I was in the blackest part of the forest, trees around me draped with poisonous plants and hissing creatures unknown and indescribable. Things you generally didn't want creeping about in your bed.
Shadows melted and bent around me, sometimes there, the next moment a flash of blinding light taking their place. When the light faded an object was left behind: some clothes, farm tools, random sticks and stones probably taken from forests.
And then there was the golden thrall collar engraved with fancy lettering.
Being a mere farm brat, I'd never learned how to read, but I instinctively knew what it said: Destique. The collar belonged to me.
I walked toward it – it was floating in midair – and tentatively touched it. It immediately shot to my neck and settled there. When I tried to pull it off, it refused to move.
Master Na'an appeared in one of the shadows, an angry expression crossing his face.
"I told you that you're not to touch the Golden Set until you've earned my good favor!" he screeched, snatching the collar back. "Now I have to punish you!"
Suddenly everything was gone.
In place of the poisonous forest lay my new home, but it was…different. More menacing. And not just because collars, chains, all sorts of whips and rods and other thrall instruments – even a cage in one corner – lined the walls, ceiling, and sandy floor. It had a lot to do with the fact that Master Na'an was right beside me with a spiked metal rod clenched in his left hand.
"NO!" I screamed.
He growled angrily and raised the rod like a baseball bat ready to swing.
I opened my teary eyes to find Master Na'an clutching my face and begging me to wake up and stop crying. His arms had long, deep, bloody gouges torn into them, his black blood flowing like water. My mind was too foggy to register the abnormality.
"I'm awake," I muttered hoarsely. "You can let go of me now."
He sighed in relief and sat back on his haunches…those huge…beautiful…muscular thighs…I forced my eyes up to his chest to keep from getting all swoony. It wasn't much better, but it helped. "You gave me quite a scare," he admitted.
I sighed and closed my eyes for a brief moment. "How bad did I embarrass myself?"
He took my hand in his and fiddled with my fingers. "Not bad. You just screamed my name a few times."
I covered my face with my free hand and moaned, "Oh nooo…Master, I'm so sorry…" I think I was more mortified by the fact that it was his name I said than I was concerned about waking him in the first place. It was just going to ultimately prove that I cared for him.
Master Na'an laughed and pulled my hand up to his cheek. "Don't be ashamed, darling. You're very cute when you say my name, even if you do scream my name in terror. I didn't honestly think I was that scary."
I peeked at him through half-closed eyes. "You're not. It was just a stupid nightmare. You're actually very sweet."
Master Na'an laughed, mirth flitting across his face and through his eyes. "You are as well," he murmured. Then gently, sweetly, he cupped my face in his palm and leaned in, biting his lip.
Seasons…he's gonna kiss me… I thought nervously. I liked him, but I wasn't sure if I really wanted this…and I could never be certain that he wasn't working at an angle. He said he didn't want me for what I could offer him physically…but when was the last time a Master had ever kept his word to his thrall? I mean, even with us there was proof he could lie. He said he wouldn't hurt me and then he broke my jaw without a second thought over some stupid books. I couldn't afford to let him get the upper hand and take advantage over me.
"No," I whimpered, slapping his arm away and shoving at his chest. "I'm not a toy to be used. Stop."
He got off the bed and stood back several feet. "I'm sorry, wench," he muttered. "It won't happen again. I'll leave you alone now." He rushed from the room, the slightest hint of tears forming in his sad, beautiful eyes.
Feeling like I had just told him his mother had died, I curled up under the blankets and stared out the window the entire day. I saw Master Na'an working out in the field diligently, sweat dampening his fur; he wasn't wearing a shirt, and I really liked the view. It didn't make me feel any better, though.
Dark rolled around five minutes earlier as winter was rapidly approaching, yet Master Na'an still didn't come in. Worried, I whined one long, anxious whine and beat the floor with my tail as I bustled around to make dinner for him. Then a shrill, terrifying screech split the still night, a sound unlike any other I had ever heard before. I screamed and dove into the first open cupboard I saw, trembling in terror. When the front door creaked open I was absolutely convinced it was a zombie coming for my brains and wouldn't come out.
"Little one?" I heard Master Na'an's gently flowing voice whisper. Sadness leaked through and it made me cringe to think that I had caused it. "Come on out. It's alright. Nothing will hurt you."
I crawled to him on all fours, my hands shaking so badly I collapsed twice and nearly broke my wrists, and clung tightly to a leg the size of a small tree trunk with my face buried in the long, silken hair.
He gently pulled me up into his arms and rocked me, our gaze holding strong. His beautiful amber irises slowly began to swirl, changing from dark yellow to blue-green, and I felt my mind begin to fog up. "That's right," I just barely heard him murmur. "Go down...down...deep, deep down...you want to...you NEED to..."
I yawned widely and closed my eyes, snuggling into him contentedly. "Need to," I mumbled.
"You will be happy and willing when you wake. You will have been lightly conditioned for life here. My conditioning will help keep you safe and will wear off over the next two weeks until you are back to normal, but you will better understand me through the process."
"Yes, Master," I whispered.
An approving hand gently descended upon my head head and rubbed between my ears. "Good girl."
I woke with a blanket of serenity placed over me. The fact that I wasn't allowed outside to go help Master Na'an work was fine with me; I had no urges to get up and do any cleaning, nor did I want to disappoint him by insulting his cooking and making more food. All of my anxieties and worries had vanished. Comfortable and sleepily content, I made the choice to get up until I rush of cool air waft over me.
"Mmm..." I mumbled, burrowing into the covers as far as I could. "S'nice."
Rustling nearby indicated that Master Na'an was rising from his bed, but I couldn't care enough to open my eyes. He came over and his finger traced my nose gently as he spoke.
"I've made you some sandwiches for the day, little one. Five different ones to choose from. I'll be in the fields. Have fun."
I opened one eye and looked at him. "You too."
He flashed his teeth in a happy grin, kissed my cheek, and took his sack of tools out to the farthest field to begin harvesting crops and turning the dirt. I watched with a smile on my face out the window before I got hungry and went hunting for my sandwiches. As promised, I found five different kinds and devoured the first one my hand touched, smacking my lips in appreciation.
I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself after that point and went exploring. The house was filled mainly with farm equipment and everyday things, but the only game I found was a single deck of cards marked "SOLITAIRE" on the back. The thought of that gentle giant having only himself and this deck of cards brought tears to my eyes. He deserved better than that. Why didn't he have a female in his life?
Frustrated and upset, I threw the cards into the air and watches them scatter in the living room, then ran out of the house and barreled straight into him on his way back for lunch. Surprised, he steadied me and gripped my shoulders as he said quietly, "Is something wrong?"
I looked straight into his eyes and said, "Why are you all alone out here?"
My question - or perhaps it was my sudden boldness - caught him off guard. He looked extremely flustered and his eyes widened slightly. His rebound was swift, though. "What makes you think that I'm all alone?" he murmured, leading me inside.
"There's no pictures on the wall...a game of solitaire in the living room closet...and I certainly haven't seen anyone. What more do I need?"
He growled under his breath and didn't say anything for a long time. When he did his voice was heavy and hoarse, like he was getting choked up. "I had a girlfriend. It was the same story everyone always tells about themselves: we bumped into each other, love at first sight, and I asked her out. It was wonderful to be with someone who loved you for who you are."
He had to pause and take a deep breath to steady himself. This time his throat was clear but I could see tears in his eyes.
"That was before my powers began to develop. You see, I'm the son of Nature and Time, two of the four strongest Elements in the world. Most halflings like myself are weak because of their parentage, but not in my powers shouldn't have developed until exactly one hundred years of age. They appeared at fifteen."
"What's wrong with a powerful boyfriend?" I said quietly, confused. "I would have loved to have you by my side when those kidnappers nabbed me."
Master Na'an smiled sadly and sat on the couch, motioning me over. I scrambled into his lap and wiped his years away gently before he continued.
"It shouldn't be a problem," he agreed. "The problem was my lack of control. Halflings with new powers are always very clumsy, and I don't mean in the funny ways. I once heard of a halfling who lost control in the middle of a restaurant and blew himself up like dynamite, killing everyone in the city. He was the only one who lived. And that was a WEAK halfling. What he did is nothing compared to me."
I wondered if I should be scared at this point, but I trusted him to keep me safe even from himself. If something bad DID happen he could just heal me and life would go on. So I dared to ask as respectfully as I could, "What exactly did you do, Master?"
He buried his face in a pillow in shame. Through the delicate fabric I heard him whisper, "I turned back time itself. I didn't know what would happen when I did...my da did it all the time, and nothing bad ever happened to him..."
Scared now, I whimpered, "Just tell me. Don't make me beg for an answer."
He looked up with the most sorrowful, pitiful eyes I've ever heard and whispered, "I destroyed Thunder Mountain and everyone inside...including my girlfriend."