Word Count: 6607
part 8 of This Small Dark Place at AO3
Sweet Chariot part 1
Sweet Chariot part 2
Again, any, many thanks to jj1564, without your help, this part would have made very little sense! ♥
This chapter features death of a minor character.
A sense of excitement filled the air as the last part of the Midsummer observance came, the part that involved the entire community as well as the estate, bringing with it hopes for a prosperous new year to come, for fertility and large yields in the fields, for the landholders and obliquely, their thralls. In the cities and towns, prosperity meant increased economic gains—for businesses to grow, employment to be steady—and the people did what they could to convince the gods to take an interest in this, so they gathered, city and country side alike, to make their offering to the gods, especially Eir and Freyr. In this day and age, the offerings were all symbolic, in the same way Mistress' funeral offerings had been—cards depicting the sacrifices were given to the fire instead.
In all the shops that dealt with print, advertising, or decorative arts, the business of making the cards boomed. Even among the thralls, those that were skilled made cards for other thralls and if they were very well skilled, their masters called on them to make their own, personalized cards. Jensen loved watching the cards being made; he was skilled with his hands, but doubted his abilities with pen and colored inks and was always thrilled to watch the cards come to life, with just a few strokes of the pen or a wash of color. The Padalecki estate had always produced their own cards under Mistress. They'd been individual, hand-painted cards, all reflecting the seaside that Mistress had loved. When it was discovered that masterTech Michael's Eric had a talent beyond creating blueprints and design work, it had become another duty of his to execute.
Eric was patient about letting Jensen hang over his shoulder as he worked; he explained the significance of his color choices, and what the symbols he used meant. They pretended that the delicate buds of lotus blossoms, curling along the edges of the cards he was allowed to make for the thralls, were just that and not tiny dirigibles….
It almost seemed a shame that all the beautiful cards—whether mass produced or hand-crafted art of local fruits, game, and thralls of every station—were doomed to a swift end, cheerfully tossed into the bonfires that were made each night until the end of the midsummer observance. The fires were everywhere: cities held bonfires in public squares, the countryside observed with fires on each major holding, with the villages and towns invited to observe with the masters and landholders. It was tradition. It was a season of parties and balls, a season of marriage and birth and reconciliations between friends and families; it was a time to reconnect, a time for some to celebrate the joy and magic of living, and for others to ask for the strength to keep on.
It was the time of year masters were required to honor the work that even thralls did, to acknowledge that they were also part of the community. The way they were "honored" was beneficial to each holdings' thralls. It had been tradition, and required by the old laws, that each unit of mam and sire and toddlers—or all those who were born thralls—had received gifts. Food and material, enough of each basic to last a half year, or new clothes and boots. It had always been the one time of year that thralls for life could legally voice a complaint that was heard if they did not receive the gifts they were due, by law and by tradition.
So far, the tradition still stood despite the shift to all thralls being indentured for life…Jensen supposed it wouldn't be long before the new laws caught up with tradition and erased that part of a thrall's life as well. At any rate, this was the time of the year the gods were thought to be watching—and possibly paying attention. At least, Jensen liked to imagine that the gods showed some interest in the lives of their little creations at this time of year and just maybe, would make sure the coming season was not as harsh as the one that had passed.
Certainly this season brought some entertainment to them all, as throughout the midsummer time, the Padalecki estate had been in a low-key uproar, what with the staff caught between amusement and their worry of the consequences if their amusement was noted. It centered around Master Gerolt, who was going about in a snit, angry—furious actually—but the horns of the law pinned him quite neatly in this circumstance. It was a Fool Master story come to life, Jensen thought, with the old Master caught in briers, and Seven Thrall pretending to help him out, while leading him deeper and deeper into the prickly maze. However, in this story it seemed Jared played the role of Seven, taking some small pleasure, or so it seemed to Jen, in reminding his father that he had no choice but to distribute gifts and no choice but to distribute useful, quality gifts as well. No barrels of ancient, pickled trotters, or skeins of cheap, useless ribbon.
Truck after truck of flowers and food, as well as experienced season-planners, came to the estate at Jared's order—a constantly moving stream of people in and out of the grounds. Gerolt may have bent to the law, but it was common knowledge among the thralls that it was Jared who made sure of the follow-through, and that was how Jensen and any other thralls who had an eye for design were drafted to assist the season planners in decorating the estate, preparing the offerings, and crafting the flower crowns for the whole estate and for Master's guests. Everyone worked three times as hard as usual—Gerolt made it known that it was expected in order to make up for the full two days of rest they'd be granted by law.
Despite the enormous amount of work, Jensen found he was enjoying this year's observance, feeling as if the heavy veil that had settled over the estate since Mistress Patricia's death had finally, at long last, begun to lift.
He hurried across the lawn towards the outbuilding behind the stables, headed for the many crates sitting on ice in one of the old buildings. There were already a good crowd of thralls about, rushing to and fro. He weaved his way through them, greeting familiar and unfamiliar faces as well. He waved and blew a kiss to his favorite, little Trinny, who was gathering bundles of sunflowers to one side, and to Annie as she swept past with a basket of herbs and a saucy grin.
He settled himself in the rear of the building, armed with a notepad and a flask of cocoa to keep himself warm in his chilly corner. 'Cook had ordered complete, detailed lists of everything that had been delivered, since she didn't trust the markets who'd sent the items to tell the truth. masterHousemaid had backed her up, in a rare instance of the woman actually involving herself in the general running of the house—though it made sense, Jen thought, since any slight against the master reflected poorly on her. And her continued employment.
First taking a moment to gulp down the thick, sweet, cocoa with a contented sigh, and incidentally warming his fingers—it was surprising how cold the small, brick building was—Jensen set his notepad and the flask down on a standing desk brought in for the workday. Picking up a pry-bar, he methodically opened crate after crate, taking count of the ones that held fruit or herbs, making note of which crates held the flowers waiting to be transformed into flights of fancy. This year, they were making wings for the toddlers as well as crowns for all. He wasn't sure who'd suggested the wings, but it certainly hadn't been Master Gerolt. His suggestion had been ignored; rather, masterHouseboy had managed to subtly steer Gerolt's attention in another direction, while Jared had pointed out that evenings might still be a bit chilly for the toddlers to appear at the festivities as water nymphs, and some guests might not look kindly on unclothed toddlers freezing for their amusement.
"Water nymphs, Eir's breath..." Jensen huffed in disgust at the thought as he began the second half of his duty: sorting through crate's contents, to separate out the flower stems that would become wings and crowns.
He opened a crate and was instantly swept up in a wave of pleasant memories. Plucking a few sprigs of lavender from one of the bundles filling the crate, he pulled them gently through his fingers to better release their fragrance. Cupping his fingers around his nose, and inhaling deeply, Jensen tumbled into the memory of long-ago late spring evenings, himself and a tiny Jared sitting in the meadow all on their own, twisting coarse field daisies and daylilies and long, emerald-green runners of ivy into wobbly crowns. How beautiful Jared had looked, like a tiny fairy with his chestnut curls topped with their attempts at crowns, those beautiful, ever-changing elven eyes shining with glee above dirt-smudged cheeks...how he missed those simpler, innocent days. He sighed, and smiled, and put the lavender aside. He'd have those crates go to the bath hall.
The day had been a complete success, everything perfectly in place—bonfires ready to be lit all along the orchards, long tables groaning with food for the freemen and tables along the edge of the thrall quarters as well. Field thralls were overseeing their grills; pork, of course, and a little beef again—a gift from Jared, the true master of the estate. There were baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, baskets of fresh bread that the masterCook had the kitchen staff set out, along with thrall wines of all sorts. There was music for everyone, and dancing for all; then finally as the sun started to set, the toddlers put on a performance for the freemen.
Gerolt watched the performance with overly-bright eyes and sweat-glazed, reddened cheeks. His thick fingers were full of candies, and he tossed them to the eager toddlers, handful after handful, making them perform the little tricks that Jake had taught them. The freemen all clapped as Jake suddenly let out an ear-shattering blast of a whistle, and the toddlers dashed across the lawn, quickly joining hands to dance around the freemen, faster and faster and never once stumbling or letting go of each other's hands.
The little ones weaved in and out in complicated patterns around the legs of Gerolt's guests, totally silent all the while, and though their faces glowed with smiles, Jensen was uneasy with how silent they were. Wilted bits of flowers and leaves littered the ground around the chairs where the freemen and masters sat, shed from the toddlers' crowns and wings. They were pulled onto laps, cheeks pinched and chubby legs rubbed before being sent off to bring more sweets and drinks. They were sent to bring the offering cards when the fires were lit, and they handed them to the guests with little curtsies and wishes for a prosperous season to all. When the moon rose and it was truly night with stars filling the skies, freemen and thralls circled their respective bonfires to send their cards flying into the air. The cards flew up, and then dropped like broken-winged birds to tumble into the flames. They were beautiful, sparking and flaring briefly before sending their smoke high, high; thin, gray plumes twisting and fluttering to fade into the darkness
No other light but the bonfires lit the lawn now and Jensen relaxed just a little, sinking into the shadowy darkness. He was togged out in the embarrassing bodythrall get-up, black straps, jingly silver bits...though thankfully this evening his outfit also consisted of buttery-soft, leather shorts. Very short shorts, but at least his ass was his own this night. He was increasingly grateful for the shorts as the evening went on and the temperature began to drop. He would have loved to inch a bit closer to the bonfires, but Jared showed no sign of moving, and why should he? Fully dressed, handsome in an embroidered vest and open-collared shirt to celebrate the season, Jared surely must be comfortable.
As they watched the other performances of celebration, Jared's fingers idly, thoughtlessly, traced the edge of a strap over and over, occasionally dipping a fingertip under to stroke Jensen's skin. Around him, other masters and thralls alike began to subtly scratch and slap at themselves. Jensen watched, just managing to keep a self-satisfied smirk off his face. He was no fool; he was all too aware of the time of season, the warm, damp places around the lawn, and what came whining in at this time of year.
He kept an innocent face, hands folded delicately on his knees, while the masters cursed quietly, trying not to draw attention to themselves and their antics. Wiser freemen moved closer to the fire, aiming for the where the smoke drifted towards them. As for Jensen, because the bath girls liked him, a healthy coating of mosquito-ban, disguised as an oil meant to play up his form, covered all his exposed parts. Jared knew this now as well, having stroked Jensen's gleaming skin, then frowned at the feel. Mosquito-ban did not feel the same as bodythrall oil; it was heavier, and had a herbal scent to it. He rubbed his fingers together near his nose. Jensen could only kneel there at his side, nervously peeking at Jared to see his reaction and when all Jared did was give Jen a little smirk that grew before melting into a giggle, Jensen's heart beat a bit faster in relief.
A high-pitched whining circled annoyingly around them, then stopped with a mosquito landing on Jared's cheek, which he promptly squashed. "Ouch," he exclaimed, "Hit myself harder than I meant to." He pouted, rubbing at the faint red mark on his cheekbone, giving Jensen a sad, puppy-ish look until Jen took pity on his master and leaned up to press a gentle kiss to the curve of his cheek. "Better?"
Jared nodded. "Much...kitchenboys were supposed to put mosquito-ban into the fires and the torches, weren't they?" They watched the other freemen trying to squirm without actually squirming, Jared hiding a smile behind his hand. "What happened?" he whispered. "Oh—did the planners forget?" his smile quickly slid into a frown, but Jensen shook his head.
"I think your father decided it was a worthless expense," Jensen whispered back, and taking a risk, added, "But we ordered some anyway, of course, so we could please your guests without...wiggling about in unseemly ways."
Jared stared at him, mouth open, and before Jen could seriously worry again that he overstepped, or put the household in a pickle, Jared burst into laughter, pulling Jensen up into his lap and hugging him. "Jen, Jen...little clockwork Jen-love...you are a seriously clever little toy."
They sat together, quietly, comfortably; Jared eased Jensen's head to his shoulder, humming along to the music and threading his fingers through Jen's hair, a soft, intimate touch, with none of the tension in it that Jensen felt so often in Jared the days. Jared even murmured appreciatively when one of the wandering bands of musicians came to stand where he and Jensen and a few other freemen were sitting, apart from the other masters and their thralls. Jensen knew the song the musicians played, a folk song he'd often sung for Master Patrick, so he sang it softly to Jared, who closed his eyes and swayed to the tune.
A change in the tone of the music brought Jensen upright, and he fished a thin bundle of cards from the pocket inside the waistband of the shorts, ready for the second and final round of sacrifice, trying to be subtle about it, but of course Jared's attention was drawn to him, to the handful of cards.
"Let me see," Jared said, and twitched the pack from Jensen's hand. He studied the beautiful lines, the jewel tones, how the lines were clean and spare and yet, held so much life. "Hunh. Are these cards Eric's work? Did he make them when he made the Estate's cards?" he asked, and Jensen froze. He wasn't sure what Jared's reaction would be to Eric using materials given him to use in working for the masters on frivolous items for the thralls. He nodded cautiously, and relaxed, his whole insides going warm and pliant as wax when Jared just nodded as well, smiling as he thumbed through the cards. "I...sometimes I miss it, I mean the tech shop—but that's baby stuff, no time for that now. You either, I expect."
Jensen kept silent, just giving his master a movement that could be interpreted any way. He wasn't about to tell Jared that any spare moment he had was spent at the stables or with masterTech Michael and Eric. Fortunately, he was saved from having to answer by the interruption of one of Jared's friends stumbling almost on top of them and shouting out an invitation for Jared to join them later in the evening. Jared took the boy up on it, but let Jensen know he wasn't expected to attend.
Standing next to the bonfire now, watching the last of the cards go up in flame, Jared leaned into Jensen and said, "You know, I'm going be out all night, I expect...instead of waiting up for me, you just go right to sleep, in my room or in your own spot if you wish," Jared said—meaning the little cubby off of Jared's. "Whatever you chose, it's okay."
Jensen did his level best not to appear openly grateful for Master's generosity, just bowed his head and tried make himself small and unnoticeable to Jared's friends.
At last, the festivities wound down, and the younger freemen began to leave—Jensen stood at the edge of the driveway, and watched with some trepidation as Jared climbed on the back of a Roper'pede—it being one of the newest fads for landholder's sons to own. Jared looked back, and sent him a bright wave before the boys roared down the drive, laughing and calling out to each other. The young boys and girls were the very picture of freedom—from cares, from worry, from responsibility.
Behind them, a heavy, open wagon lumbered up to speed as it came along the drive, pulled by a matched pair selected from the Estate's Percherons; Bo-Bo and Jo-Jo, his favorites. They had a lovely disposition, and an excellent gait. He was sure the poor thralls dressed in whatever their masters thought was clever appreciated it. They sat crowded together for warmth, some of them with their wilted crowns still in place. Jensen watched them go with an overwhelming sense of relief, and a tiny stab of guilt. He knew it was going to be a rough night for those thralls. The freemen were all either drunk or puffed-up—or both. He had the feeling a few of them had gone for stronger stuff as well—riding the dragon. He worried for his master, remembering the first party they'd gone to together, Jared with his too bright, stranger's eyes, but dismissed it. Jared was too smart—too shrewd—to lose himself in a trap like that.
He stood on the drive until he was certain that the young freemen were definitely gone, then dashed to his cubby, nearly colliding with the house staff not quick enough to jump out of his way. Millie, one of the older roomgirls, shouted after him, "Lucky, 'Cook's got a few trays in the kitchen still, and flasks for us—make sure you get yours before morning bells!"
Nodding, he continued on up the servants stairs in a bid to avoid any of Gerolt's retinue, threw himself through the door to his room with a thrilled huff, and gods—the feeling of relief, sweet, sweet, relief. He struggled his way out of the straps, thanking Four Gods—hells, all gods, right down to the little God of Bees—that he didn't have to wear the ridiculous contraption all day, every day. Bless his master for having more sense than the rest of them.
Rifling though his clothes drawer, he pulled out a pair of soft gray pants and a collarless shirt, the type the unseen-house staff wore. It was one of his favorite privileges, one that Mistress had granted him and had never been revoked.
It took him bare minutes to dash back down the stairs and race through the kitchen, snatch up his portion of what was left of the festive dishes, and then sneak out onto the porch. Panting from sprinting about, and feeling like he was nine again and still in Master Patrick's house—but Eir, he only had so much time that was his, and he wanted to enjoy every single second of it.
He sat himself in a dark corner of the porch, settling cross-legged on one of the couches. He opened up the waxed-paper package snatched from the kitchen and smiled. Jackpot! He found two thick slices of buttered bread, a few paper-thin slices of beef. and a couple of chunks of cheese—"Ah!" He exclaimed softly. There were even a few cookies and some slices of pear. He laughed softly. Lucky. Opening his flask, he found it filled with hot spiced cider instead of watered-down apple juice. Lucky was definitely the word for this evening.
The beef was gone, no matter how slowly he nibbled, also the cheese and bread. He was enjoying the buttery flavor of 'Cook's special cookies, the ones she managed to make taste wonderful despite the restrictions on the ingredients she was allowed to use cooking for thralls, when uneven thumps and bumps signaled someone was walking across the porch, headed his way. He slid off the couch and pushed back deeper into the shadows.
It was Gerolt, bidding the rest of his guests good-journey, until only two or three hangers-on and Kurt, the so-called physic, were left behind. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but saw that they were laughing, and a few minutes later, just as Jensen was nibbling the last bit of the pears, assistantHouseboy and masterMaid came into view, leading...Jensen squinted into the darkness.
It looked like Millie, and her little girl.
Millie walked oddly, stumbling like she was tipsy. Without assistantHouseboy's "assistance", there was no doubt Millie would have been flat on her face. Jensen sat a little straighter in his hidden spot. It wasn't usual at all for Millie to drink to the point of tipsiness, not without someone to watch over her girl; her little jewel, she called her. Jensen had always thought she was foolish to attach that deeply to the toddler, but what could you tell the heart, after all? Sometimes there was just no choice in the way it led. And speaking of led, he could see Gerolt's masterMaid, her grip on the toddler's arm looking painful. She was moving to fast for the little girl, forcing her to misstep, almost fall, but the 'Maid just yanked her upright and marched on, stopping only to push the toddler into the physic's arms.
"Go 'head, Laine, yer dismissed," Gerolt slurred, and his men grabbed Millie by the waist, dancing her around as they headed towards the doors, Kurt snatching the toddler up into his arms and running after.
Every bit of the food Jensen had enjoyed turned rancid in his mouth; he flashed cold from head to toe as his pleasant meal turned to worms in his gut. He wasn't completely sure about what he'd just seen, but there was no doubt in his mind that the roomgirl was in trouble. Her toddler was in trouble. And Jensen had no way to help.
He'd tell 'Houseboy. He was sure Jim had no idea what was afoot here. It was quiet in the house and on the lawns; thralls having cleaned the celebration areas and most now down for the night. The unseen-night staff were quietly going about their business as usual, unaware, he thought, about Millie's summoning. He'd let Jim know. Jim was incredibly good at steering old Gerolt into behaving like a human being. He'd do something to minimize the damage.
Slipping back into the house, Jensen winced—music was blaring from the upper floors—Gerolt's apartments. There was the occasional rowdy burst of laughter; someone obviously drunk was shouting along to a song; gods, Jensen thought, maybe he was overreacting and it was just a typical Gerolt evening. Maybe Millie and her toddler were just...decoration. Toys.
Still, he should go to Jim, yes...he could take advantage of Sub Rosa, he was sure of it. Jim was fair, and skilled at navigating the choppy waters of master/thrall interactions. Plus, for whatever reason, when it came to Jim, Gerolt seemed to hold a measure of...respect?...fear? Whatever it was Gerlot felt, it could sometimes be used for the benefit of the thralls.
He was almost at Jim's doors when a high scream blotted out the music, the laughter, the murmuring of the night staff at work; the scream spiraled higher and higher until it no longer sounded human. It broke, and he realized he'd been hearing two voices, one higher than the other, but only one voice shrieked on. Jensen clapped his hands over his ears and almost screamed himself. The shriek cracked, thank the four; shattered into frantic, hysterical sobs.
Like a coward, Jensen broke for his spot, running like wolves were after him, crashed through the door to his cubby and threw himself on the cot, burying his face in his blanket—twisting it around his head and body and burrowing into the flat mattress. The screaming resumed, overlaid with people shouting, doors slamming, footsteps rushing up and down the halls. He heard Jim thunder past his door, calling to a roomgirl to "Get Mark and—and Eric! Tell them come to Master Gerolt's suite—now!"
Jensen slid off his cot, hitting the floor on his knees. He bent, curling, until his forehead touched the tiles. He wanted to, but he couldn't, he couldn't just hide away. Millie was a decent person, who did the best she could, like all of them did, to have some kind of life, to give her toddler some degree of safety and happiness...it was definitely in her character to sacrifice herself for her child. Jen's eyes filled with tears, but he pulled himself upright; searching through his clothing drawer, he found a card he'd saved from Mistress's funeral...it depicted clouds, with a single star casting beams of light. He tucked it in a pocket in the waistband of his pants and headed for the place that was the thralls' heart of the house—the kitchen. Jim might be their head, but it was 'Cook who kept them breathing and sane—or at least as sane as was possible. He'd go, offer to help with the body, or help comfort the toddler, or...anything he could.
He was just passing the rear staircase, the one used by day staff to move quickly between the downstairs and the master's suites, when a commotion at the top of the stairs made him stop. A sort of muffled, animalistic, shrieking stood his hair on end, and then Jim appeared on the staircase, followed by Mark, Nurse, and Jake, and even Eric. Jensen backed away from the stairs, turned towards the kitchen, and froze in shock. He'd never seen this before, ever.
Waiting at the kitchen, crowding the hallway, was masterCook, masterGardener, Landsman, and master Husbandman, 'Handler, even masterTech, who wasn't really part of the staff in that way. The assistant Houseboy was noticeably absent, as well as masterMaid. They all looked towards Mark and
Mark charged past him, carrying a small, sheet-wrapped bundle. It was blood-soaked, and dripping more as he stormed past. His face was thunderous with anger—so deeply, darkly, furious that Jensen was terrified, as if Mark had suddenly transformed into some ancient, fire-wreathed god on his way to destroy the world.
Jensen backed up out of the way of what looked like the entire estate pouring down the stairs. The muffled shrieking revealed itself to be Millie, with a wad of cloth jammed in her mouth. She was half-naked, her eyes long past looking at the real world. Her wrists and ankles trailed blood behind her; she wore a toothed choke collar of the kind used to train hunting dogs and more blood made a necklace around her throat. Annie stopped them, tried to reach out for collar, but Millie cracked her head against the poor roomgirl's. Annie staggered back from her, yelping in shock and pain; Millie kept on fighting against the ones who held her, screaming into the ball of red-soaked fabric.
Landsman appeared out of nowhere, the old man pushing Jensen against the wall out of the way of the frantic staff.
"Move aside, young roomgirl," he muttered, mistaking Jen for one of the house staff and patted Jen's shoulder in a way he probably thought was comforting when he caught Jen's eyes on the gag in Millie's mouth. "We have to keep her muffled, you see, so as not to draw more attention to her. And now, I have to shoo my people back to their places before the master notices his entire estate is here under the stairs."
He left Jensen standing there, devastated by the awful knowledge that the shapeless little bundle of blood-soaked material had been Millie's girl.
He spun around and vomited violently against the stone wall, thinking distantly that bare stone was easier to clean than velvet drapes and wool carpets. Jen came back to himself, on his knees, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stood, shaken but determined. Right now, he was going to help 'Cook and the nurse in whatever way he could. He'd help clean and prepare Millie's daughter. And then, he'd light candles and ask the gods to turn a comforting eye to the thralls who had to clean Gerolt's suite—if they felt moved to pay attention to what was for them less than a blink of in eons of time.
In the morning, the knick knack came, and took two body-bags away.
Since the state was still straddling the line between the new law and the old, Gerolt was visited by officers of the law. An investigation was started, but in the end, it was determined that since both thralls had been bornthralls, Gerolt was only obligated to pay the state a fine.
The entire "investigation" lasted a total of three hours, less time than it took to get the two thralls out of Gerolt's suite, to the bath hall where the bodies were cleaned and re-wrapped, and from there the knick knack man took them, and hopefully they were burned and not fed to the pigs, but no thrall on the estate would ever know….
Jared was owed wergeld of course, since the thralls were owned by him by inheritance right, and not property of Gerolt. Gerolt would have to deposit one hundred and fifty dollars into Jared's account. And with that, the matter was closed.
It took no more than two days for the estate to go back to normal—it was as if Millie and her toddler had never existed, unless one knew what to look for.
In the herb garden, there were tiny paper birds tucked in among the stems of thick green herbs….
Jensen was still waiting for Jared to return—he'd not come back since he'd left the last day of Midsummer celebration, but Jen had heard from thrall traffic he was fine, just holed up somewhere with a few masters and their toys. Jensen chewed his lip at the news. He hoped that Jared hadn't lost his sense of who he was completely.
It was in this unsettled state of mind he came across Jake, sitting in the orchard, far from his cars and his garage. Jake looked up at him, and Jensen was taken with a bone-shaking desire to beat the hells out of him. He'd do it if he could, and then he'd bury him under that tree he sat under. His lip twisted from biting in the words he wanted to lash Jake with. He opened his mouth and stuttered to a stop when Jake leaped up and held his hands out to Jensen.
"I'm sorry," he gasped and Jensen saw how bright red and raw his eyes were. "Gods, I am so fucking sorry...that wasn't supposed to happen. I did my best—" his breath hitched and he went on, his voice low and raw. "I know you hate me," he said after a few minutes. "I hate me too, gods, you have no idea. I failed that mother and her child."
He shuddered into silence, hunched so he seemed so small. He dragged his arm across the seemingly endless flow of tears. "Gods save us—born a slave, die a slave, fucking hells." Jake suddenly drew himself straight, and choked out a laugh. "Well now, I do miss the smell of the sea, and now's as good a time as any for me and my steam-driven girl to slip away home. See ya 'round, Lucky-boy."
He gave Jensen a wink, and his lip lifted in a poor imitation of the leer he always gave Jensen. It was stiff and false and awful. Jake walked away and Jensen watched him go.
What Jake had said, born a slave... He'd heard it said another way, all his life he'd heard, Born a thrall, die a thrall; nothing belonged to you, not even your name, it was the rule of life. But slave...he'd only heard one other person use that word before.
Later in the evening, Jensen sat with a few of the house staff, Lex and Annie, along with Eric in a rare appearance without his masterTech. "Aren't you afraid he'll run off and hurt himself?" Jen teased.
"Maybe stumble down the stairs, or chew on your boots?" Annie piped up and Eric surprised them by actually snorting a laugh—short and low, but nonetheless, genuine laughter. Coming from Eric, it was a very rare thing.
"Stop the both of you before I beat you. I'd be in the right too," he muttered, quietly as always. They all laughed, and Mark walked in on the tail end of it.
"Well, hello Lucky—I'm glad to see you. And yes, the rest of you as well," he said, waving off their protests. Mark walked around the table, grabbing a few pieces of boiled potato, drizzling them with bacon grease and whatever herbs 'Cook had chopped and left in a bowl for them. He sat next to Jensen before digging in with gusto. "So, Lucky, you taking care of yourself? Keeping your head above water, are ya?"
"Yes," Jensen replied, grinning and then dropping it at the very not-playful look Mark was giving him. "Yes, Mark, I am, promise," he said, looking at Mark quizzically. "Is...are you okay?"
Mark set his bowl down. "Lucky, I've never been better. Feel so damn good, I could stretch my wings and fly."
There was a sharp clatter as 'Cook dropped one of her metal mixing bowls. "Mark, you are an idiot. Hush up, you hear?"
Mark just laughed, and eventually the other thralls joined in, though Lex fixed him, and then Jensen, with a narrow-eyed squint. "Jen," he said, "Come over here and sit with me."
Mark laughed again and walked around the table, looped an arm around Lex's neck, and rubbed his cheek against his. Ignoring the way the man blushed deep red, he whispered into his ear, "I would never hurt little Lucky, I promise. I love him."
He looked up at Jensen's squeak of surprise. "I do. You know, once we got past our rough start, I realized something. You remind me of my little brother, sold off a million years ago. Never forgot him. Honored his memory by loving you, Luck—Jensen."
He came back around the table and stopped in front of Jensen, who smiled uncertainly when Mark cupped his cheek. "Jensen. Don't let them destroy you. Keep fighting, you hear?" He bent down and kissed Jen's cheek and walked out briskly.
"Whatever was that all about?" Annie asked, and Jen, Cook and Lex all shrugged their shoulders and said almost as one, "No idea."
That night, pretzeled up on his cot in his cubby, drifting almost to sleep, he was startled awake by a sharp whistle, so loud it echoed in the still night. He jumped upright before settling again...probably just one of the land thralls calling after a dog, or some goats that had wandered...it was silent after that. Very silent. Suspicion made him hurry to the narrow window of his cubby.
He stared out into the night and saw nothing, heard nothing. Straining, he could just about make out a sound, like the wind blowing through the grass. A steady shush, shush, shush that he'd heard before—oh. Oh! It was the sound of the toddlers silently dancing through the grass at the Missummer celebration. He remembered their smiles, how their eyes had been so bright—the determination on their little faces. Jake--
And suddenly everything that Jake had done with the toddlers came roaring back to memory—the games of strength and stealth; playing hide-and-go-seek, and learning to stay still and silent as little statues. Running quick and as quiet as rabbits, and learning to swim in the freezing cold stock tank—as cold as running rivers would be. He remembered them playing all over the cars, and vans, becoming familiar with them inside and out; handing tools and making small repairs and even learning to drive. All those memories flooded over Jensen, and he realized that what he'd seen as bribes; the candy, little cakes and the gifts for the mams, had been a kindness that Jake had managed right under the master's stingy, twisted, gaze.
In fact, Jake had handed Gerlot his own nose on a platter and told him it was steak. Jake had fooled every single person on the estate and between him and Mark and surely 'Cook and probably Will, had spirited the most defenseless of them away.
A mari usque ad mare—from sea to shining sea; to the free land of Acaidia, Jensen hoped, with all his heart and soul. His eyes hurt, the tears came so quickly and so hard. His heart swelled as he leaned as far out of the window as he could, knuckles going white at the fierceness of his grip on the ledge. He asked Skirnir and Eir and Freyr to forgive him. He was sad, but at the same time, happier than he'd been in quite some time, so happy that he laughed out loud. Waving good-bye with both hands, he called out into the night "All luck on you, 'til you reach the shining sea!"
In the morning, Mark's lovingly maintained, clean-as-a-whistle horse vans were gone, as was Gertrude, Jake's beautiful, toddler-maintained, steam touring car. Gone too were Jake the driver, and Mark the former assistantHouseboy turned horse handler, and every single toddler there'd been on the estate.