, even if we can make him forge weapons, they won't be the kind our warriors are used to wielding. We'd need swordsmen to instruct them properly.”
“You already said that, Pada,” The King thinks for a minute, then says, “The Ackles won't need to forge himself to instruct our blacksmiths. Make sure he can be pronounced healthy soon. My patience is wearing thin.”
“At your command.”
Jensen is feverish when Jared tells him about the King's decision. His face is rosy-tinted, but the rest of his skin is sickly pale, and he's sweating all over. He doesn't say a word, just rolls over, burying his face in the pillow.
Jared feels – there's something burning in his stomach that makes him want to lie down beside Jensen, curling around the smaller man, shutting out the world.
He remembers what his instructor, Pada Morgan, said. “It's the sword that kills but it's the swordsman that drinks blood.” Jensen was drowned in blood through his work – it wouldn't be fair to throw him back into this crimson sea.
He also remembers how Jeff Morgan bent the rules when his little sister drowned in the river. As a young warrior in training, he wasn't allowed to leave the premises but Jeff found a loophole so Jared could attend the funeral.
At the moment, it is more important that he needs to take care of his hurt captive, and he can't do it during his usual service, so he is glad when Felicia stops by just after Jensen falls asleep. She is not enthusiastic about his request for a few days off, but grants it nevertheless.
“But why do you lower yourself to nursing him?” she asks.
“He's my responsibility, I can't disappoint the King again,” Jared says. (Though the thought of disappointing his King is pretty attractive if it means Jensen is set free.) “I'm lucky he didn't want my head on a platter.”
“Yeah, he was in astonishingly good mood this morning. Maybe it had something to do with my sister not pushing him out of her bed last night.” Felicia's grin is downright filthy.
“Oh... uhm...” Jared says, feeling uncomfortable.
“I didn't want you to get in trouble because of your... mishap, so I asked her to make him happy. As you know – when the King is happy, his people are happy too.”
“That was very... thank you.” But why would she – oh. Of course.
“You're welcome.” Running a finger down Jensen's cheek (what Jared would give to see what Jensen would be doing if he was awake!), she adds, “He's really cute. You know, for a dwarf.”
“He's not a dwarf,” Jared replies automatically. “He just happened to live with them.”
Felicia is glancing at Jared out of the corner of her eye, and he shifts on his feet, feeling uneasy. He's not completely stupid, he knows that he gave the wrong answer to the question his superior didn't ask.
A few minutes later she leaves. Jared is glad.
During the next days, while caring for sick Jensen, Jared has a lot of time to think.
In his fever dreams, the blacksmith moans and cries, reliving days of gore and pain, and there's no way that Jared will allow him to be forced to comply.
Unfortunately, there's also no way to save him that Jared can see.
He can't break the rules he lived by his whole live, and he can't bend them either. The only way to get Jensen legally out of Stronghold is if the King dismisses him – which will not be happening. He can't smuggle him out as he is too sick, and Jared would need help of people he can't trust. There are people he can trust, of course, but he doesn't want to put them at risk.
He doesn't even talk with Tahmoh about his doubts. It's not the first time he questions the King's orders (and usually, his King is reasonable), but this time, it's a big deal, verging on treason. His lover would immediately try to help him, and Jared couldn't bear Tahmoh's fate, with the second baby on the way and all.
And where would he go? He can imagine a marriage with Jensen (but doesn't know where this comes from), not just a liaison, but a true marriage, and doesn't even know if his chosen one is interested in men.
Isn't it a sad thing? Finally, he found a person he wants to live with, spend the rest of his life with, and said person is his captive. He is expected to hurt and break him in order to make him betray his deepest beliefs.
And then the dwarves come.
It's an ambassador with a delegation of dwarf soldiers, grim and proud. They reclaim the Ackles from the court, the King smiling blandly.
Jared knows that the dwarves don't want to protect one of their own; they just want a blacksmith who can produce pretty trinkets and maybe, one day, forge weapons again.
It's disgusting. Jared is standing (impressing) behind the King's throne, getting sick on behalf of Jensen.
“We have found human wood thieves who told us about a human male that asked for the Ackles, just a few days before he disappeared,“ the ambassador says, voice rumbling, his beard shivering with rage.
“A human male?” King David asks. (Jared holds his breath.) “Can you give a description?”
“He was tall.”
“Tall?” The King is leaning forward. “That's all you have, 'a tall male'?”
“He was tall and wearing an armor.” the ambassador says stubbornly. “No crest.”
“So,” the King says, leaning backwards, “you say a tall human in an armor with no crest has kidnapped your precious blacksmith. Maybe he was just fed up with his life and vanished into the Woods to start a new one?”
“Is there anyone who can bear witness?”
“Yeaaah... well... the wood thieves I mentioned.”
“Oh, that's great! Where are they?”
“Ehm... well... we killed them.”
King David stands up. “You dare tell me that the only witnesses that could give a description of this... dubious kidnapper have been killed by you? Ambassador, I highly recommend leaving my court immediately. Otherwise I will feel offended by your presence.”
The dwarves have no other choice but to leave the court without delay, and Jared can breath again.
“It was a dangerous game you played, sire,” Jared says when the King is standing in front of Jensen's bed, face to face for the first time. Maybe now King David sees what his order has done to this man, how vain it was.
Fortunately, Jensen is asleep because this time, Jared doesn't want to know what he would say to the King
“I know the dwarves. They're predictable when they get angry.”
Turning to Jared, he scrutinizes him with an intense gaze. “You, however, are getting more unpredictable. I know about your attempts to get my wife to persuade me to set the Ackles free. I assure you nothing and no one will change my mind. The Ackles will instruct our blacksmiths how to forge the kind of weapons I want them to forge, or he will die.”
“Of course, sire,” Jared says, bowing.
Even if the King knows about his discussions with the Queen, he doesn't know about his resolution. It only means he can't talk to anybody, other than Jensen.
“Do you ever keep your mouth shut?” Jensen asks one day. He is getting better slowly, still has great pain in his arm, but he is almost free of fever.
Jared is taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Well... you talk the whole time, and I think it's nice to learn about your nephew and the trainees' shenanigans, but why do you tell me all that stuff?”
That's the question. Why does Jared tell things he would only tell his brother or Tahmoh? He still barely knows Jensen – no, that's not true.
“I- I have the feeling that I've known you my whole life. It's not as if I'd tell you new stuff, it's as if you already know everything about them. About me.”
Jensen looks at him with big, green eyes. For a long moment, there's nothing between them except sparks and air.
“That's...” Jensen says, “I feel the same. As if I've known you for years.”
It's like this magnetism thing Tahmoh told Jared about, where certain objects are drawn to each other inevitably.
Jensen's lips are soft, but Jared notices they are kissing only when Jensen gives a soft whimper of pain.
“Oh crap, I didn't want to hurt you.”
“Jared, you didn't hurt me.” Jensen is cupping his cheek with a warm, dry hand. “You never did.”
Jared closes his eyes, listening to his heart beat and Jensen breathe.
“That's not true,” he says and tells how he burnt Jensen's home, work, and life.
Jensen is devastated. There's nothing left he can return to, and there's nothing lying in front of him except King David's dungeon if he doesn't yield and self-loathing if he yields. He doesn't cry (not in front of Jared, at least), but Jared can see his red-rimmed eyes.
Jensen needs time to heal in more ways than one, and Jared will give him every chance he needs.
He doesn't tell him about his decision though. He still doesn't know how he'll do it but he will free Jensen. He'll free him and escort him wherever he wants to go, and then he'll leave and lead a sad and lonely life.
He thinks about buying a team and a cart so that he could hide Jensen while smuggling him out of Stronghold but he doesn't know how to steer a cart. And how will he get it to the back door unsighted? He would need help.
He could ask Steven, his loyal body servant, and condemn him to a cruel death if he got caught (which would be very likely if Steven stayed with his family in the city).
There are so many things Jared needs to keep in mind, so many problems he needs to think of.
And he's afraid of Jensen trying to commit suicide for real.
Time is running low with each passing day.
Jensen is withering right before his eyes, getting paler and thinner, more hopeless.
And then there's the day when Jared is telling a silly story he heard at the market, desperately trying to elicit a smile, as small as it may be, and Jensen grabs his hand, squeezing it hard and painfully.
“Will you kill me? Please?” Jensen's eyes are bright and shining. “Will you save me?”
“Please. I can't take it anymore. I can't leave under my own steam, the King won't let me out, and there's nothing here to kill myself. Even the windows are too small for me, I tried.
Jared is staring at the green eyes. He can see the hurt, and pain, and desperation. The hand, formerly so strong, squeezing his hand, is squeezing his heart too, breaking and shattering it into tiny pieces.
“I... I can't. I couldn't kill you or- or even hurt you – ever. But, Jensen, I promise to help you. I'll get you out, I'll find a way to get you out of here.”
There is hope springing in the green like a delicate flower after the thaw.
“I'm serious. If I was a dwarf, I'd take a blood oath.”
And there's the smile, sun shining on tiny flowers when the snow melts and the winter is gone.
“I think I'm falling,” Jared says.
“I'll catch you.”
Catastrophes approach on soft feet, usually.
“Jared. One minute, please,” Felicia says at breakfast.
“Of course,” he says, stuffing the last piece of bread in his mouth. He is cheerful this morning because of Jensen. His arm is healing well, and they have had a slow make out session, very slow and very wonderful.
“Jared, it's an important matter I want to present to you.”
Lady Felicia takes a deep breath – she seems to be very nervous. “You know... I'm a good catch... a noble woman and a warrior Maior. And I think I don't look too bad, too. And- uhm, you're a desirable man... very handsome and... strong... and- I think we'd be good together.”
Oh shit. There is no possibility this is going to end well.
“Pada Jared Lecki, do you want to marry me?”
The hall falls silent, all the persons present straining to hear the answer.
“Uhm... Maior Day- Felicia. Lady Felicia... I feel honored and... uhm... overwhelmed. Your proposal is... overwhelming... and unexpected. Unexpected, yes. And I'm honored... and... and-and-and... you're a very beautiful woman... but... I'm not befitting your status... nor your rank...”
Here it comes, his ruin.
“I'm very sorry. I need to decline your honorable proposal, Lady Felicia. Please excuse me.”
He runs away in a very measured way, trying to keep a modicum of honor, but he knows that he just lost everything.
He turns to Jensen for comfort, and though Jensen doesn't know why, he provides it generously, picturing a life without swords and war, a life together.
King David's reaction is predictable.
“What did you think, Pada!” The King is furious, pacing his study and yelling at Jared who is standing with his head bowed.
“You dishonored Felicia! She's my fiercest lady warrior, and even worse! She's my sister-in-law! Do you know what will happen! She will duel with you to restore her honor! Do you know what will happen if you hurt her?! My wife will never forgive me! And duel she will! The Queen will never forgive me if you hurt her! What were you thinking?!”
The King is breathing hard when he stops ranting, glaring at Jared.
“I'm sorry, sire. I-”
“I want you to accept the proposal. Maybe it's not too late to save my head.”
“With all due respect, sire, I can't. I need to reject your command.”
“I can't marry Lady Felicia. I vowed to stay unmarried until retirement, and I can't expect the Lady to wait this long.” It's a blatant lie, but it's the only one that may save Jared's life.
“You'll stay unmarried until retirement?”
“You know what 'retirement' entails, don't you?”
“And you didn't care to tell me?”
“I'm sorry, sire. I thought it was a private matter.”
“Holy ghosts of Hell!” the King yells, throwing his hands in the air. “I'm doomed, my wife will have my head!”
Tahmoh's reaction is also predictable.
Rubbing his jaw where Tahmoh's fist had hit him, Jared stares sheepishly at his feet. “I know, I know,” he says.
“You're such an idiot!” Tahmoh says nonetheless. “I told you last year that she will propose, and you just put off facing her for as long as possible. Now you're trying to close the barn doors!”
“Maybe I would have married her,” Jared says, voice small. ”Last year.”
“Last year?” Tahmoh stops pacing the bay in the stable. “Not anymore? What happened? You're dating someone?”
Tahmoh is scrutinizing him with those bright eyes of his that always made Jared weak in the knees.
“Oh, no,” he sighs. “It's the blacksmith, isn't it? You're in love with him.”
Jared's silence is telling.
Flopping down onto the mud floor, Tahmoh sighs. “I can't do anything that may endanger my wife and children, but if you want me to, I'll perjure. I'm going to say that you told me about this vow years ago.”
Getting on his knees besides his lover, Jared holds him tight.
“Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you.”
“You're an idiot,” Tahmoh replies. “But I love you.”
Of course, Lady Felicia's reaction is predictable.
“Do you think I'm stupid?”
“No, of course not. I-”
“I never thought you to be a coward, Jared. But you are. A fucking coward. As soon as you get the challenge for the duel, you come bootlicking and telling lies about a vow. I'm so done with you. I'll rip your heart out!”
But Jared's one thought is, You already did.
Jensen's reaction is anything but predictable.
“All I need is a knife or a dagger, and there's a problem less for you.”
They are lying in Jensen's bed, Jared's head on his shoulder, Jensen petting him and twirling his fingers in Jared's long hair. Jared stops drawing circles with his thumb on warm, soft flesh when the words register.
Shocked, he sits up, glaring at his lover. (Jensen is his lover now, Tahmoh is just his friend.)
“What are you saying? Have you lost your mind?”
Jensen is looking calm, composed. “It would solve many problems. You could marry that woman, I'd be free of the King's control, the King couldn't fight a war with my weapons...”
Jared stares open-mouthed.
“I need to atone for so many sins. There's so much blood on my hands that I can't scrub off, doesn't matter how much I try. If I can save your life, I'd die happily.”
“No! Don't you dare!” Needing to feel that he is still there, that he is still alive, Jared grabs Jensen's shoulder. “You didn't kill anybody, you only forged weapons.”
“... that were used to shed innocent blood. I got blinded by the dwarves' voracity, they fed my vanity until there was nothing left of me but self-interest. I'll gladly end my own life if it means your survival.”
Jared is pressing his brow against Jensen's chest, entwining his body with strong arms until Jensen gasps in pain.
“It wouldn't,” he breathes. “It wouldn't.”
“I just don't want to fight anymore,” Jared says. But there's no other way. He has to go out there and kill Lady Felicia or be killed by her.
“I know.” There's a tear glistening in Jensen's eye. He's looking right through Jared's eyes into his soul with his own beautiful soul.
“I don't want you to fight either,” he whispers. “It doesn't matter how this duel ends, I'll join you. I'll be with you until the very end.”
When he kisses Jared (a tiny brush of warm, sweet lips), it's an oath: it doesn't matter what Jared decides or what happens to him, he won't walk that road alone.
“I love you,” Jared says. Then he puts his helmet on and enters the tilt yard purposefully .
As always, there's the rush of seeing, hearing, feeling the crowd. All over the place, there are colorful pennants and banners, warriors and peasants, ladies and children. The clang of arms, murmurings, and music can be heard, and it smells like braziers and horses. It's like a big party – a really big one. As soon as the news spread that the mighty Pada Lecki will fight a duel with the fierce Lady Felicia (who is maybe the only person standing a chance against the giant Pada), everyone headed for the tilt yard.
Jared loves tournaments, – usually, but today it is an affair of honor that will end with his death in either case. If he is beaten by Felicia, she will kill him in order to re-create her honor. If he kills Felicia, he will be sentenced to death because he took a royal's life. And that's something he hasn't told Jensen yet. Jensen still thinks there's a chance for him.
Maybe she would grant mercy, though (he doesn't believe in it). It means dishonor and a marriage he doesn't want – and he doubts he will be allowed to see Jensen again. Most likely, the lady will have him killed.
On his way to the King and Queen's thrones, built on one of the long sides of the yard, his feet raising dust and sand, Jared's mind is racing.
He needs to bend the rules.
A warrior's life ends on the battlefield. It is a short and violent life, and though honorable – honor won't hold him with strong arms in the night.
Retirement is only possible when a warrior loses a limb or becomes too injured to keep on fighting.
He needs to be married to have Jensen as a liaison, and he can't marry him. – Although dwarves may bond between same sexes, Jensen is not a dwarf – though everyone assumes the contrary.
The sun is burning down on him, and Jared is getting hot in his armor, the antlers helmet heavy on his head.
You don't need to break the rules, Jeff had said.
He grips his sword's hilt tight, his fingers flexing on hard steel, the glove's leather creaking.
They're flexible, you can bend them both ways.
But in order to bend the rules, Jared needs to be adamant, strong-willed.
He can't contain the grin spreading across his face. When he stops in front of the royal thrones, bowing his head, he is grinning like a lunatic. With a light bow of his head he greets Lady Felicia, who is scowling back under her bear helmet.
The buzzing throng of people falls silent when King David starts speaking.
“My dear Lady Felicia, I am sad to hear that your excellent honor has been corrupted. Did you attempt to mediate with the insulter?”
“Yes, sire,” the Lady replies, her eyes emitting sparks of ire. “Pada Jared Lecki dared to insult me in front of my friends, my subordinates, and the court. He dared to appease me with a blunt lie, thus insulting me even more. He destroyed my honor beyond recognition.
“To add insult to injury, I have reasons to believe he gives undue preference to the dwarf your majesty holds captive. I have reasons to believe he will betray your majesty, his oath of allegiance, and the whole people just to please one male that is not even human, but a dwarf.”
Jared stares at Felicia, unbelieving. How can this woman he has known for such a long time be so full of spite? What did he do to offend her so heavily? Is he not entitled to disagree when it comes to life planning?
The King sighs.
“Honorable Pada Jared, you have been challenged to a duel due to your quarrel with honorable Lady Felicia. This is your last chance to settle it honorably. Do you want to address her?”
The dust is settling back on the ground.
A fly is crawling on Jared's helmet.
The crowd is staring silently at the opponents in the arena, sweating in the sun.
Jared is turning to Felicia, bowing low.
“Most honorable Lady, I am expressing my deepest regret. Never has it been my intention to hurt either your honor or your person. I humbly ask you to accept my most formal and deepest apology. Unfortunately, I will not be able to give you the satisfaction your heart is yearning for as with this moment, I officially take retirement.”
Under the crowd's rising murmur, Jared faces the King, stripping off his gloves and dropping them onto the sand.
“Mighty King David, Ruler of the fertile Plains, most trusted Leader of this powerful people. Charming Queen Anne, wise Consort and graceful Mother of this Kingdom. Facing your majesties, I make public that I am no longer a single man. I bonded with the Ackles, Jensen the dwarf. He asked me to join him until the end, and I accepted. I will return to the dwarves with my bonded as there are no non-prolific couples allowed at court.”
So Jared is lying, partially. By the time the pundits have checked his claim, he'll be gone. And of course, he will stay clear of the dwarves.
“Furthermore, it is with deep regret that I take retirement. No warrior was longer in service than me, no warrior has slain more enemies than me. I know Stronghold will be safe under the protection of my fellow warriors, therefore I retire light-heartedly.”
He can see Tahmoh standing behind the King's throne. There is astonishment and unease written in his face, replaced by a loving smile when their eyes meet.
“I know well that I don't comply to the requirements, that I am able-bodied, but my heart and mind are weary. Fighting does not appeal to me anymore. I can't raise my King's fame more than I already have. There's nothing left that I could still gain.”
Again, Jared is not telling the whole truth. He has everything to gain, and it's a small price he has to pay. He stretches out his left hand, drawing his sword with the other.
Thinking about Jensen's beautiful eyes, his sweet face, his soft skin, asking silently for forgiveness, he cuts, quickly and hard.
The crowd gasps.
Of course it hurts, but it's not worse than the times he was hurt in battle, and there's surprisingly little blood staining the sand red.
After sheathing his sword, Jared takes off his giant helmet, holds it under his arm. The wind is cool on his sweaty brow.
Cradling his hurt hand against his chest, he speaks the most important words of his life loud and clear.
“I fought for my King. I killed for my King. I lost a part of my body for my King. I did my duty and paid back my King's generosity with my blood. Now I retire into a new life.”
One last time, he bows low, then puts his helmet on the sand, at the baffled King's feet. With his head held high, he exits the arena.
Jensen waits for him with a bandage and a kiss.
Jared starts a new life with the man in his arms, quitting his life as a warrior. All that is left in the tilt yard's sand is his pinky and a helmet, shining in the sun where it is not stained with blood and dust.