A Chance Meeting

From the 2018 Christmas collection…

Eden | Alternate Pathways

Rain falls in a steady drizzle just beyond the stone pillars of the breezeway, the slate tiled roof overhead connecting the east and west wings of the manor house.  A cool, stiff breeze gusts through the open area every so often, tugging at the small, bright new leaves on the trees and long hair and uniform livery of the solitary figure alike, a reminder that the spring is new and barely begun.  The straw broom wicks over the stone flooring, the dirt neatly collecting in a pile to the servant’s left, each motion made with a precision that belies the fabric that wraps around the man’s eyes. Not truly blind, but simply light sensitive, the blindfold is necessary, yet it’s also a convenient way to ensure that he’s generally dismissed by the other inhabitants of the manor, servant and noble alike.

Which of course is exactly in line with his plans.

Arch retrieves a dustpan from the side of the breezeway and sweeps the dirt into it just as the lead housekeeper had reminded him three times before leaving him to this task.  The Master of the house doesn’t abide by extra dirt on top of the dirt already in the flowerbeds, or so he’d been told. In reality, the housekeeper is a shallow, vapid woman who believes keeping her subordinates busy with unnecessarily complicated tasks equates to being good at her job.  Not that she’s overly bright to begin with considering she gave him the instructions, then walked to the end of the breezeway and proceeded to gossip about him and other servants with one of the gardeners. Just another of the fools who equate his damaged eyesight with a lack in his other senses, including hearing.  

At least the rumors and stories she spoke of were worth suffering her general presence, each one carefully stored away in memory until he has the chance to write them in his journal later this evening.  One of the Master’s butlers has trying on the noble’s clothing in secret. Two of the milking girls are fighting over a lad from the kennels. The cook has been substituting ingredients in the meals with cheaper offerings and keeping the pilfered items for his own.  Two of the manor’s soldiers have drinking problems and are constantly asleep at their nightly posts. Whether there’s any truth to the rumors will remain to be seen, but Arch will still add them to his collection, hanging on to each one just in case they become relevant in the future.  

This entire assignment and the reason he’s posing as a servant at this particular manor are about the future.  This noble’s lands are in the Northern Province, a wide swath that borders the uninhabited lands to the north. Uninhabited until the Elkinphyr woke from their long sleep, that is.  Now Arch’s people seek to learn about this new world and what has become of those who drove them to the extreme of locking themselves away in the icy caves of the Valley of Brhynn. The geographic location makes this manor the first that may need to be overtaken, and so he’s been assigned to learn all he can about the Master who dwells here and the household he keeps.  

As if summoned by his thoughts, a shadow appears at the far end of the breezeway, opposite from the place where the housekeeper had so recently stood gossiping with the gardner.  After a moment a second shadow appears behind it and then the people themselves as they exit the corridor and step through the double doors and onto the flagstone he’d swept not twenty minutes previous.  Arch steps to one side, taking the broom and dustpan with him, careful to remember that he’s supposedly nothing more than a barely educated commoner and not a member of a race that could kill the man at the front of the two person parade dozens of different ways with magic alone.  The noble moves with confident authority, crystal cold gaze alighting and then looking through him before dismissing his presence entirely.

Behind the blindfold, pale, ice-blue eyes shift past the Master just as quickly, shifting immediately at the sight of the delicate, silvery leash that leads from one of the man’s hands to the figure that walks behind him.  The Hunter is hooded in a rich, black velvet cloak worked with silver embroidery along the edges, made to match with the dark leathers that cling suggestively to what little of his legs can be seen. Orange and silver eyes stare blankly at the ground over which he walks, the feature the only one visible on his face due to the intricate filigree muzzle that wraps the lower half.  The leash connects to an equally beautiful and expensive collar, most of which is hidden by a fall of carrot-tinted hair, several of the locks plaited and adorned with engraved silver beads.

The Hunter is beautiful and obviously well fed and kept, but his position in the manor allows him no privileges.  The man is a slave, stolen from his homeland in the Wildes, and bought and sold at auction like a prize piece of livestock.  He has no rights, no legal standing, and even if he did, he has no voice with which to protest, kept nearly catatonic by the magical binding of the collar, muzzle, and the silver tag punched into his ear.  The Hunters are slaves of the highest value, bought and sold as bedmates and playthings by Eden’s nobles.

A hard frown slides over Arch’s mouth as the pair pass him by, disgust roiling through his slender frame at how such treatment is prized by the nobility and completely overlooked or even envied by the commoners.  In the Eden he was raised in, slavery didn’t exist, and no one placed value on the ownership of another. There were indentured servants of course, and some of his people would argue that they were also slaves, but it hadn’t been the same as this, not this kind of exploitation.  Instead of peacefully interacting, or even peacefully ignoring, this other race that shares their world, the people have instead set them on a pedestal to be looked at and shown off, and then chained that pedestal to themselves with magic, bending the occupant to their will. It’s cruel and appalling and a disgrace to a people who once were good and honorable.  

Although, Arch amends as his gaze tracks the pain down the breezeway from behind his blindfold, if anyone knows just how far the people of Eden have fallen from who they once were, it’s his own people, the Elkinphyr.  Once they lived in the world’s forests, renown for their weaponsmiths and herbalists, and pledged as the ruling noble class’ protectors, until those same nobles turned on them, burning their homes, slaughtering their people, and chasing them to the far north, where in desperation, the Elkinphyr enacted magic that would send them to sleep behind the safety of thick ice walls.  For a millennia they slept, awakening only in the last handful of years to a world they scarcely recognize.

A firm, but gentle touch at his ankle drags Arch’s hard gaze from the pair who have just about disappeared into the wing of the manor on the other end of the breezeway.  A large, beautiful silver tiger-striped cat butts its head into his leg, and sensing his attention, it’s golden eyes slide pointedly toward the forgotten broom he still grasps in one hand.  Properly chastised by the animal, the Elkinphyr resumes sweeping and the contented cat slips away into the flowerbeds with a noise that sounds very much like an admonishment one would receive from their mother or an elder aunt.  Mav–who’s not a typical house cat, but is in truth a liril shifted into a much smaller form–has taken her role as his companion and ally on this assignment quite seriously. The liril have lived in peaceful coexistence in the forests with the Elkinphyr almost as far back as either race can recall, the large cats unable to speak a common tongue, but still wise and intelligent in a way his people have come to value.  Many fled to the north when the forests burned and chose to sleep with the Elkinphyr, including Mav, her mate, and her kits. Perhaps today she’ll actually catch enough critters in the gardens to fill her enormous appetite and won’t insist on a portion of Arch’s own dinner. There’s a first time for everything.

Chuckling quietly, the shifter continues his task, the air once again filled with the wicking sound of straw against stone…

Spring sunshine warms the Elkinphyr’s back as he methodically works in one of the flower beds on the north side of the garden, using a shovel to turn the soil so that fresh, dark brown earth is exposed to the air.  One of the gardeners went to great lengths to explain the science of the task to him, and the man was so fervent and so excited about how the act helped create the stunning hue and lush look of the flowers, that he didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’s wrong.  Arch is not one of the herbalists his people were famous for, but he knows enough to understand that it has nothing to do with exposing soil to the air every fortnight and everything to do the pureness of the water that comes from the snow capped mountains to feed the local brooks and lakes.

In the end he’d said nothing because it made the man go away faster, leaving the shifter with the quietness of his thoughts, which is all he really wanted on this day.  On this sad anniversary, he desired nothing more than to be left alone, not forced to play the clueless role his cover demands, nor to socialize or even be near the socialization of others.  In truth he wanted to be in the woods, amongst the strength and shelter of the trees, sinking into a peacefulness that once he’d felt at all times. He wanted the stillness to suffuse him, to give himself wholly to the contemplation of the one he lost three years ago, one who had possessed his entire heart.

Haezyn was a beautiful brightness in his life, someone who was quick to laugh or smile, and even quicker to extend compassion and kindness.  They’d met after being assigned as protectors to the same royal house, the two of them clicking from the start. One thing lead to another, as these things often do, and they committed to one another, prepared to make the bonding official until the war began.  Fleeing for Arch’s forest home, they joined the rest of their people, battling for every square foot of the forest before being forced to leave, fire destroying the ancient trees. They’d stayed together on the flight north and then into the ice caves, standing next to one another until the magic swept them into sleep.

Haezyn was the first to wake, according to the records and Arch’s own siblings’ accounts, but during the long sleep his heart had been damaged.  The heart that was too good, too kind, and too giving had suffered irreparably, and with each passing day, he grew weaker. Soon enough he couldn’t rise from his bed without dizziness and nausea, his breath wheezing, and the pain in his chest crippling.  The healers and herbalists did all that they could, but as the days slowly passed, it became obvious that Haezyn was not getting any better. He fought hard in those days, trying to hold on, wanting to survive to see Arch freed from the ice. In his last days, he wrote a letter, one that was discovered by Koel not long after he’d let go and taken his last breath.  When the ice finally released him, Arch was heartbroken to learn of Haezyn’s death, but little by little the last words of his love, words that made him promise to live and live well in all the ways Haezyn’s heart wouldn’t allow, gave him the strength to move on.

Today is the day he wants to honor the man he loved, and instead he’s uselessly turning soil in a flower bed at the home of the ruling class who forced the Elkinphyr into the ice all those years ago.  

The spade sinks into the soil and turns it with ease, rich, loamy scents wafting up from the deep brown earth, the occasional worm or insect making an appearance.  With little interest paid, Arch is already moving further into the flowerbed, close to the wall of the bordering building. Trowel in, dirt turned, trowel in, dirt turned again and again, the mindlessness of the task allowing for the activities and sounds in the surrounding gardens to slide into the background.  So deeply into the background that at first the soft noise that issues from the other side of the window under which he works doesn’t register. It’s only when it’s repeated that the Elkinphyr falls still, his heightened hearing straining for anything further as he drops the screens that keep his empathic senses dampened.  In this assignment, surrounded constantly by those who aren’t empathic and don’t understand how to keep their emotions muted, he’d had to lock down the ability in order to maintain his sanity. Unleashing it now brings that awareness crashing into the forefront of his mind, the other gardner workers projecting everything from sullenness to boredom to contentment.  What hits him hardest and overshadows those other emotions is pain, and it comes from the other side of this wall.

Wrestling the emotions back from his awareness and pulling up his screens takes a long moment, but once he’s got them in control, Arch slowly pops his head up over the bushes he’s currently behind.  Finding no one in his immediate vicinity, he straightens to his full height and steps out of the flowerbed, the trowel held loosely in one hand dropped behind a shrub. A few short strides take him across a narrow grassy area and toward a finely manicured tree.  With the sun behind it, the trunk and full branches cast a long shadow into which the shifter steps and promptly disappears.

The room he reappears in is dim, the only patchy light filtering through the shuttered windows in slanting beams of white and gold.  The large room itself is beautifully appointed, consisting of finely carved furniture, luxurious cushions and bedding, patterned rugs, and artwork.  It’s a space reserved for one of great importance to the household, someone cherished, someone for whom this level of opulence is required. It’s the bedroom of the Master’s most prized possession, the one with whom he is rarely seen without.  

This place belongs to the slave, the Hunter.

Another soft gasp of pain issues from the bed, shadows cloaking the form of the slave curled into a ball in the middle of the huge mattress.  Arch moves carefully away from the dresser by which he stands, his hands lifting to unknot the blindfold and ease the fabric away from his eyes, the cloth barrier unnecessary here where the light is so diffused.  The first dark spots on the carpet halt his steps, the exact shade lost to the gray dimness, but he doesn’t need the color to identify what it is, not when the smells of metal and cloying sweetness are so thick in the air.  

Resuming movement, Arch reaches the side of the large canopy bed, the draping white fabric now splotched and spattered.  Folded into a ball, the Hunter is set at the very center, carrot-orange hair fanned across the bedding and his face tucked against his knees.  Form fitted black leather pants encase his legs, otherwise the man wears nothing but the silver collar and muzzle. Welts and lacerations mar what would normally be flawless skin, so thickly layered and crusted with blood that he would be hard pressed to tell exactly what shade it normally is had he not already known.  

“Oh, Holy One Above,” the Elkinphyr murmurs softly, ice-blue eyes scanning the crumpled form of the slave.  For all that it’s evident from this room and the usual clothing and trappings he wears and the way the other servants speak of him that the Hunter is a highly regarded possession, he is obviously not treated as one.  The scent of the manor’s Master is noticeable just beneath the blood, so fresh that he must have been the last one here and the one responsible for the slave’s current condition. Why beat him so severely? In these months that Arch has been on this assignment, he has never seen the man punish the servants with physical force or mistreat the horses, dogs, or the livestock, and with the way the servants gossip in this place surely he would have heard about such an incident.  So why the Hunter? Why someone who is supposedly so valuable?

The whistle of metal cutting through the air jerks the Elkinphyr from his thoughts, his hand snapping out to grasp a slim, tattooed wrist a fraction of an inch before the silvered claws would have met his unprotected stomach.  A snarl rises from the mattress, low and guttural, as wild as one would expect from a mountain lion. The long strands of hair that only a moment before had been spread against the bedding are now draped over bloodied shoulders and chest, the carrot orange color saturated into deep crimson red.  The eyes that glare at him from above the muzzle, for the first time much more lucid than Arch has ever seen, have shifted to the same color, although the silver remains. The Hunter twists, attempting to free his arm and Arch releases him, holding his hands out wide to indicate that he means no harm.

Such a gesture is either understood or not enough, the other man swiping at him again in spite of the enormous effort it clearly takes him to do so.  The shifter slides easily out of reach, watching as fresh blood trickles from several reopened wounds, running in thin paths down the slave’s chest and arms.  “Look,” he whispers, “I’m not here to hurt you. I can help–” The words are cut off by another growl from the Hunter, the very slightest of shifts from his lean body indicating quite clearly to Arch’s trained eye that the red haired man is about to launch straight at him.

Unwilling to allow the slave to make his injuries any worse and well aware that any further words will be unheard, the Elkinphyr does the only thing he can in spite of the risk it creates: he unties all his shifts.  In less than the space of one heartbeat, light brown hair turns to steel blue, pale skin takes on an icy cast, a long, tufted tail flickers into sight, and the hat once sitting on Arch’s head falls to the floor as a full rack of antlers appears.  This is his natural appearance, etched into all his people while they slept in the ice, and hidden away by shapeshifting abilities so he can blend seamlessly into the general populace of Eden.

From the mattress, the Hunter simply stares, eyes wide and his attack forgotten.  [Ancient One…] The words echo directly in the Elkinphyr’s mind, and it’s his turn to be surprised.  The telepathic gift had been rare on Eden a millenia ago, and upon waking, it had been assumed that it had completely died out.  To be spoken to this way now is completely unexpected.

[I’m not an Ancient One, but I’m not one of the others here, either.] Arch gestures generally to refer to the others in the manor and tries to sound reassuring, but he’s not sure his words are truly reaching the slave.  The red haired man continues to stare at him, all these surprises too much at once. [I won’t hurt you,] he promises, steadily holding the crimson and silver eyes with his own.  [I’ll never hurt you.]  As the words slide through the telepathic link, he knows in his heart that they’re true.  This person he hasn’t previously spoken a single word to has now received a promise he knows he’ll never break.  With this realization comes another, that he must help the Hunter, find a way to free him from both the constraints of the magic that binds him and this place that holds him under lock and key.  It’s not part of his assignment and risks blowing his cover, but to do any less would go against all he believes in.

Nothing further is said for the space of a few minutes, the saturated color of the slave’s hair and eyes slowly returning to their usual carrot orange.  Some of the tension drains from his slender frame as well, slowly slumping under the pain of multiple injuries. Long, silver-tipped fingers lift to press against the blood flow of the worst of the lacerations, the wound one of many still openly bleeding.  It takes a lot to simply watch and not help the Hunter with cleaning and bandaging his injuries. However, should he do so, it will be obvious that the man was not alone in this room the entire time, as he should have been until whichever servant was told to come tend to him.  A servant that would definitely not be him, considering he’s not high enough in the servant hierarchy to touch the Master’s prized pet. Most likely it would only bring further hurt down on the slave.

So instead, Arch leans down to retrieve his hat from the floor, setting it at the foot of the bed before breaking the silence.  [Why have you been treated this way?]

An immediate scowl graces full lips, and even through the barrier protecting his empathic senses, the Elkinphyr can feel the flare of anger and disgust roiling through the Hunter.  [I would not do as he wished,] he says bitterly.  [I am required to be obedient and follow every command.  Refusing is not permitted.]  Above the muzzle, orange and silver eyes narrow.  [I refused.]

Arch nods, impressed with the slave’s iron will.  To fight in whatever small way he still can, even if the results are painful, takes courage and strength.  Being held captive in this way would break a lesser soul, grinding them down until there would truly be nothing left behind those glassy eyes.  It seems there was more at work than simple impulse when he made his silent promise to help the Hunter. [When I’ve seen you previously, you’ve appeared… disconnected.]  The word is not entirely correct.  The other man has always looked as though he’s sleepwalking, unaware of all that transpires around him.  [Why are you now so lucid?]

[These things they force on me,] silver claws gleam in the half light as the orange-haired man gestures toward the collar and muzzle, [they lock me in a fog.  Sometimes I am free of it for a few minutes, such as now.]

The Elkinphyr slowly leans down, his actions unthreatening, and lifts his hand toward the other man.  He ignores the Hunter’s flinch, well aware that it’s involuntary given what he’s suffered. Fingers touch the muzzle, tracing the curve of its edge and the delicate filigree that laces through it.  It would be beautiful if not employed with such wicked intent. He can sense the magic in it, wound through every inch, suffused into the very metal and likely set when it was forged. His other hand finds the collar, the same thrum of magic linking the two together.  Pale blue eyes slip closed, concentrating on the two articles, and then the third when he realizes the silver tag in the man’s pointed ear is also part of the binding. The spell is intricate and while not cast by someone more powerful than Arch, it’s obviously been set by one with excellent skills in magic.  Were this spell not used to enslave others, he would admire the intricate way in which it’s put together. He spends a few minutes poking at the weak spots of the spell, the places where different elements of the spell are joined, yet each time he believes he’s found such a spot, a separate piece will reinforce it, blocking his efforts.  A clever bit of magic indeed, and one that he reluctantly has to admit will only be removed with a very specific key.

Opening his eyes, Arch smiles at the Hunter.  [Unfortunately I can’t unlock the spell.  Have you ever seen the Master with any kind of key or using any type of spell to remove the bindings?]

The slave shakes his head slowly, the beads and chimes woven into his hair clinking as it shifts around his shoulders.  His eyes have begun to take on that familiar glassy look, and when he speaks the words seem to take more effort than normal.  [They are never all removed at once…  Only the muzzle when I must eat… or when Master desires… other things.  The collar is removed when I am bathed…]

A sigh slips from the shifter and he straightens to his full height.  Of course it can’t be that easy. [I’ll see what I can learn.]  He glances toward the door, ears straining for sounds from the hall beyond.  [I can’t stay longer without risk of discovery.  I wish I could help with your injuries, but…] The Elkinphyr pulls a small packet from a pocket hidden in his tunic, quickly unwrapping the thin leather envelope and pulling out two long, dried leaves.  [Chew these for the pain.  I’m sorry I can’t do more.]

Taking his hat from the end of the mattress, he gives the slave one last smile before turning away.  [Somehow we’ll find a way to free you from this manor, I promise.]  As he moves toward the thick shadows near the dresser, the brown hair and pink-tinted skin replace his true form, the elegant rack of antlers the last to disappear.  [I’m Arch], he says, pulling the blindfold from his pocket.  

[Roin,] the Hunter replies, his voice very faint, and the Elkinphyr smiles and nods before stepping into the darkness…

Two weeks after meeting Roin, Arch finds himself once again near the slave’s room, this time scrubbing the intricately tiled floors.  The dunking of the brush and scrubbing is just as rhythmic as turning the soil had been, a task one can easily lose the hours in as long as one’s back and knees hold out.  Lunch had passed two hours ago, and the afternoon is sunny and warm. A cross breeze brings the scents of flowers and new grass through the opened shutters and carries the sounds of servants in the gardens and in other parts of the wing.  

No such sounds come from the end of the hall, Roin’s door closed to the rest of the manor.  The Elkinphyr has begun to form a plan on how to free the Hunter, although no matter what scheme he concocts to get him away from the grounds and out of the house, the same issues with the binding spell arise.  Last week Arch snuck into the Master’s study late at night while the man was away, but there was nothing to be found that indicates how to unlock the muzzle, collar, and ear tag. He’d even breached the magically locked safe, and while he could have been several thousand coins richer, it hadn’t been what he’d been looking for.  The only thing of relevance he found was a paper indicating Roin’s sale from the province’s major slave auction house. Not exactly unexpected information. The shifter frowns and scrubs at an especially stubborn black mark on the pale tile. It shouldn’t irritate him as much as it does considering the man would be foolish to leave such an important thing around where others can find it.  He has no idea of the Master’s skill with magic or blade, although he’s confident he could take him easily in a fight with either, but to do so would call down much more attention than he’s willing to attract. He wishes to free Roin, but to call down the notice of all the Northern Province is not wise, and the death of a noble is not something that would be overlooked.

It’s true that if he could find a plausible reason for being away from the manor for a few days he could travel to the auction house and search their records.  Whether they keep records of such spells or if all information is sold with the slave is unknown, but he if he can’t come up with anything else, then he’ll make the journey.

The soft patter of liquid against the tile draws Arch’s attention, his brush rule out as it currently is submerged in the soapy bucket.  Lifting his head, he slides his gaze toward the end of the hall just as another drop splatters, crimson red against the light tile. The Hunter stands outside his opened door, his hair saturated the same shade as the blood that drips from silvered claws and streaks across pale skin.  [Roin?]

The slave bears his teeth, fully visible without the muzzle to hide them away, and his eyes are slightly wild.  [I will be free.]  

The bucket and brush forgotten, the shifter is on his feet immediately, sprinting on silent feet to Roin’s side.  The Hunter appears unharmed, but even through the barricades on his empathic senses, he can sense the the other man’s feelings of triumph, of victory, of righteousness, and distantly of relief.  Stepping through the doorway, the cloying, metallic scent of blood overwhelms, much as it should, given how much has been spilled. Even now it drips down the walls and from the ceiling and a small pool continues to spread beneath the corpse sprawled on the mattress.  Arch doesn’t need to take another step to know the body is all that remains of the manor’s Master, his entrails flung across the lush bedding.

This act seals it, Roin must get out now before the wrath of the man’s family and servants comes down on him.  As expensive and as cherished a slave as he may be, such an act will not go unpunished.

Turning back to the Hunter, the Elkinphyr meets silver and scarlet eyes, steadily holding the wild gaze with this own.  He’s never seen the other man without the muzzle, and he’s stunningly beautiful, even when covered in blood. [Roin,] his voice is calm, but firm, pinning the slave’s attention.  [You can’t stay here, not after this.]  A nod in response and a flick of blood from metallic claws is the response.  [Good.  You’ll need a cloak and a shirt, get them while I deal with the Master.]

The Hunter steps around him to gather the requested items, and Arch closes the door.  The shifts that mask his true identity drop away, replaced one by one with new shifts that gradually provide him with the appearance of the Master.  It won’t hold up under scrutiny, not with anyone familiar with the man, but for what he’s planning, it shouldn’t be necessary. Once everything is in place, he turns his magic to a different task, reaching inward to summon heat.

Roin has wiped himself down with what was once a beautifully embroidered tunic and slide on a second one.  He’s fastening the clasps of a thick cloak when the first of the sparks flares to life above the mattress, bursting into full flame as contact is made.  Within moments the bed is engulfed, the fire already reaching out to lick at the wall. Arch gestures toward the door, taking a silver leash from a peg beside it.  The slave holds still long enough for it to be fastened to his collar and then they’re in the hallway. One hard push of air creates a gust in the room that sends the fire soaring, smoke spilling quickly into the corridor.  

It takes only a few minutes for the alarm to be raised, servants running through the manor calling for buckets and hands to fill and pass them.  By then, Roin and Arch are through the wing and into the next, moving quickly, heads down. A few call out for the Master, but are ignored, and then the two of them are into the gardens, moving quickly toward the stables and the woods that lie beyond.  Horses nicker as the smell of smoke is carried on the air, and as they cross the last paddock, a solitary figure joins them. The silver tiger-striped cat is small one moment and in her true size the next, large as a pony. Mav’s luminous golden gaze watches for followers, but their escape is concealed in the chaos of the fire.

At least for now…

[Roin belongs to Nezumi.  Arch belongs to me.]


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