“Hold his mouth open, please. I would like to see his teeth.”
The imperious voice grated impotently on his nerves, and he briefly considered biting down on the grimy fingers that had shoved their way past his lips. He didn’t, though. He was too tired to put up with whatever violence that his own violence would beget. Instead, he held his jaws open obediently, waiting, determined to bear it, so that perhaps everyone would just go away –
Somebody prodded his tongue, and he lost any semblance of self-control that he might have gathered. Choking, he clamped his teeth down on the intrusions, catching one, tasting blood, before his prize was ripped away with a yelp, and he took a heavy blow across the cheek.
The back of his head struck the damp stone that he was leaned against – chained to – and the smack reopened a slash wound on his cheekbone that had only just started to heal. Still, he grinned in the direction of his tormentor’s voices. He had not yet summoned the will to open his eyes.
“Hmph, certainly has spirit.” The original voice returned, dripping derision, and he wished that he had bitten the one speaking, instead. “It’s fine, leave him. I can see the state of his teeth passably now that he is leering, even if they are a bit blood-stained. This one will do.”
“But Master D’Adelle!”
He recognized the second voice, and turned towards it, baring his teeth and struggling to open eyelids that had swollen shut. It was one of the guards, the many who simply turned a blind eye and left their charges to fight each other or die in the hold of the ship.
Sometimes, he decided, living felt much worse than dying would.
“I said that he will do,” the first voice repeated coldly, not to be deterred. “He has good bone structure – muscled like a farmer, perhaps, rather than a soldier, but he looks strong enough. The blonde hair is an oddity, but I suppose that it is pale enough to be more comely than an eyesore.”
He was used to being talked about like a piece of meat; he ignored the voices, instead focusing on his body, cataloguing.
His shins were bruised, as was one shoulder. It hurt massively, but as he tried to roll it experimentally, he felt the bite of tight shackles on his wrists. His cheek was still bleeding, his eyes were swollen in dehydration, and there were open cuts almost everywhere.
He’d had it worse.
“What is his name?”
“They call ‘im –”
“Bell,” he rasped, choking the word out between dry, bloody lips. Even if he had nothing else, he had his name, and would reveal it on his own. “M’ name is Bell.”
Bell felt eyes on his bare chest, on the church bell that had been inked into his skin.
“Clever,” the imperious, needling voice drawled. Bell, again, tried to open his eyes, but it was almost impossible. Slits of light filtered in, nothing more. He struggled anyhow, knowing that, with a little effort, his body would have to submit.
In his concentration, he did not notice the advance until he felt cold, smooth fingers against his feverish skin. They seemed so small.
His chin was jerked up, and cool breath brushed against his lips.
“Bell? I am Gustav D’Adelle, and you belong to me.”
The shackles were unchained from Bell’s wrists and he was yanked to his feet by the hand under his chin. The suddenness of the motion was painful, but Bell did not resist it.
Gustav smelled like wheat.
“His papers, Master D’Adelle,” and the rustle as they were passed over. There was a lot of commotion as Bell was shuffled out – a man on either side of him, warily strained, ready to hold him back, ready to knock him down. Bell only smirked, working to open his lids far enough to glare at each of his escorts in turn – Arcelus, on his left, had been the one to deliver the cheek graze that had only just reopened. The other, on his right – he had forgotten the name, or had never known it – had killed three of the other captives, for sport. Bell did not hold it against him, of course; either one of them. He’d killed plenty of his fellow captives for much less than mere sport. And for more.
Both guards’ eyes flicked from Bell to the blurred, shadowed figure leading them all so confidently, clearly wagering on how long this Gustav would live.
Bell turned his focus to staying upright, and slowly clearing his vision. His shins throbbed; they might be fractured. All he remembered was a fight with one of the other men, one to one, but another had come up with a weapon, a board, maybe, and then – nothing, but the fingers in his mouth as he woke.
Gustav, in front of him, was hazy. Bell wanted to be able to see him. Still, he did not make a move. Sometimes, it was calm that kept the guardsmen most edgy. Bell silently delighted in making the guardsmen edgy.
They were out of the walls of the gaol, now – it smelled like stale seawater and piss, instead of stale sweat and piss. It was dark. Night. It was frigid, too, so close to the water, and Bell’s sore muscles tensed against a tremor as he squinted into the darkness. He heard the clinking of horse-bits and the clatter of fidgeting hooves on something wooden – they were probably still on the docks. Bell and the others had only been unloaded a week ago.
There was an agitated, hissed whispering from the direction that Gustav’s shadow was perched; as the noise grew louder, Bell began to be able to make out the words.
“… you don’t know how many that he’s killed, Katte, you can’t control a monster like this!” that was Andros, the head guardsman of the holding pen. Bell thought briefly about smashing his head against something, returning and earlier favor. He could easily make out the man’s tell-tale shock of carrot-copper hair, and could move quickly enough to grab it – but then Gustav spoke again, and Bell felt, at least, the very edge of his anger and agitation blunt.
“I see no monster, but a tool with the skills that I need. I would appreciate if you would cease questioning me and hand over the bodyguard that I have purchased, thank you,” Gustav’s voice snapped.
And, take it all, they did. The men stepped away from Bell’s side and he was alone, facing the unfocused figure of the man who had bought him from a slave hold on the docks of a city he didn’t know.
Some day in the distant, sharp, and aching future, Bell would look back on that moment as the one where he should have run, run far away, and never looked back, even if they caught him or shot him or drowned him –
– but he didn’t. He squinted carefully at Gustav and he could almost smell Gustav smiling back, and saw his slender limbs gesture to the carriage from which the horse-sounds echoed.
“Your first duty as my bodyguard,” Gustav told him, “Is to help me into the carriage.”
Bell swayed on his aching feet, stumbled to the door of the wooden car, and fumbled blindly with the handle. The door clicked open, and Bell, realizing what was expected, reached out a grimy, bloody hand.
Gustav grabbed it and stepped into the carriage. His fingers were so cold, and so small; Bell didn’t know why that fascinated him so much.
“I’ll make use of you yet,” Gustav told him, and did not let go of Bell’s hand until he, too, had entered the car.
Bell could just make out the shock-anger-bewilderment-derision on the faces of his former captors as the carriage pulled away. He turned to Gustav, licking dry and painful lips and trying to discern more than the pale face and the sharp horsetail of black hair of the man in front of him.
Gustav was staring fixedly out a window into the monochrome night beyond, watching the grey on grey on filthy grey. He seemed perfectly at ease on the red-dyed fabric cushions, the only color at all to the scene; even Gustav’s figure was black and white – pale in face and shadowed in eyes and hair, clothing an elegant and uniform dark.
“It is rude to stare,” Gustav snapped, not flicking his gaze from the window, not that Bell could tell, at least. His body was tense as a strung bow – strung the moment the carriage door closed and he was hidden from all view but Bell’s.
They were clacking away from the docks, now, away from the ever-present oily lantern light and slapping water, moving jerkily towards the outskirts of town.
It was cold, and Bell had no shirt. Every bump of the cart wheels jarred his nameless injuries. He tried to ignore it, instead watching as the city drew away behind them and they continued towards the dark and hilly countryside. Bell wondered, idly, what country they were in.
Oddly enough, Bell had very few questions besides this. He was too dazed, perhaps, to form more than a cursory curiosity at his surroundings. He cared little beyond getting away from the gaol and stopping the vibrating in his throbbing bones.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. He had questions: where they were going, what was expected of him. Truly, though, Bell knew the questions did not matter. He was content to be led, at least for now.
The road had smoothed, now, though it was surrounded by shrugging hills; the path twisted through a gully so that, one-by-one, the stars winked out from sight.
The moment that their isolation from the illumination of night was complete, three things happened at once:
Gustav’s body, which had relaxed slightly in the stretching minutes of their ride, tensed so quickly and so absolutely that Bell could almost hear the bones slot into place.
A pounding of horses’ hooves bloomed into audible range – two, or more, right behind the carriage and catching up quickly.
And finally, as the first horse thundered by, a small, brown-paper package was thrown towards the window, deflecting off the sill and falling somewhere near the wheels of the carriage.
The explosion hit them, then.
A massive rush of air and fire shoved Bell against the far corner of the carriage; his shoulder jammed and he vaguely felt a heavy, if slender, body barrel into his chest. He was sideways, upside-down, wood fragments and chunks raining against him, the impact of the fall – why had he fallen? – stunning him, the pain brining nausea and bright lights.
His vision took a moment to clear, but when it did, he was able to blink rapidly, the adrenaline of the moment overriding the lingering pain and swollenness of his lids and allowing him to see unimpaired. The first thing that he was able to see with clarity in the whole evening was the body pinned against his chest.
Gustav was beautiful, even when vulnerable and in pain; especially when vulnerable and in pain. His slim and well-bred features twisted in a grimace, his closed eyelids twitching. His skin was so pale that Bell could make out the pulsing life in his temple, his neck. His tight, dark horsetail was in disarray, and blood poured down his scalp from a shallow graze to his forehead. The kid – only a kid, barely grown into his gawky limbs – could not be older than a score of years, his body clumsy in the same graceful way as his visage was.
In such a way, Bell saw the nature of his new master.
Gustav groaned, shifting under a layer of soot and debris, trying to get to his knees, but his face contorted further and he fell heavily.
The sound of horses echoed back toward them, and Bell knew that whoever it was had returned to see if their parcel had done its duty. Their own horses were screaming in pain. There was no sound at all from the driver.
A jingle of harnesses; the horses stopped, the riders dismounted, crunching heavily across crackling debris.
Gustav was glaring up at Bell, snarling even, and his black eyes sparked with calm, impressive fury.
“You are my bodyguard,” he told Bell, staring straight into his skull. “Protect me.”
Bell’s limbs moved immediately, muscle and sinew delighting in the familiar feeling of being ordered like a soldier, a pawn. He grabbed Gustav’s waist, rolling the man off of him and onto the ground. Gustav let out a grunt of pain, but Bell was already on his feet, swaying and testing his injuries. He’d live.
There were three men, looming out of the darkness. They started as Bell surged upwards from the wreckage of the carriage, sloughing shards of wood as if he were rising from the dead.
Naked blades of varying lengths flashed in the men’s hands and Bell felt his face break into a broad grin of pounding anticipation.
A moment hung between the two factions, each sizing up the other, before one of the men stepped forward.
“D’Adelle? ” he demanded.
“Nope,” grunted Bell, lunging forward and cracking an elbow across his face. He went down like a rock. Bell didn’t bother to check if he was out. He’d hit the man with enough force to break bone, right between the eyes.
As soon as their comrade went down, the other two men moved to action. One came at Bell straight on, his long knife gleaming; the other, with a dash more strategy, ran in from his side.
It was difficult to see; the sides of the gully blocked most of the moon from sight, but what little light filtered through glinted from exposed weaponry and burnished belt-buckles.
Sloppy, Bell decided, sidestepping the first attacker. He caught the other’s upraised sword by blocking his wrist with a heavy forearm, using the momentum and a hand to the inside of the elbow to twist the man’s arm backwards. He dropped his sword, but Bell kept pushing, wrenching until he felt the arm pop fully out of its socket.
The man screamed and fell to his knees, and Long Knife rounded on Bell for a second try. Long Knife feinted left, and Bell allowed mild surprise for the sudden show of guile. It didn’t stop Bell from bringing the blade of his palm easily into Long Knife’s wrist, making him drop the weapon. Hand still on the disarmed man, Bell snatched the weapon from the ground and smoothly slit his throat.
Dislocated Shoulder was still gasping on the ground, but he gamely struggled to his feet as Bell’s attention swung to him. Bell dispatched him with a crunching kick to the side of the head and a stab to the heart. He turned towards the man he had elbowed, out cold on his back.
Bell wished he was awake. Casually, he stomped on the man’s chest, hearing bones snap, and then leaned heavily on him until his chest caved in completely.
There was a great deal of blood on his clothes, and most of it was not his own. He threw the knife to the ground and surveyed the scene for a long moment. The attackers’ horses had long since fled.
A pulsing pleasure whistled in his veins, and Bell felt utterly calm in the lifeless silence.
It was not silent, however, Bell slowly realized. A ragged, hitching breathing echoed somewhere from the remains of the carriage, and Bell heavily shook off the feeling of bliss and lethargy, limping to Gustav’s side. He knelt in the wood fragments, narrowing his eyes and searching the young man’s face.
Gustav was pale and his skin way clammy with cold sweat. Bell reached out a stained hand, intending the help Gustav to his feet, but the young man stared glassily past it. Bell knew the symptoms of shock when he saw them, then noted the blood on Gustav’s splayed right leg. It was dangerously lacerated, and probably broken at that. That explained his difficulty in moving, before.
So Bell did what he knew he had to – he put one arm under Gustav’s torso, the other behind his knees, and swung him up against his shoulder like a child. Gustav hissed behind clenched teeth.
“In the future, you will prevent things like this…” he growled into Bell’s bare shoulder. Bell was faintly annoyed at the comment, but stood anyway, his burden firmly in his grip. At least one of his burrowing questions had been answered. He knew what was expected of him, now.
“You will take me… home…” Gustav ordered, his voice unsteady. “Down this road… Half a mile”
“Yes,” Bell replied. He began to walk, blood on his clothes, adrenaline in his veins, and his master in his arms.