"Are you okay? Jared? You all right?"
They were walking back to his cottage, away from the busy village market, deeper into the woods and he wanted to tell her that no, he wasn't all right, but that he did know what he was doing, who he was, what being a Teller was all about.
"I …" he cleared his throat, "I'll be summoned soon."
Was all he could say and gripping the two chickens closer to his chest, stroking their feathers with his fingers, he walked through the high grass, his mind already gearing up for being summoned.
"I'll eat with my parents, then."
Gen's voice was soft but firm, telling him that she didn't mind, telling him that she understood.
She knew him so well, been his friend for so long, stood right beside him as he'd been digging up a hole in which he put his mother's body. Stood right there with him as he said his goodbye and dragged him into his cottage to lay him in bed, bringing his rabbit to him, for him to stroke its fur and calm down his mind. She knew him as a lover knew a lover, but they were only friends and he wouldn't trade that for anything.
Her small hand on his shoulder made him look at her; her big eyes were always outlined by black charcoal, her hair black as night, her skin would be alabaster if she hadn't spent all her time outside on the sun. She was beautiful, she was smart and kind and it was that kindness that made him still believe in good.
"You'll be all right, then?"
He nodded. He'd be just fine.
As he sat in the chair next to the table in the small black kitchen, all geared up, he remembered that he didn't know how far along the Lord was. Was he in his first month? Somewhere in the middle? The last month? He didn't know.
But he knew that he'd be summoned. Soon.
He had his jacket on, he combed his hair – well tried to, anyway - and he sharpened his favorite dagger; a long thin bladed one, with a green shine to the otherwise silver blade. It'd belonged to his mother, and even if it failed her, he took it, cleaned it up, sharpened it and took it as his own. She'd always been fond of it, for some reason, and it was the only piece of her he could always have with him wherever he'd go.
He had his boots on, had prepared his horse to ride and now he was just waiting, staring at the front door and listening to hooves of horses and a knock.
It would come. For sure, it would come.
Perhaps not this evening, perhaps not the evening after that, or the evening after that one, but it would come.
He didn't know Lord Ackles, didn't know the husband either, only knew where they resided and how well the House of Ackles was situated in the Land. Knew that they'd gotten married a couple of years ago, before his momma had died, and that he remembered – in swift flashes – a dirty blond haired, freckled, green-eyed kid who ran around the village square with a wooden sword chasing the chickens and peacocks around the dirt.
Memories were distorted for him, too many ideas, too many images and sounds dominating them at that time of his life. Too much of everything, that he didn't yet know how to sift through. But he knew now, taught himself what to tuck away and forget or what to keep and own.
No one came that evening.
No one came the next day.
And the next.
But he knew he had to be ready and he'd stay ready, stay alert and in Teller mindset until a knock would come on that damn door, making him get up from the chair and ride with whoever it would be, that would come fetch him.
That was a certainty. The only mystery was when someone would come.
He wasn't bored staring at the door every evening; he had his rooster keeping him company, perched on his shoulder, its beak tapping his head every now and again, he had the two chickens sleeping on his bed, he had his white rabbit spread out on his lap.
There was comfort in the heavy weight in his lap and the one on his shoulder.
These animals were his family.
"You happy with the chickens, Roosty?"
The rooster crowed, waking up the rabbit, but they both stilled as soon as he told them to and he pushed his fingers into the rabbit's fur, breathing out slowly.
"The Lord will summon me, right?"
A long, loud crow was his answer.
No one came for a month, give or take. He filled his days with chores, he filled his evenings with waiting. His momma never waited; she never knew when she'd be summoned, but he knew now. If Lord Ackles was pregnant, there was absolutely no way that he wouldn't be summoned. So he'd be ready. Prepared.
Be a Teller and not a twenty something old boy.
The knock on the door was timid, more like a squirrel throwing a nut at his door, but he heard it. Standing up from his chair he put the rabbit on the bed next to the sleeping chickens and helped Roosty onto the table, before he stretched his aching muscles and walked toward the door.
… girl, bowing before him was probably younger than him, but he appreciated the respect, even though he really didn't want it. He was good at what he was, since it was in his blood, inside of him, just like his heart or bones or tongue were, but he really didn't need a girl probably barely fourteen to bow before him.
"Don't … just stand up."
"'m sorry … 'm s-ssorry to bother you, Sir, umm, mister Teller, I … I was asked to … Lord Ackles …"
He needed to save the poor girl, before she'd shake herself to a stroke.
"I know, missy. I've my horse ready, I'll follow you."
The blush that spread on her cheeks was as deeply red as blood. Where did Lord Ackles find this girl? Why was she a servant in his House? She should still be with her parents, for at least a couple more years, but … then again, life. Life probably hadn't been kind on this girl, if her stuttering and awkwardness was anything to go by.
"I … I cameonfoot."
He inched his head lower, because he didn't quite catch that, her words all mushed together like mashed potatoes: "I didn't … what?"
"I came on foot, mister Teller. I didn't … I have no horse."
"Gods. Are you thirsty? Are you hungry? How long did you walk? Are you all right?"
"I'm all right, it's not a long way. An hour, the most. I ran some … I'm all right. Please … could you … can you … come with me? I can't … can't return without you."
It had never been his place to stick his nose in the affairs of any of the Houses, not his problem how anyone was treated there, not his place to judge. He knew people worked there, served and learned and sometimes the Lords weren't kind to them, but he never imagined that the fair-haired, freckled, green-eyed boy would ever mistreat his staff.
He placed his hand on her shivering shoulder: "Are you all right, missy?" and knew she understood the meaning behind the question when her face broke into a smile.
"I'm fine, mister Teller. Lord Ackles is fair, never had trouble with him, but … the … the cook 'n the maids aren't that forgiving. They'll have my hide if I don't bring you."
It was all said with a smile, the blush disappearing from her face and he believed her. The women of many Houses were … hard to deal with. Thought they knew everything, stuck their noses into everyone's lives, into every matter. Yes, sometimes they were horrible old bats. His mother had dealt with them a lot, and thus he too, but his mother had a charm around her that he guessed got passed onto him, and now he dealt with those women - who ran the matters of the Houses - with authority and commands sometimes spoken in loud voices.
He knew what he had to do, no woman would tell him what to do. Unless that woman was his mother, that was. But his mother was dead.
"We'll ride then, missy. But you'll have to show the way, I don't know where the house is."
"Yes, I can do that."
As he was closing the door and checking if everything was as it was supposed to be, he asked: "You ever ridden a horse?"
The way she said it – serious and confident – made him laugh. A donkey. Well, he'd ridden one of those himself too when he'd been a child and he was quite fond of those memories.
"A donkey, you say?" he pushed her towards the small stable where he kept his horse and some more rabbits.
"Ha, yes, he was the sweetest. But short."
"Well, you're gonna be way up high with this horse."
Opening the stable's door, the neigh of his horse was like a warm embrace in a cool night, beckoning him closer to the big, brown horse, all saddled up already and ready to gallop.
"'kay, you think you can climb up?"
"Uh, think so …"
"All right, 'm gonna give you a lift," he grabbed her by the hips, hands barely touching the shape of her body through all the skirts she wore and all but threw her on the horse's back, making it shake its head, "up you go. There, scoot more up, 'm gonna go behind you."
The reins felt so good in his hands; the leather soft and heating up in his palms as soon as he grabbed them.
"All right now, Flip, let's go."
The brown stallion went into gallop immediately; there was no time to close the stable's door, no time to check if the girl in front of him was holding on – mostly he was holding on to her – no time for anything, but hearing the roar of wind in his ears and the sound of hooves hitting hard-packed dirt.
"You're gonna have to give me directions! Left, right, straight, all right! Don't be shy!" he screamed into the girl's raven black hair and hoped she heard him.
"Yes, Teller! Just go to the village first!"
He could certainly do that; Flip knew exactly where to go, didn't even need directing.
The village was quiet this time of night, the windows dark, except for the tavern. That was brightly lit and the sound of laughing and music could be heard, echoing through the dark, empty streets.
He went left, as instructed, and then right as they left the village and then straight up, towards the hill on the western side. Flip was in his element, galloping with all his might, and the girl was doing fairly well too, not screaming but mostly laughing in joy.
He yelled at her and she squealed in delight when Flip jumped over a thin fallen tree trunk.
"No! Just ahead on this road!"
"Whoooah, boy," he pulled on the reins making Flip stop, encouraging him into continuing with a normal walk, "slow down now."
"We'll be there in a minute or so. Not far."
The road was winding through tall trees until the forest cleared up into meadows and a road covered with pebbles. They were shining in the moonlight, a silver pathway among low hanging branches of willow trees.
"Up ahead, see it?"
The House was a mansion, of course, with a porch wrapping itself around and around, big windows that were all lit up by yellowish light. He was expected to arrive, he knew that, so of course the whole House would be up, even if he wished it wasn't. But what he wished and wanted mattered none in Houses like these. Here, everything was done by command of the staff leader and the Lord or Lady. He had no say, but when the higher ups went away and left him with the staff, when he didn't have to pretend anymore, then he was able to show all of his - - graceful authority.
The closer Flip was taking them, the faster the memories of this House were coming to him. He'd been here once with his momma, but he didn't remember much. It probably wasn't even a Telling they've come here to do, probably just visited someone, or went to get something. Memories from the time when he was a child were fuzzy, interlaced with so many pictures and scenes and sounds … he didn't know which ones were his and which ones weren't. His momma had tried to teach him how to calm his mind, but that was when he turned ten. Everything before that age was … messy.
But since then, even if he actually lived pretty close to the Ackles House, he'd never traveled close to it, never needed to. And he mostly avoided this part of the woods, the west was odd with how it swallowed up the sun. Unnatural.
But he was here now.
As a Teller. As something he'd been born to do and he wasn't scared to walk into that House.
He was a Teller after all and all the people in that House better show him respect.
Dismounting Flip was easy, the horse was always patient and graceful, it was why he felt comfortable galloping with a passenger. The stallion would never have allowed anything to happen to the girl or to him, so he stroked its neck, kissed his silky soft muzzle and offered him an apple.
"Munch on that, my friend, I won't be long."
The apple's juices were running out of its mouth as its teeth split it in half.
"Really graceful, my friend. Any mare would want you."
"Mister Teller, please. Lord Ackles is expecting you. The … uh, the head of the house staff would like a word with you first, if you'd … please."
Those words send a shiver down his spine; the head of the House was probably some old broad, whose vocabulary only consisted of the words no, no, no, and don't. They were all the same, all stuck up with their noses held up high as if they owned the place – some probably even did, messing with the minds of the Lordships – and forbidding everyone else to mess with their affairs as if only they knew what was best. He had no time to deal with any of that this time; he was simply here because the Lord had summoned him. That was all. And he was pretty sure the Lord hadn't summoned him to speak to the head of the House and let her fill him with stupidity and false authority.
His momma did not raise a fool.
"What's your name, missy? I never asked."
"Maira. I promise you, I'll speak to Lord Ackles for you not to be punished, but I have to decline the talk with the head of the house. I will go straight to where the Lord is, if you'd be so kind in telling."
Like hell he'd talk to the head of the House. His momma never did, and he never had and he would not start now.
"Maira, trust me, please."
She was squeezing Flip's reins, the knuckles of her hand turning white with how scared she was of him saying no to what she'd been ordered to do. He felt sorry for her, he really did, but he would not talk to the head of the House. He'd rather kill himself than listen to whatever she'd have to say.
"I … don't …"
"I promise nothing will happen to you."
He'd make good on his promise as he was a man of his word.
He was here only for Lord Ackles and for him only. He didn't want to talk to anyone else, he didn't want to meet anyone else, he wanted to go into that House, Tell and then leave as if he'd never been here at all.
"He," he softened his eyes - as Gen like to say made her spill every secret she had - trying to mellow the girl into telling him, "he's in his room. Up the stairs, third door in the right hallway. Please …"
"Maira, I promise."
He didn't wait for her to say anything, couldn't afford the time, just sprinted up the four big stone stairs to the porch, opened the main door and ran as fast as he could up the huge staircase illuminated by soft yellow light coming from the three crystal chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling.
He ignored the high pitched voice that screamed his name behind his back and darted into the right hallway, searching for the third door.
Whatever was meant to come after that, he couldn't hear as he was already closing the door into Lord Ackles private bedroom.
The smell hit him first.
Dear Gods … incense.
The honey sweet smell was making him hungry and he had no idea what it was doing to the Lord, but someone in this House knew what he or she was doing. Whoever did this, was clearly from the old religion, probably trying to strengthen the bond between the Lord and his unborn child. If he'd ever discover this person, he would suggest some hyacinth next, if he read the emotions present in the room correctly.
But there would be time for that later, right now he had to show respect to the Lord, so he bowed down as soon as he let go of the doorknob, but a gruff: "Don't bow before me, God, 'm so sick of everyone walking on eggshells around me and all silent as if I can't see 'em or hear 'em. I'm pregnant, not deaf or blind, damnit!"
He couldn't help to chuckle as he rose up. Hormones. He understood that, had gone through a lot of variations of them plaguing the pregnant and this little rant was nothing he hadn't heard before.
"Of course, my Lord."
He stood up to all his height – he wasn't a boy here, not like he was in the village, but a Teller and he had to be what his position was. Strong, competent, determined, but kind and gentle. But most of all he had to hide the lethal weapon that he also was.
"Who are you?"
He looked at the man lying on a very high bed, dark and light red pillows all around him, supporting his back. He looked utterly lost among all those pillows, utterly lost in the soft, pale yellow hue of candlelight that was spread all around the big room. The corners were in shadows, but he could make up shapes of closets, a desk, a chair perhaps, but most of all the light was focused on the man and the bed. It was probably done so, so that the Lord could get some sleep, but still read if he so wished. There was an underlying smell of hot wax melting down big, thick candles strewn around the room at strategic places - he could tell that whoever did this, knew their craft.
Without replying, he walked over to the Lord and stopped by the bed, looking down at him and smiled.
He could almost - almost, but not quite - hear it. He needed to touch, connect in the way he'd been taught by his momma, and how her momma had taught her, and her momma had taught her. Being a Teller was a bloodline; and as far as he could tell, he was the only Teller miles upon miles upon miles around.
Perhaps, the only one in the world.
The Lord's body was big. Muscled, strong, well fed, well taken care of. And the pregnancy had given his skin a vibrant color, freckles standing out on his cheeks and nose, like sprinkles of stars in the candlelight. His lips were full, eyelashes thick and long framing green, green eyes. Just as he remembered the child with the fake wooden sword have.
"I'm very sorry, my Lord. I'm just … "
Taking in my fill.
Trying to do what I've been summoned here to do.
But it's hard.
Of course the Lord knew exactly who he was. Why else would he let a complete stranger come into his bedroom and not chop his head off, or call for his Knights?
But to see realization flash across the Lord's face, was a sight to behold. The green eyes became bigger, rounder, lips parting in a small gasp, chest heaving in anticipation of what was to come.
He should tell the Lord that there would be no pain with this that it would be all right and magical, but he couldn't do that. He knew it wouldn't be taken in any good way, as the Lord was certainly not some tiny, frail girl scared of things to come.
The Lord seemed … fearless. A man who'd seen battles, who'd fought and bled for his Kingdom. A man who'd travelled places and seen things not many men ever did.
"Yes, I came as soon as I was summoned."
"The … the cook and the head of staff told me it was the perfect time."
"It is, my Lord."
He could tell the women got it right. There were only a few more days before the baby would come and this really was the perfect time.
He pointed to the bed: "May I sit?"
He stopped the Lord as he tried to scoot away and make some room for him on the overflowing bed: "No need, I'll just sit here on the edge. Won't be long."
That stilled the Lord and when the man sunk back into the pillows and blankets, he left out a sigh.
A candle flickered. Probably the wind.
"It's a boy. You knew that?" he said as he sat down on the soft bed, the surface dipping in at his weight, nearly making him tilt onto the Lord's side.
"I …" the Lord looked down at his swollen belly, covered by a red checkered plaid shirt, a little smile appearing on his face: "yeah, I know that."
"He's a little chatterbox already."
As soon as those words left his mouth, the shock that appeared on Lord Ackles' face again was something that would make any man lose the ground beneath his feet, but not him. He was used to it, it always shocked everyone for the first time.
"You can hear him?"
"Well, yes that's what I do. What I am, my Lord."
"We …" he watched the Lord place his hand on top of the full belly and rub it up and down a bit, as if soothing the baby inside. He could tell that the boy loved when his daddy did that, "named him Frederick."
He grimaced, because that was not a good name for the boy growing inside Lord Ackles womb.
"Umm, he … he actually hates that name, my Lord."
"Mhm, hates it."
"Well does he … want a different name?"
"I can't …" he lifted his own hand, needing skin on skin contact to make this work better, but he didn't know how to ask the Lord to uncover himself and let him touch without anything between his hand and skin, "I have to … I have to touch your stomach."
The Lord's hand stilled, laying there on his stomach as if it suddenly got cut off. Every muscle in the man's body stiffened, jaw clenching, fingers of the other hand clutching at the bed cover.
"I, uh, no one … uh, the last one who touched my … was my husband."
"You're still grieving," he nodded and bit his lower lip, because of course the Lord was still grieving, "please accept my condolences."
"It's … yeah, thank you."
"I can leave if you don't want me to do the telling. I will not mind."
The swift and tight grip on his wrist was unexpected. The Lord's hand was warm, the grip hard, fingers wrapping around his wrist and squeezing, pulling his hand closer.
"No, it's all right. I … want you to, please. Frederick is my only connection to my husband and I want to … hear him. I need to, please."
"All right." He whispered and watched as the Lord scrambled to raise up his shirt - that was two sizes too large on him even if he was pregnant – and bunched it somewhere around his nipples.
"'kay, go ahead."
The Lord's voice was hoarse, as if he was expecting pain. As if he was embarrassed and didn't really want to do this. It was all right, though. Many had the same reaction at first, but later they would never trade the experience for anything else.
He rubbed his hands together, trying to get them to warm up with friction. The night was cold outside, and riding a horse nearly froze his hands, and the last thing he wanted was to put cold hands on the Lord's stomach.
All he got was a nod.
This was always … delicate. His momma had told him that some didn't like their bellies touched because it hurt but that then again some enjoyed it. She taught him that he should be careful when placing his hand on them, be careful to do it lightly at first to see the reaction he'd get.
He extended his left hand and slowly, so very slowly placed it directly in the middle of the round belly, covering the bellybutton with his palm.
There was no reaction from the Lord, but a small gasp, not in pain, but more from a shock to the system of being touched by someone else, someone whose touch the Lord did not know. He glanced quickly towards the man's face, shocked himself by the intense gaze directed right at him.
"Are you all right, my Lord?"
He only got a sharp nod in return, so he put some pressure on his hand, allowing it to rest more firmly on the belly.
The skin was stretched, warm, moving. Everything was moving and everything was so bright and so loud and so beautiful. The candle light was dancing and dancing and the shadows were swinging and twirling and the heartbeat was like a drum directly in his ears and the room smelled of roses. So many roses.
The voice was far, far away, hidden among the drum of a heartbeat and safety of slow breaths, air tickling his skin.
He opened his eyes.
That was the first word that he picked up on, the first one to focus on that would allow him to focus on all others. The kid was a chatterbox, talking a mile a minute about all kind of things and nothing in particular and it made him smile. The Lord would have his hands full with this one. The whole House would.
"Uh, excuse me?"
"Eli, he … he wants to be called Eli."
"Eli? Okay then, Eli."
And among all the chattering, all the sounds Eli was making in his daddy's belly, there was something … he needed to slow this kid down. He was picking on all kinds of things, but he needed to calm this child down, before they'd both get too tired to do anything more.
He rubbed his palm on the underside of the Lord's belly. From left to right, thumb pressing around the big, round bellybutton, right to left and back again, before placing his palm up on the belly and caressing the tense skin on the upper side.
The kid needed to relax, but he thought that his daddy needed to relax even more and a touch was always a good tactic.
He looked up at the Lord's face; the man was watching him, eye glazed over with content, but there was still control in them, still a fire that could kill him in an instant if he'd do one wrong move.
"Eli says you're too grumpy. He doesn't like you grumpy."
"'m not grumpy."
The pout on the Lord's face wasn't grumpy. No.
"He says he wants you happy."
"You're not. He's saying that daddy is always grumpy, always sad."
There was no response to that, but the look on Lord Ackles face said it all. The sorrow was almost as solid as the tears that were forming in those green, green eyes.
"D-" the Lord cleared his throat, "daddy?"
He nodded: "He's calling you daddy all the time."
The words was whispered as the man burrowed his head into the soft pillow.
He kept on stroking the round stomach though, needed to get the kid to stay with one thought and not move into a million different ones and then come back and do it again. If his daddy was a grumpy guy, then the child was his polar opposite.
And then he had it. That elusive thought that had been coming and going and coming and going like a peek'a'boo.
A bump on his hand made him pause and made the Lord exhale a: "Whoah."
"It's all right, Eli just said hi to me. Nothing's wrong."
He chased after it with his fingers and found it on the Lord's right side again. He wanted to grip it, hold on to it, but that wasn't something one could do, so he latched onto the tiny imprint of a hand with his mind.
Something must've shown on his face, because: "What's wrong? What? Something's wrong, I can see it on your face."
"It's … "
He didn't know how to continue. He didn't know what to say. Nothing in his mother's teaching or his own research had ever prepared him for something like this. The Tellings he'd done were joyous, the child looking forward to meeting whoever had been keeping him safe for so long, the words always happy and wonderful and full of impatience.
The only time he'd ever had to deal with something like this had been on that day. That day when the Queen's unborn child whispered an awful truth to his momma. The awful secret that she had to tell the King then, the awful thing that an hour later got his momma killed ...
I'm not the King's child…
… but a Teller must Tell what the child Told, must Tell the truth, no matter how painful it was. No matter how many lives it could destroy. Babies were truth-tellers. They were wise, they knew the future, knew the past, knew the present. But after they came out into the world, they knew nothing. They were sponges to fill with the world's knowledge, empty shells to fill up with the world's demands.
But he himself never had to handle something like this before. He always wished that he'd never have to. But of course, if wishes were horses …
He shook his head; he needed to clear his mind and let go of his own past. His past would do nothing good here, he was here because of Lord Ackles and Eli.
The bump beneath his hand started to move, but in an unusual way and it took him a second to realize it was because the Lord was trying to get up from his lying position.
"No, my Lord, please, lie back down."
He looked directly into the Lord's panicked eyes, wanting to appease the man somehow, but he needed more information to do that.
So he pushed his hand deeper onto the side of the belly, trying to hold on to the baby's little hand, trying to sift through all the chatter and make the kid focus on this particular matter. And he needed for the child to be wrong about this. But babies weren't capable of lying, they didn't know what that meant, so … this was the truth then.
"Tell me!" the Lord's voice was like thunder, the hand that gripped his bicep strong, fingers digging into the muscle would surely leave a nasty bruise, but it was the scream of : "Tell me, you are obliged to tell me!" that finally broke him out of his thoughts.
Eli was finally focusing on this one thing, finally allowing him to get more than just a glimpse of what the child was trying to tell him.
Then the Lord's fingers dug deeper into his bicep and he was pulled forward in one swift tug, his face stopping directly in front of the Lord's. His instinct was screaming at him to grab his dagger, but he knew better, because this wasn't a dangerous man here right now, no, this was a parent who'd been carrying a child beneath his heart for nine months, sharing joy and sorrow with him, a parent who needed to know what was wrong with that child.
If his instinct was begging him to kill the threat on his life, Lord Ackles' instinct was screaming at him to protect his baby.
He understood that as it was only natural and what else had he been doing all of his life, but protecting his own life. The Lord was just protecting his.
The Lord's breath smelled of some kind of juice … strawberry perhaps, but he couldn't be sure, because that wasn't the point. The man's eyes were angry and scared, so, so scared. There was no doubt in his mind that if the Lord had his sword by his side right now, it would already be in Jared's heart.
He needed to tread lightly here; one wrong move, one wrong word, one wrong touch, one wrong blink of an eye and the Lord would call on his Knights and they'd end his life, no matter that he was a Teller and very much needed to the Lord right now.
He took a deep breath and looked directly into the man's eyes, softening his voice into something Gen would probably roll her eyes at.
"Let go of my arm, and I'll tell you."
"No," the Lord all but snarled, revealing his perfect, white teeth, "tell me now!"
He took another deep breath, slowly inching his free hand up the Lord's taut belly and whispered: "Let go of my arm and I will tell you, I promise."
Their eyes were inches apart, his soft and gentle, the Lord's filled with burning tears and rage that was turning into fear and acceptance. Their breaths were mingling before their open mouths, the smell of honeysuckle that much more pronounced this close to the Lord's body.
He didn't let go of the Lord's eyes; there were absolutely no words in the whole wide world that could ever tell what only eyes could. He wanted the man to know that he shouldn't be ashamed to let tears fall, that they weren't at war here or in a battle where the only accepted emotion was anger and bravery. Wanted the Lord to know that there was nothing to be afraid of here, that whatever Eli told him had been written in destiny and fate a long, long time ago. Probably before the child had even been a thought. He wanted the Lord to know that all would be okay. In the end.
But there were no words to say all that, unless a man had an eternity.
He didn't have eternity, he only had a second and a look sometimes told an eternity worth of words.
"Please, tell me."
The sound of the Lord's voice was pure surrender; realizing that whatever Eli had told, had been written into the child's life since before he'd even been a thought and that made the Lord's whole body pliant, losing the fight.
No one could fight destiny. No one could fight fate.
He felt the man's fingers let go of his bicep one by one; slowly as if they'd been glued to the jacket and the Lord didn't want to damage his own skin by ripping them off quickly.
"Please, Teller, just tell me."
"I will, but I need you to promise me, you'll stay calm. L-"
"Jensen, my name's Jensen."
He smiled: "Yes, of course, Jensen."
Of course the Lord would have an exotic name, something so uncommon in their Land, something that spoke of just how well traveled his parents had been. The King's diplomats, searching for allies across the borders, across the mountains and the sea. It was all coming back to him now; how come he only saw that boy running down the village streets in the summer time, how he hadn't seen him for a few years, how he never came back to this House since that first time – and apparently the only time.
The boy had moved away for a while.
But he came back. To raise his child in his childhood home.
"Yes," he travelled too far in his head again, he needed to stop doing that. It was distracting for him and for whoever was with him at the time, "I … I remember you."
"I remember you … as a child, with the … the fake wooden sword. You chased all the peacocks away with it."
His name spoken so close to his lips, was like someone poured a bucket of ice cold water on him. He shuddered; he never spoke with the boy, he never played with him, he never interacted with him in any way.
Had he? Were his memories really that distorted that he couldn't remember if he'd ever spoken to the boy? Told him his name?
"I don't … I remember your mother. I remember, she … she'd always been so kind. Always brought me candy. Said her Jared loved candy and so she assumed I loved it too. Well, she assumed right."
He chuckled; his momma always had some kind of candy hiding in the deep pockets of her skirts.
"Yeah, she … she was."
The Lord raised his eyebrow at that: "She's not anymore?"
It was the first time he ever spoke those words out loud. In all of five years since he buried her under the chestnut tree in the backyard, he'd never spoken those words out loud, never allowed them to pass his lips and fly into the air. Never.
But right here, now … with the honeysuckle scent invading his nostrils and calming his mind, with Jensen looking so lost, hurting as much as he himself was, mourning just as he was … those words slipped down his tongue like silk. They didn't hurt, not as much as they always seemed to hurt in his head.
"I'm … sorry to hear that, Jared."
The sincerity was evident in the Lord's – Jensen's – voice, the words didn't stab him in the heart as much as they had when they'd been spoken to him just after his momma's burial.
And when a tiny voice joined the thoughts in his head, saying 'I lost my dad too' he sobered up. He wasn't here to talk of his mother, he wasn't here to have his own grief soothed, and he wasn't here to reminisce.
He was here to Tell.
He was here for Eli. And for Jensen.
"Will you tell me now? Please …"
He could see how at the end of his rope Jensen was. How he was holding on to not losing his mind by a single thread.
It was time to Tell.
"I want you to know first, that Eli is going to be a strong, brave kid. Okay?"
He could tell that Jensen wanted to argue about this more, scream and demand for him to just get to the point already, but in the end, he just nodded.
"Good. Repeat after me. Eli is going to be a …" he left his mouth open on the 'a', nudging Jensen to continue the sentence.
"… strong, brave kid."
"Again. Eli is going to be …"
"… a strong, brave kid."
"But he's also going to die at fifteen."
Jensen's eyes filled up with tears so fast, it was like a whiplash. One moment they were dry and filled with humor and the next they were brimming with tears and filling up with so much pain, there was nothing else to do but to grab hold of Jensen's left shoulder, push the man down on the bed and start rubbing his stomach with a stronger touch.
"No! Eli is going to be a strong and brave kid. Repeat that to me."
"Ssss-strong 'n b-bh…"
"No, Jensen!" he pushed the man harder down to the bed, putting all the strength he had into the two points where he was touching him; shoulder and stomach. "Repeat after me, come on. Eli is going to be a strong, brave kid."
"Sss-strong an' b-brave…"
"Strong and brave."
How his mother had ever dealt with this was beyond him, because this hurt. It hurt him deep in his soul even if Eli had told him everything, the child appeasing him and urging him to calm his daddy down too.
"He … c-ccan't …"
"Jensen … Eli says he isn't afraid, he isn't scared."
A single tear rolled down Jensen's right cheek, one tear followed by many more. A stream of disbelief and shock and hurt so great, it made Jared's heart all but break. He wished his momma was here, he wished for her guidance, he wished she'd taught him more about how to handle things like these. What to say to make the pain less?
But he guessed, this was one lesson he'd have to learn on his own.
"He says," he pressed on the man's shoulder again, "Jensen listen to me, he says that he isn't afraid. He wants you to not be afraid either."
"Oh Gods … I can't …"
A cold hand joined his on Jensen's belly; almost frosty cold, trembling fingers trying to sneak underneath his and touch the bump that was Eli.
"Jensen … stay with me here."
"I … c-can't lll-lose him."
"I lost … m-mmy husb- ... I can't …"
He whispered: "I know," let go of Jensen's shoulder, trusting the man to stay down, and ran his index finger down the left side of Jensen's ribs, chasing a long jagged scar, "'s this from when you lost your husband?"
Jensen was silent for a long time, just squeezing his eyes shut and opening then up, breathing speeding up until Jared thought the man would make himself pass out. But he didn't, just stared at the ceiling for a minute or two that made him think Jensen was too far gone in his head to speak any more words tonight.
So the next words Jensen spoke, caught him by surprise, as he was already preparing to leave, seek out someone in the House and send them to take care of their Lord.
"Nnn-no. 's how I met him. We … were in battle. For the Islands. Got hurt. My … he, he'd been there. Stayed with me until the medic came. He was pressing a … oh Gods, I can't … I c-ccan't lose Eli."
"Your husband was pressing a what? Tell me, hmm, please?"
A distraction was always a way of getting people to forget something, even if for just a little while. He'd tried this tactic on Gen many times, when she needed to forget about all the failed magic experiments her parents did. Turning a frog into a bunny had been a failure that had Gen crying for days. But eventually he managed to distract her by giving her a bunny of her own.
Jensen's gaze was on the ceiling the whole time, quite possibly not seeing it, but seeing the battle field: "His shirt. It was his shirt. Kept it on my … on the wound. There were soldiers lying all around us, but … but he stayed with me. For hours, I think. I kept thinking of peacocks, the colors they had, here at home and he … he kept …" Jensen's eyes swung his way and they were piercing, "I know what you're doing, Teller, but …"
"What am I doing?"
"Tell me more and I'll tell you more."
"You first, Jensen."
"When I was … I felt like I was dying, but he … never left me, just kept saying to hold on and I guess I did. He told me that one day he'd like to …"
"Like to what?"
He left out a small chuckle at that: "Guess that happened," and smiled broader when a similar tiny chuckle came from Jensen too: "Guess it did."
"Were you scared, then? On the field?"
"'m more scared now."
"I know, but … were you?"
"I … I don't know. It was … calm. After a while, it was all just so calm. So silent. Don't even 'member the medic come."
"Eli isn't scared either."
"Oh Gods, Eli…"
"He says that the darkness is so beautiful," he rubbed his palm in a big circle around Jensen's belly, "so peaceful," another circle, "so calm." And another one, feeling Jensen breathe with heaving breaths, knowing that the man was trying to calm himself down before he'd start to sob uncontrollably, but it was perhaps a losing battle. Tears were streaming down the pale cheeks, both hands now hugging the belly, as if trying to already hold the child in his arms. Protect him.
He'd have to wait a few more days, three for sure, and then he'd be able to hold Eli in his arms and possibly never let go.
Until Eli would turn fifteen. Then his arms would have to open up and let Eli go.
"He … Jensen, look at me," he waited for the man to look at him again, although quite sure that Jensen couldn't even see him through all the tears, "he says that he will be scared when he'll be dying, but that you'll have to keep on reminding him that everything would be all right. That wherever he'd go, it would be beautiful, peaceful, calm. He wants you to keep telling him that."
The word was a whisper, hot breath on his face as he was still leaning close to the man, not wanting to put too much distance between them in fear that Jensen would swim too far into his head. Imagine too much. Panic too hard.
"Hey … Jensen, he wants you to be calm, to be happy, he says that it's okay."
"But … it's not. Why? I … I don't …"
He shook his head; it made no sense to him either, but: "Destiny, fate, Jensen, they have their own tales to tell, nothing that you will do, will change what needs to happen, you know that."
"I know, but … m-mmy baby…"
"He wants you to be happy," he started to rub Jensen's bulging belly again, trying to soothe the man with the simple touch, because that was all he had. His touch, his words, "wants you to be calm. Very calm…"
"I can't … p-phlease stop…"
The tears were spilling harder down Jensen's cheeks, making the skin shine in the candlelight as if it was made of wax. There was nothing he could do about that, but Eli wanted his daddy to be calm and happy and that was something Jared could do.
"Calm, my Lord. Calm. And happy. Calm, Jensen."
He kept rubbing the warm skin, sometimes going over Jensen's hands that were still cradling his stomach, feeling Eli smile inside the safe haven. Smiling and kicking at his palm whenever he could.
"He's happy, Jensen, feel him? He wants to play. Wants to come out soon and play with you."
"Yeah …" he watched Jensen nod and relax back into the pillows, feeling Eli kicking at him from the inside, finally soothing him into loosening his muscles that had been tense as a bow all this time, "yeah…"
"Calm. Eli just wants you to be calm."
"Calm and happy."
Their words were getting whisper soft in the safety of the room; the candles were still burning, wax still melting, the honeysuckle still ever present in the air, helping Jensen relax even more as the words Eli had been trying to tell him finally penetrated his mind and soothed him.
"Shhhh, no. He knows, Jensen, he knows. And it's all right, he says the darkness is so beautiful and he'll be just fine. Be with his dad, right? Meet him too, right?"
Leaving one hand on Jensen's belly, he placed the other on the man's forehead, stroking the sweaty, hot skin there, trying to smooth down the lines of worry and pain. It wouldn't help, he knew that, but he really had nothing else to offer but his touch and his words.
He wished his momma could be here. She'd know what to do, how to help, what to say.
"No need to be afraid. He says he just wants you to keep on telling him stories of dad and reminding him of how everything would be so peaceful."
"I … yeah, yeah …"
"Good, calm now, remember."
He was starting to see Jensen's eyes slowly drifting close, breaths evening out, lines of fear ironing out, but tears were still present, still escaping his eyes.
"Calm… so, so calm…"
His work here was done, he thought. He came, Told and now everything would be up to Eli to keep his daddy relaxed and happy.