Summary: Once upon a time there was a poor harpist with a big dream... J2 retelling of a Russian fairytale.
Main Characters: Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this fiction belongs to me, not even the basic plot.
Warnings: English is not my native tongue. Please let me know if you catch any mistakes. Unbetaed fic.
Once upon a time, on the shore of the Caran lake, there was a city called Gorburg – the wealthiest and most beautiful of all the cities of the Great Plains.
The spires of its cathedral towered all over the merchants’ mansions, gleaming like pearls. Thousands of people came and went through its wide streets, in and out of its shops – furs from the North, grain from the South, spices from the East, anything could be bought and sold in Gorburg. Hundreds of ships and boats filled its ports, ready to sail down to the river and to the sea.
The only thing the people of Gorburg loved more than their trade was music and right in their city there once was a man as poor as a church mouse, yet he could play the harp with unsurpassed skill...
The early morning sun was barely peeking over the horizon, but Gorburg was already starting to wake up: farmers’ carts were already driving through the gates with their wares, new ships bobbed toward the harbour, the artisans in their workshops readied their instruments and even in the large, lavish houses the richest merchants were already ringing for breakfast or water or their clothes as their servants rushed about.
Here and there, idle children of those same merchants were returning home after a night of partying – but the man walking through the narrow, damp streets in the northern quarter could hardly be called that.
His cloak might not have been new, his simple yet respectable clothes would have revealed, on closer inspection, signs of repeated if skilful mending, but he carried himself with confidence even after such a long night. Tall and strong, he had two strands of copper wrapped around his wrists and a leather case slung over his shoulder.
He opened the door of a small, shabby house and went in, ducking his head under the low doorframe. The inside was little better than the outside, but it was clear that whoever lived there had done their best to make the room as comfortable as possible.
A woman raised her head from the fireplace, then smiled.“Jensen, finally! I was starting to worry...”
“Oh, mother, you know how these things go,” he replied, carefully placing the case on the table before taking off his cloak. “Those rich boys have nothing better to do than party the night away – all very well for us,” he concluded, placing two silver coins on the table. “Soon father’s debt will be paid”
“Will you start spending a little more on yourself then?”
Jensen shrugged and looked away. “We’ll see... How about Royse? Does she need anything?”
Mrs. Ackles hesitated, knowing full well it was a distraction – the only distraction that would never fail. “Well...the doctor did say there was a tonic...”
“Good, we’ll send Misha to get it when he drops by.” He stifled a yawn.
“I was making breakfast, do you want to eat something?”
“No, thank you, mother. I’ll just go and catch up some sleep – I am expected at Reneer Benedict’s birthday tonight.”
She immediately frowned. “That boy is no good. I thought you didn’t like him.”
“I still don’t, which is why he’ll have to pay a slightly higher price.”
“I don’t know, Jensen...”
He smiled and bent down to kiss her cheek. “Cheer up, mom. There’s nothing to worry about.”
The worry wasn’t completely erased from her face, but she nodded. “I trust you, son.”
Jensen smiled and went into the second and last room of their tiny house: it was even smaller than the kitchen and even shabbier, with only two beds and a chest of drawers against the wall.
Only one of the beds was free: the other was occupied by a thin, pale girl.
Jensen tried to be as quiet as possible, but as soon as he sat on his bed, the girl opened her eyes. “Jensen? You’re back?”
“Good morning, Royse,” he said, moving to sit down beside her. “How do you feel today?”
“Fine, thanks. You just came back?”
“Yes, it was a good night,” he replied and did not call her out on her little white lie.
She smiled and tried to get up. “That’s nice. I’m going to help mom.”
Jensen’s hand was immediately on her shoulder. “Perhaps you should rest a little more...”
She stubbornly shook her head. “I’m really feeling better. Besides, you need your rest.”
Sighing, he helped her get up. “Just don’t overwork yourself.”
“Look who’s talking,” said Royse, laughing as she went.
Jensen carefully hung his harp over his bed and quickly undressed, but, instead of slipping under the covers, he went down on his knees and crawled under his bed.
It was as dark as night down there, but he needed no light: for years and years – since they first moved in that small house – a certain loose brick under his bed had been his secret hiding place.
Jensen smiled as he moved it aside, remembering the treasures it used to hold – tin soldiers, marbles and a couple of shiny buttons.
The time for games was long gone, but that little hole had become even more precious now, for it held all of Jensen’s hopes and dreams.
Out of the dark came a small wooden box, still showing faint traces of bright paint, and into the box Jensen placed his silver coin, hearing it clink against all the others he had saved since he had first started working.
Stifling a yawn, he closed the box and put it back into the wall, sliding the brick back in place, then finally climbed into bed, letting his secret hopes and dreams lull him to sleep.
That night the youngest son of one of the richest merchants in the city was celebrating his birthday: a huge pavilion decked with hundreds of lamps was raised on the opposite shore of the lake, a veritable army of servants employed and a ship was pulled from their fleet to ferry their guests to the party and back.
The ship set sail precisely at sundown, its bow cutting through the red and gold waters.
Jensen could see the dark shadow of the coastline, the pavilion lights and the port beacons shining like fallen star as he leaned on the starboard bulwarks.
His hands closed tightly around the rail as he imagined himself on a ship like that, sailing toward foreign lands.
Something moved out of the corner of his eye – a shadow down in the water, like a man’s head.
Jensen turned around, but there was nothing at all, only ripples and foam – and yet, he was sure he had seen something.
Maybe it was one of the golden fishes that live in the lake, following in our ship’s wake. He smiled to himself, leaning further out of the rail.
“Ackles!” Reneer Benedict shouted. “I’m not paying to look at the scenery! Play something!”
Biting back a sigh, Jensen pasted a fake smile on his face and turned back toward the stern.
The harpist didn’t have a single moment of peace: he played and sang for hours and hours while people around him ate, drank and sometimes danced.
The night wore on, the hour grew late and most of the guests started going back to the city, but when the ship came back one last time to gather the young, rich man and his friends, he simply moved his party on board and wouldn’t let the captain leave.
Jensen’s throat and fingers ached from use, but his smile didn’t waver. He would have gladly left with the last ship, but every time he tried to put his harp down, if only for a five minute break, Reneer shouted that he had been engaged for the whole party and he and his friends still wanted some music.
I can’t imagine why, they are so busy drinking and shouting they wouldn’t notice if I started singing Pretty Joanna to the tune of an Easter psalm. Still, the customer is always right...
He stifled a tired yawn and started plucking the strings again, settling for a well-known, well-loved ballad that usually had the whole audience singing along.
But the young men were not in the mood to sing, only to complain.
“It is too bad,” said one to the birthday boy. “That your brother wouldn’t let us hire some women! Now that would have been a way to end the night!”
“Can’t we ask the ship’s captain to get some?” whined another.
Reneer shook his head. “My brother convinced my father to forbid it! Meddling idiot!”
“Hey, we don’t need girls!” piped up another, red-faced and obviously drunk. “Jensen’s here. He’s practically a girl!”
Jensen grit his teeth and kept playing as a round of laughter echoed all over the deck.
“No, really, look at him!” the man insisted. “Have you seen those lips? Better than any whore at the Peacock’s!”
“Hey, he’s right!” Reneer slurred, standing up and stumbling forward. “ ‘s not like you can afford to be choosy, either, mmmh?”
The harpist said nothing, his fingers stilling on the strings.
“C’mon, Ackles...We can be generous. Fifty pieces of gold for a good time. Think of all the things you could do with that kind of money,” he added, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Jensen was silent, for he knew even better than him what that sum could have bought.
“You just have to put that pretty mouth of yours to good use. What say you?”
“There’s not enough gold in all of Gorburg to make me touch you, that’s what I say,” he replied as he stood up and turned away.
“You’re nothing but a beggar!” Reneer snarled and grabbed him again. “If I want you, I’ll have you – what’s wrong, afraid of stealing your mother and your sister’s trade?”
Jensen whirled back and punched him, sending him sprawling on the deck. All laughter and catcalling immediately stopped.
“Anyone else wants to try?”
Nobody moved as Jensen picked up his harp and walked away. “Do not bother with your money, master Benedict, I shall send my bill directly to your father!”
“Bastard!” Reneer moaned. “You shall pay for this, Ackles! You’ll never play a single note in this city! Out of my ship!”
“Oh, do try! We’ll see what the people of Gorburg would rather listen to, my music or your drunken whining!” Jensen shot back as he strolled down the plank. “I’ll take the Sea King and all his court over your band of buffoons any day!”
So the ship left for the city and the harpist remained ashore, where he started making his way home on foot.
He walked and walked with only moonlight as his guide, but after he almost stumbled into the lake for the third time, he resigned himself to spending the night under the stars.
As luck would have it, he found a small cove, well hidden both from land and water: there he took off his cloak, carefully wrapped his harp in its soft folds and finally settled down on the sand to sleep.
The next day, Jensen woke up to a world still half-immersed in darkness, the first light of dawn peeking over the horizon.
Uncurling himself from around his harp and ignoring his growling stomach, he walked down to the lake and splashed some water on his face.
He looked up to see Gorburg – gleaming, rich Gorburg, as far away as the moon. A pox on Reneer Benedict, his good-for-nothing friends and all the spoiled, rich brats in the city! Those bloody...
After running through his extensive list of expletives twice, which made him feel marginally better, he went back to recover his discarded belongings. However, instead of setting out for home, he carefully unwrapped his harp from its makeshift cover and experimentally ran his hand over the strings.
It doesn’t sound exactly right – perhaps a little humidity, he reasoned as he started playing in earnest, first a love ballad, then a lively jig for dancing.
The harp was soon back in top form, all the notes dancing in the air and over the water, but Jensen’s heart clearly wasn’t in it.
The music abruptly stopped in the middle of the second refrain as he dropped his hand on his thigh, his fingers nervously tapping a disconnected rhythm.
Just as suddenly as it stopped, the music started again, only this time it was not part of the usual repertoire – really, if asked, Jensen wouldn’t have known what he was doing, either. He simply played, simply kept the music coming.
Starting to sing wasn’t even a conscious decision, but it had gotten to the point that music was not enough: he just had to let it all out before it choked him and there was no other way, just his harp and his voice.
Eyes closed, he sang of the dream that lulled him to sleep at night, the dream for which he had been saving since he first started plucking harp strings – of the ship he’d build, a big, strong ship, the best Caran lake had ever seen; of all the foreign lands he’d see and all the treasures and goods he’d bring back.
He sang of the day he’d be the richest merchant of all Gorbug, when his mother and sister would go to Mass in the finest furs and the Ackles name would be respected once more.
The words coming, for there was nothing else to say. He could have simply stopped playing, but instead he chose to wrap it up nicely, creating a sort of reprise and then gradually letting it fade away.
The last note still echoed in the air when a new voice resounded: “That was incredible.”
Jensen sprang to his feet, looking around. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
“I’m here,” the mysterious voice replied.
Jensen turned back toward the lake: a brown-haired man was leaning on one of the rocks in the deeper end of the cove, his chin resting over his crossed arms and half of his body still completely submerged.
For a moment, Jensen thought he wouldn’t have minded seeing more of the stranger, then resolutely pushed the thought away. “How did you get here?”
“I swam,” the man replied, watching him intently. “I heard that sound…you were making it, weren’t you?”
Jensen nodded, feeling slightly sick at the thought of his dreams, his most secrets hope laid bare before this stranger.
Then the man smiled and it was like the first ray of sunshine after the long winter months. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard – and you,” he added after a brief pause, his eyes roaming over Jensen’s body. “You are the most beautiful drylander I’ve ever seen.”
“Drylander? I’ve never heard that one before.” The mysterious man kept staring at him without even blinking – it was most unnerving. “Well, shouldn’t you get back to your ship now?”
“Ship?” he frowned. “You mean those clumsy things you people use to cross the lake and the sea? Why would I need one?” he asked, sounding genuinely puzzled.
Jensen laughed nervously. “Surely you don’t mean to say you swam all the way from Gorburg?”
“Of course not, that’s dry land. I can’t go up there.”
Suddenly, everything made sense. Why would he need a ship indeed! “You are one of the Merpeople.”
“I never said I wasn’t,” he replied, gently teasing. “I am Prince Jared of the Sea King’s court. And who are you, drylander?”
“I am Jensen, harpist of Gorburg.”
“Oh. So you live behind the walls?” Jensen nodded. “And you never come down here, do you? Of course you don’t, I would have heard you before. Why were you singing? Has your lover deserted you?” He asked disbelievingly, before an edge of panic slipped into his voice. “You’re not going to drown yourself, are you?”
By all rights, Jensen should have taken offence at the prince’s prying, instead he burst into laughter: “I’d need to have a lover before I could be deserted! No drowning for me, prince Jared: I am no threat to the peace of your kingdom.”
“And my peace of mind, too!” Jared said. “But how did you end up here, then?”
Jensen shrugged. “There was a party on this shore last night – a rich, spoiled brat’s birthday party. He and his friends wanted me to…do something more than play and sing. I refused and had to leave the ship.”
The prince’s eyes widened: “A human party made all that noise? I swear we could hear it from the bottom of the lake! And you stayed here all night?”
He nodded. “I was going to go back to the city, but first I wanted to make sure my harp was fine – and my voice, too.”
“So that’s why you made those sounds?”
He nodded. “Yes. Well, actually, this,” he plucked a quick set of notes. “is called playing. When I use my voice, instead, it’s called singing.”
“Singing...” Jared repeats carefully. “I heard it before – from passing ships. But that wasn’t like you,” he added. “They mostly sang about girls and drinking beer. What is beer?”
“Nothing you’d like,” Jensen replied quickly, trying not to think of all the damage a drunk sea lord could do. “Can you even drink?”
Jared shrugged. “I guess. We just don’t need to. You still haven’t told me what your song was about,” he added almost as an afterthought.
The harpist sighed, half in annoyance and half in resignation. “You’re not going to let it go, are you?”
“No. Why would I want to?”
“Never mind, just a human habit.” Another sigh. “I was just…singing about my dream.”
“You saw all that while you slept?”
“No, I mean… a dream is something you want to come true – something you long for that would make you happy, happier than you’ve ever been. Do you have something like that?” he asked, looking up.
Jared’s eyes were still on him, a strangely pensive look on his face. “Yes…I think I do.” He blinked, physically shaking himself from his thoughts, then smiled again. “So, that’s what you want? To have a lot of gold and silver and things like that?”
Jensen shrugged. “Being rich would just be a mean to an end…Most of all, I want to see the world.”
“Why don’t you just do it? Those…ships? They are always coming and going, why don’t you just take one?”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t leave my mother and my sister to fend for themselves. I’m the breadwinner of the family now – besides, I must pay off all of father’s debts before I can do anything.”
“Even if it means playing for spoiled, rich brats? Even if they ask you things you don’t like?” Jared asked slowly.
“Even if it means playing for people I don’t like, yes. But they can’t force me to do anything I don’t want to. I may be a simple player, but I am still a free man.”
“A matter of honour. I understand.” Jared said. “I think I can help you with your…your dream.”
Jensen knelt at the water edge, closer than ever. “You can? But…why?”
“Oh, that’s just what we do,” he replied dismissively. “We sea people are notoriously helpful, ask any man on those shippy-things.”
“You would really do it?”
Jared’s hand suddenly darted forward, cold fingers closing around Jensen’s wrist. “But, Jensen, I must warn you: there’s a price to pay.”
The man laughed humourlessly, but didn’t remove his hand. “Isn’t there always? It can’t be worse than young master Benedict’s.”
“So be it, then… Now,” he said, clapping his hands together like an extremely big child. “All that we need is a plan!”
“A plan?” Jensen asked, amused.
“Why, yes! Don’t you know?” he replied, a huge grin on his face. “We sea people are notoriously mischievous, too.”
It was almost noon when the harpist made it back to the city – and who should he meet but old master Benedict himself? They immediately started arguing about the harpist’s pay and what had happened the night before right there in the middle of the street, with all the people watching.
It seemed that the argument would never end, until suddenly the harpist cried: “If I’m telling the truth, tomorrow I’ll go down at the lake and catch three golden fishes.”
The old merchant laughed, knowing how quick and smart the golden fishes were: catching one was a feat worthy only of the best and luckiest fisherman, three was nothing short of impossible.
But the harpist insisted, saying he would play for the merchant and his family for a whole year, whenever they wished and without pay. “Only,” he added. “it must be a fair bet: if I do catch them, you will give me a quarter of all your wealth.”
The rich merchant laughed again and accepted.
Soon the news of the harpist’s madness was all over the city. Throughout the afternoon well into the night, all sort of people went to the harpist and to all the rich men who mocked him, he offered the same deal: his trade for a year free of charge against a quarter of their wealth.
In the end, all the richest merchants in the city laughed and agreed, sure of their victory.
Jensen left his boots and shirt on the shore and walked into the lake, trying to block out both the water’s temperature and the whispering behind him.
A delegation of the city notables watched him from the shore – he could feel their eyes on him as well as he could feel the noon sunshine on his skin.
Now it was time: without hurry, he pulled the net down from his shoulder, unfolded it and cast it into the water.
All he had to do now was wait – easy to say, not so easy to do with all those glancing and all that whispering.
They’re not even talking about me. Probably. I must stay calm... It’s going to be fine, J- prince Jared won’t go back on his word. And what’s worth a water crea...no, I mustn’t think that. They may be mischievous, but they are not cruel. Jared wouldn’t do it, not after he heard the song. He knows how much this means to me. He did mention a price, too: this means we have a deal and everybody knows that a merpeople deal is magically binding, even when the other party is a human... Stay calm. I can’t lose my nerve now.
Each second seemed to crawl by as slowly as a year, minutes stretched into centuries. The knots in Jensen’s stomach grew tighter and tighter, beads of sweat rolled down his back – then, suddenly, something gently tugged the net.
Oh god...here we go. Jensen started dragging the net ashore, his catch pulling and fighting every step of the way. It was strong, stronger than he had anticipated: with little next to no training, the net kept threatening to slip from his hands, the rocks were slippery under his feet, his shoulders and arms ached, but Jensen kept going, kept dragging the net until he stumbled back on dry land, his legs abruptly giving up under him.
For a long moment, he didn’t dare to raise his head, afraid of what he would see. Then, he heard the other men gasp, a couple of them curse under their breath, and he looked up to see gold scales shining under the sunlight.
Jensen couldn’t help but grin as he quickly untangled the fish and put into the basket Misha carried. “Here’s one.”
He stood, picked up the net and strode back into the water.
Twice the harpist cast his net into the lake and pulled two more golden fishes from its waters.
Soon the news were all over the city: everyone wanted to see the three golden fishes and the men who caught them! The bet was won and the merchants had to pay their debt.
Sneaking away from his own celebrations hadn’t been easy, especially with Misha as master of ceremony, but Jensen hadn’t been able to stay a minute longer: as pleasant as Misha and his own family’s company was, there was another person he wished – needed – to see.
Once out of sight from the gates, he broke into a run, not caring if his harp slammed into his side.
There won’t be much time, only until sunset at best. Almost there...
“Jared!” he yelled, giddy with ale and happiness. “It worked! We made it!”
But the cove was empty.
Jensen stopped, trying to catch his breath again, and laughed a little at his own impatience. As if Jared would wait here all day for you! He’s a water lord, he has...important water lord-ish duties. Whatever those are. I must ask him.
Still grinning like a child, Jensen sat down on one of the rocks by the water’s edge and waited.
Hours passed. The sun began to set, painting the sky in shades of golden and pink. Jensen didn’t move.
He stayed in the cove as the first stars began to appear and the moon rose above the water, as the sun appeared once more over the horizon and slowly climbed up in the sky.
Jared never came.
As the lake shone under the midday sun, Jensen had to accept what he already knew in his heart: whatever the price may have been, he had already started paying.
He stood on the shore, watching the ships sail on – knowing some of them were now his and one day he would be able to board one as well.
With slow, heavy movements, he slipped the leather strap over his head, holding his beloved instrument in his hands.
“Farewell, prince Jared. I would have liked to see you once more,” he whispered, then raised his arm and threw his harp into the lake.