April 16th, A.D. 1204
The street is eerily silent. Empty, too, and this is – was – not a city where one would expect to find empty, silent streets.
It’s a strange change, after three days of shouting and crying and screaming, screaming everywhere.
But this street is silent, untouched even from the echoes of slaughter.
A lone knight moves numbly among the lengthening shadows: in this fading light he could almost be mistaken for a ghost, but his tall, strong frame and clinking chainmail give him an unshakeable solidity that sets him quite apart from his muted surroundings.
Silence, finally blessed silence and no one in sight, the Lord be praised. Jared Padalecki, for this is the young knight’s name, has had enough, has seen enough – has done enough.
He doesn’t ask for sanctuary or oblivion – he wouldn’t be looking for them in this dead street if he was and forgiveness is a distant concept. He is not feeling particularly forgiving at this time.
He keeps walking, absorbing everything around him without a sound, but inside he wants to shout and rage at the Heavens for allowing this, at himself for taking part in it and most of all at his family for sending him here.
You should be here, father, you should see this. Would you be proud of me now? I had to be cleansed of my sin, is this what you meant? Bathing in blood? He grits his teeth so hard it hurts. Is my sin so terrible that this is better?
His reflections are abruptly interrupted by a burst of noise – people coming down the street.
Jared is not important enough to be missed, but he still has no desire to deal with anyone: without thinking, he ducks inside a broken-down door and into a house.
It proves to be a mistake: he has passed a lot of houses on the streets, seen their doors barely hanging off their hinges, but never looked inside. The obvious signs of his comrade-in-arms’ passage hit him like a mace to the chest.
He could go back outside, but he does not: he just lingers in the hall until his vision adjust and then moves deeper into the house, forcing himself to see everything, take in every little detail.
This is what he did at Zara, at the first assault months ago. This is the price of his soul.
He moves carefully, respectfully – as if walking through a graveyard.
What a fine house this was. It’s smaller than the Padaleckis’ castle back home yet richer, it’s clear in every smashed piece of furniture, every torn scrap of cloth.
Jared even catches a glimpse of a small back garden – a rarity in cities like this. There is also a sort of tiny chapel, or at least the remains of a chapel. Knights or soldiers, whoever got here first seems to have taken a special pleasure in destroying it: the altar has been overturned, the icons stripped of their gilt and wrecked, somebody has even haphazardly taken a sword to the drapes still hanging at the back of the room.
Incongruously, the only thing to survive such devastation is a key hanging from a nail right beside the door.
Without thinking, Jared takes it and turns toward the light filtering through the broken window to study it more closely. It’s too rough and too big to be the tabernacle key, but it might be some sort of Eastern symbol.
The ruined drapes sway under a stronger gust of winds, the unexpected rustle attracting the weary knight’s attention. After a few seconds, they fall back to their previous stillness as if they had never moved – yet something has changed.
His right hand instinctively moves to his sword as he crosses the room – there’s something behind one of the drapes, something he glimpsed just for a second.
A single tug and the cloth comes down, revealing its secret: a door, miraculously still intact and locked.
To his dying day, Jared will never be able to explain what made him slide the key in the lock and turn it, what made him decide to look. He will never be able to say what he expected to find, only that it wasn’t what he did.
The room is smaller, with only two narrow slits high on the wall as source of illumination but despite the dim light, or perhaps because of it, the first things Jared sees are the lighter spots out of the shadows – the boy’s hand wrapped around his legs, his pale face, the gleam of his eyes.
Jared stands frozen on the spot, his mind racing. It all makes sense now – the master of the house’s son, perhaps the only child, hidden away to keep him safe.
A rather rude oath in his native tongue escapes from the knight’s lips and the boy flinches, pushing his back against the wall as if desperation alone could make him melt through stone. As he moves, the light glints off the silver cross he wears.
Only a few hours ago, Jared would have simply stepped forward and ripped it from his neck – perhaps killed him, too, without much conscious thought.
But not now. Not anymore.
“Don’t…don’t be afraid. I don’t hurt you” Jared says, painfully aware of how stupid his words sound even without taking into account his horrible Greek.
The boy just stares at him, the terror on his face replaced with resignation. Abruptly realizing what he must look like, Jared takes his hand away from his sword, takes off his helm and moves closer – a very stupid move in any circumstance, but he doesn’t care.
“You stand?” Even as he asks, he is carefully wrapping a hand around a thin shoulder and helping him to his feet, suddenly grateful he could only afford leather gloves.
The boy stumbles after him, passively allowing Jared to lead him through the house and push him to sit on a stone bench outside, in the secluded and still intact yard.
“Stay,” Jared orders before going back inside, hoping the boy will not follow him. It was bad enough walking him through that once, catching a choked gasp of horror he surely was not meant to hear… but there was no way to prevent him from seeing that, he might be young but he is not a child.
While rummaging around the kitchen, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Perhaps it’s better this way.
His stubborn search finally yields a loaf of not-yet-stale bread and, even more miraculously, a bottle of wine: with his prizes in hand, he hurries back to the garden.
Another miracle: the boy is still where he left him, half-slumped against the back of the bench with his face toward the sky.
Jared sits down, mindful to leave ample space between them, and pushes the bread in his hands. “Eat.”
He can feel the boy’s wary gaze upon him, but he forces himself to ignore him, reaching instead for the bottle and taking a sip. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the boy take a cautious bite, then another and in no time at all he’s demolishing the loaf like a starving man.
“Not this fast, boy,” Jared says, aiming for stern authority and managing neither. “Eat slow.”
He does not answer, but he does slow down a little.
Jared brings the bottle back to his lips and drinks again, feeling the liquid’s warmth spread through his body, its strong taste tingling his tongue and soothing his parched throat.
High over their head, the first stars awaken.
Jared leans back to look at them, ignoring the faint pain of the chainmail digging through his shift. The boy finishes meticulously picking breadcrumbs off his clothes and takes a large gulp from the bottle before putting it down on the bench between them.
Jared can feel his eyes watching him again. Waiting.
He opens his mouth without knowing what he will say – that he is sorry, perhaps, as useless as it might be – but something else entirely comes out: “What do you do now?”
The boy shrugs his shoulder – he doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter.
“You stay here? You have other place?”
Jared sighs, a hand rubbing his forehead. He should have left long ago, he shouldn’t have lingered here, this whole disaster is none of his concern – but he found life where he was expecting only death and now this life feels like the most precious treasure in the all Byzantium, to be protected at all costs.
When he left home, even with the urgency to purge his sin firmly set in his mind, he still believed in the righteousness, the sanctity of the Crusade. He still believed he could redeem himself in his family’s eyes, could make them love him again if only he came home a hero.
Up to now, there has been no righteousness, no sanctity and no honour. He is not a hero, but a murderer.
Yet, if he could at least save one life – if he could protect this boy, maybe…maybe his coming here would mean something other than death and devastation.
He feels as though a fever had taken him – perhaps it’s the undiluted wine, perhaps he is going mad in this mad world.
Nevertheless, a plan is already forming in his mind. “How old is you?”
The boy stares at him, too astonished to keep silent or lie. “Seventeen.”
Almost too old, Jared thinks, trying to study his face and appearance in the faint light. Still, he does look younger than his age…
“I have a deal for you,” he says slowly, mindful of the words he uses. “If you have no place, become my squire. Until you know where to go.” He almost has to bite his tongue to keep himself from saying more – from talking of the food he can find at the crusader camp and of the protection a knight, even a poor one like him, can offer.
Somehow, he is sure the boy – the younger man knows every reason he could offer: mentioning it would just be an affront to his pride..
Said younger man is staring at him again, mistrust and bewilderment clear in every line of his body. “Why…?” he starts to ask, abruptly cutting himself off.
“Why I ask?” The boy looks away, which is answer enough to his guess. For a moment, Jared doesn’t say anything, too preoccupied with gathering his thoughts: he doesn’t want to explain himself – he can’t – but he knows he will never convince the boy if he keeps silent.
“I wish to help,” he murmurs slowly, “because this is not why I am here. This is not what I want. I know to become a squire is also not what you want, but… your family protects you, while they can” he says as he carefully places a hand on his shoulder – a mistake, perhaps, he can feel the boy stiffening under his hand, but he can’t help himself, he has always been the type to reach out and comfort with touch. “And now they are not here. But I am and I can and I…” Jared trails off before he inadvertently reveals too much. “It’s easy. You understand?”
After long, tense minutes, the younger man nods without a word. It’s all the confirmation Jared needs and he acknowledges his answer with a curt dip of his chin. “Good. What is your name?”
“Jensen. Of the Ackles family.”
“Jensen…” he repeats, the foreign name uneasy on his tongue. “I am Jared Padalecki.”
His name finally forces a less-than-controlled reaction out of Jensen, he can see it even in the scarce light. He doesn’t resent him for it: by now he has grown too accustomed to his name’s effect in all its possible varieties to do more than smile at his new squire.
He is almost sure that Jensen smiles back, too.
For a moment, it doesn’t seem to matter that he is the son of a nobleman and Jensen the son of a merchant or something like that, that one is the conqueror and the other the conquered.
Their companionable silence, unfortunately, is soon broken by Jensen himself, cautiously raising from his seat. “I’ll see if…” he gestures vaguely to the house.
Jared instinctively reaches for him, his hand wrapping around his arm. “I do it. Find all things you need.”
Jensen shakes his head. “Some things must be done alone.”
Jared understands that, although he still wishes he could spare him – Jensen might be older than he initially expected, but he’s still a boy, still innocent like he was at his age.
Nevertheless, he lets him go. Some things must be done alone.
But when Jensen disappears inside the doorway and even the echo of his footsteps fades, Jared can’t help but wonder if his encounter was real.
Shrugging, he finishes the wine and stands, deciding to go and check the street while he waits for Jensen.
Without even thinking, he takes the empty bottle with him and puts it back in the kitchen – a discordant note of order in the general chaos.
Fortunately, Jensen does not take long, even more anxious to leave this house than his new master.
Jared nods his approval at the modest, sturdy clothes he changed into and steps out into the night.
They reach the crusader camp after more than an hour without having spoken a single word.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jared sees his younger companion tense as they approach the sentinels and fractionally relax again once they pass them without receiving as much as a second glance.
They are almost at his tent when the knight hears someone call his name and turns in time to see his friend sir Geoffrey de Morgane coming toward them.
“Jared! Good to see you are back, my friend – and not empty-handed, it seems,” he adds, eyeing Jensen and the bundle he’s carrying.
“Not exactly, no.” Jared replies before turning to his squire. “Go on. You know how to find my tent.”
Jensen nods quickly. “A yellow shield with two black dogs,” he murmurs before rushing away.
Geoffrey raises one eyebrow. “He doesn’t sound like one of the Venetian boys, that one.”
“Because he is not,” Jared shrugs, seemingly unconcerned.
“He’s not? Where did you find him, then?” he prods.
Jared inwardly curses his friend’s curiosity, but still answers placidly, “He comes from the city: his family was Roman Christian.”
Geoffrey frowns. “Were they, now?” He mutters, shaking his head. “And did he place himself under your protection?”
This time, the younger knight allows some of his annoyance to shine through. “Yes. I took him as my squire.”
Geoffrey’s frown deepens. “You are too kind for your own good, my friend. Take care he doesn’t repay your kindness by murdering you in your sleep.”
Jared forces a laugh. “You worry too much, Geoff. Besides, I sleep as lightly as a cat.”
“As a dead cat, you mean!”
Jared laughs and shakes his head, heading for his lord’s tent and wondering if he should explain himself to lord Kripke, too.
I was hoping Jensen’s presence wouldn’t attract attention so soon, he muses. Ah, well. Nothing to be done now.
It’s almost three hours later when Jared finally stumbles into his tenth, the long day fully catching up with him.
Jensen is nowhere to be found, but the oil lamps are still lit and burning brightly. His meagre luggage is also lying against the canvas, which is somewhat reassuring even if Jared can’t help but wonder what he might be up to.
Deciding he probably needed some space or to familiarize himself with his new surroundings, Jared starts stripping, too tired and too used to being on his own to consider waiting. He takes off his over-tunic and starts struggling with his chainmail when the tent flaps part and somebody steps in.
Jared swears, still trying to push off the heavy shirt, and asks, “ ‘s you, Jensen?”
“Yes, sir.” The voice is still soft and unsure.
“Good. Listen, I told Geoffrey you come from a Roman Christian family – gah! – so this is your story, understand?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll remember.”
Jared feels him move closer rather than see him, then Jensen grabs the chainmail and drags it down and over his head.
“Wheew. Thank you,” Jared straightens up and turns around, a quip about arriving just in time on his lips – and stops dead in his tracks.
Back at the house, Jared hadn’t really seen him, with the darkness and his own thoughts distracting him – but now he can see Jensen in full light.
He is just as slender and lithe as he felt under his hand, and tall, too, almost as tall as Jared himself even though he still keeps his head bowed down and his shoulder hunched.
When Jensen looks up, softly answering that it’s his job now, he can barely nod in acknowledgement, his voice trapped in his throat.
Jensen is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen – and Jared is in so much trouble now.