Memento Vitae

Disclaimers:I want to warn that this story takes place in the (fictional) middle ages and does contain abuse and violence. I personally do not think anything in the story is overly descriptive or honestly warrants a trigger warning but what I don't think is that bad could be too much for others. I venture to say if you can handle watching any historical film on feudalism or slavery then you'll be fine.

Although her past had always been rather spotty, Santana knew exactly when everything had gone to hell; it was at the peak of the summer season when the sun had become its most unforgiving. At the time she was only ten years old, it was the first in an infinitely long list of days that would lead her to hate her life.

Her mother and father were healers from the Far South and did their work from their home on the outskirts of a nameless town, owned by a feudal lord whose name and face she had never known. The town was small, quiet and full of other families from the same land as her parents. During the day, they worked and she was taught reading and writing in the language of her parents' home land as well that of the North. She worked hard and excelled in her studies to make them happy, and they were; above all else she could remember how proud they were of her.

There were nights when the townspeople would get together and dance dances from the homeland they left in colorful outfits. She danced with boys and girls her age, though she was the only child who could do it as well as the adults. It made her father laugh to see her dancing almost aggressively with the boys, leading them in the steps even though they were supposed to. Those parties, her father's laugh, bits of her various studies; years later that was all she could remember clearly of the past. That and the night the raiders appeared and destroyed it all.

Santana had been asleep when she heard the first shouts outside her bedroom window. She sat up just in time to be knocked back by a blast that destroyed the wall of her room as well as her hearing. The next thing she was aware of was men pouring into the house like water, destroying or stealing everything they could get their hands on. One yanked her off the floor where she had fallen, dragged her back out through the hole they had made and to the yard. Laying on the grass, the muddy boot of her captor keeping her down, she was cold, confused, scared and, after her unceremonious trip through the rubble, bleeding.

She could hear more shouting from the men that had entered her room and soon it was mingled with her mother's screams and angry bellows from her father. Her parents were pulled out on the front lawn, both still wearing their night clothes. The faces of the men all blurred together - in the darkness even that blur was hard to make out - but she saw them beating her parents clearly enough and it was impossible to miss the sounds of pain and cracking bones.

The man that pinned her down lifted her easily and threw her towards her mother who lay on the ground barely moving, the others began to grab at them in a way that Santana found more than alarming. For the first time since it had all begun, she screamed at the top of her lungs, she screamed so loud it hurt even her ears. At the sound of his daughter in distress, her father stood as if revived from the dead and was able to take down three of the men surrounding her even with a broken arm. As the others turned to attack him, he screamed at her to run and she did, she ran faster and harder than she ever had in her life into the thick woods surrounding their home. She ran until her home was a flicker of light in the distance behind her and it was only then that she felt it was safe to slow down. The main town was too far away in the opposite direction to run to, so she stood, helplessly watching the orange light she knew, even from that distance, was her home burning to the ground.

It was the morning light peaking through the trees made her brave enough to dare walk back. When she finally arrived she was horrified to see her house completely missing, in its place was a pile of blackened, smoking rubble and in front of that two very dead, very mutilated bodies.

She sat at the edge of the clearing in the woods and just stared, too shocked and horrified to cry; there was no way to even begin to cope with what happened, so she just sat there.

A long time later the local authority came by with a few men from the fire brigade, none of them seemed surprised; theirs hadn't been the only home attacked. When they found Santana, it was decided, rather quickly, that as an orphan in a ravaged town which was now suddenly overflowing with them, the best option was to sell her. It didn't matter that her parents had provided aid to almost every one of them, nor did it matter that everyone in town had known her since she was an infant, they sold her to a passing merchant for two gold pieces.

That was all Santana really remembered about the raid; the specifics, her parents' faces or those of her attackers, had she even ever been able to see them clearly, were immediately forgotten, because she refused to relive that pain for even one second. Still, on many nights for years after, she would cry herself to sleep over it.

Unfortunately, in the middle of forgetting the bad things she forgot most of the good, and soon she not only couldn't recall how her parents looked on that night, she couldn't remember what they looked like at all, nor could she call to mind anyone she had grown up with. It was all swept away, save for a few remaining fuzzy moments floating in her mind like leaves on a pond.

For many seasons she was sold and traded further and further into the eastern parts of the land until she found herself well inside King Abrams' territory. No one had much use for a small, foreign looking girl who refused to talk, except those who liked to abuse children. In those homes she never cried, she just wore her hatred for every one of her owners like a cloak to keep the piling misery from breaking her. It was when she was with one particularly old and disgusting man, who had the repulsive habit of rubbing her thighs when he wasn't up to more inappropriate things, that she was lost to a tall, blonde man with an unusually large mouth in a card game.

In the seasons since her parents' death Santana had been through many types of hell, from owners who found sick pleasure in the body of a child to the sadists that just wanted something to hit, but as owners went the Evans' were a decent lot. The family wasn't rich, so even though she was very much their slave and was treated as one, they worked and even ate alongside her. Most importantly, there was Sam, the youngest son of six children.

When Santana had first arrived at the Evans' vineyard, she had been bitter and angry, but also terrified, meaning she continued not to speak to anyone. For almost a whole cycle of seasons she never said one word, but the whole time Sam talked to her like she was his best friend. His other siblings had so many things to do all the time to help keep their vineyard running, they never had time for him so she really was his only companion.

Since they were the same age they did everything together and not because she wanted to, but because he followed her everywhere. At first it was irritating; the boy talked nonstop about all kinds of things, from his hopes and dreams to the new inventions they were making in the Far West. After a while however, she warmed up to his presence and one day spoke to him; of course her first words were 'Your lips are odd, but kind of cute.' He had smiled widely at that, which was truly something to behold, and from that moment on they were quite close.

Once Santana decided to begin speaking, she also began to speak her mind which got her lashings on an almost regular basis. The beatings should have been enough, but her brief life of freedom had given her a rebellious streak that could not be contained forever. However, after a while Mister Evans didn't have time to keep up with all of her back talk and just began to ignore her as long as she did her work. Though from time to time she would say something that even he couldn't let slide. Eventually, thanks to Sam's pleas, she learned to temper her mouth and keep her comments to herself.

Season cycles continued to pass and as they did little changed, except Santana lost all her childish charm, replacing it with a sultry beauty and Sam seemed to change into a strikingly handsome young man overnight. One who hadn't forgotten she thought his lips were cute. When they matured it wasn't long before he stole his first kiss, sitting on the branches of a tree overlooking the vineyard, and little time passed between that first, innocent kiss to more intense adult explorations and that inevitably led to a sexual relationship, one that was carried out in complete secrecy. Santana had never found sex a pleasurable activity, maybe it was because she had been too young to enjoy it properly, but with Sam she could see why people did it at all. A fact she shared with him. She hadn't understood why he had seemed so sad about it since it was meant as a compliment.

Their sexual relationship eventually ended when Sam's mother, Elisa, had walked in on them one night in the shack out behind the house that Santana called home. They had both known that what they were doing wouldn't go over well with his parents, even though no one had ever expressly forbidden it. That was probably why when they imagined the outcome for being caught it fell under prolonged versions of punishments they were familiar with. This was not the case.

Santana had lived with many different men and women in her time as a slave, all had varied forms of punishment, some drastic for minor offenses and some more strange than painful. She had been beaten plenty of times, sometimes so badly she could hardly walk, the cruelty her owners could show was no surprise to her. But with the Evans', with Sam, everything had been different, even when she got lashings for mouthing off from Sam's father; it was more of a strong spanking with a belt over cloth that stung more than anything else. Elisa had been even gentler than he, never whipping, but only offering strong reprimands and she seemed deeply troubled when her husband disciplined Santana.

It had made her feel a little warm towards the family that held her hostage.

It was also what made what happened that night so much worse.

Elisa, who Santana had never seen lift a hand to swat a fly, had dragged her naked from her shabby home, tied her to a tree and beat her back bloody. It wasn't the worst thing to happen to Santana by far, she had been punished worse for less, but she had always felt safe with the Evans', especially Elisa, and the beating she got was vicious enough to remind her that she was a fool to feel safe anywhere.

Sam had scrambled to dress himself following his mother, begging her to stop, but soon his brothers woke from the commotion and she ordered them to take him away. It left her free to beat the lesson in further, to strip the skin until she was hitting muscle, to etch into this orphaned slave's very bones that she would never have the right to lay with her son.

Afterwards, Sam was forbidden from ever seeing her alone again and his siblings looked at him like he had been caught having sex with the dog, but it didn't stop him from sneaking to Santana in the night with ointments to heal her wounds. She told him to stop, begged him to never be seen alone with her, but he refused to leave, and when she told him how she would be beaten more if they were caught his face darkened and he swore he would fight every member of his family to the death before he let them do that to her again. It was that, his words and unwavering sincerity, that kept her from hating him like she had convinced herself to hate everyone else.

After she had healed, Sam still visited her even though she had denied him every time he had tried to make an advance on her. They would merely sit and talk about the things they couldn't when being watched over by his parents while they worked together. Things like his burning desire to see the ocean - he had heard men speak of it and wondered how anything on earth could be as vast as the sky. Santana doubted it was as grand as he was making it out to be, but listened anyway. She told him about her long ago dream of being a healer like her parents, it was a look into her past that she did not mention lightly, one he understood she wouldn't share with just anyone. Once Sam even told her that when he made his own way in the world he would take her away from his parents and they could live together without fear. Santana found that sweet and endearing, but she knew better than to hope, she knew his mother would marry him to a lady of reputable station and all talk of them being together would fly away with the wind.

Time left Santana feeling a change after the end of her sexual relationship with Sam, he had awoken a hunger in her she had never known or needed to deal with. However, with him being the only male she could even fathom wanting to be with and also being completely off limits she could only turn to herself in the quiet of the night to deal with the urges she had. For a while, she thought it was helping until those moments where she would see Sam's older sister Stacy bounding around the yard and the idea of kissing her would randomly pop up in Santana's mind. It unnerved her thoroughly, but after some thought she calmly decided that it was because she and her brother had similar lips. She sort of ignored it when she saw his oldest brother, Steven, visiting from his time in the king's service, and although he too had a similar facial anomaly she didn't have the slightest desire to kiss him.

Again time slipped by and Stacy was married to a tall, handsome man from a neighboring town, meaning she left and Santana didn't have to deliberately not look at her anymore, and it kept on going until Santana reached the age of twenty. It was then, exactly ten years after her world had been turned upside down that it was turned again.

It was another scorching midsummer's day when Mister Evans approached her and Sam as they hauled empty barrels from the storage area to the stomping yard. He called them both over and as Santana approached, she realized that he looked older and more haggard than she had ever seen him. His hair had been losing its gold color in the passing seasons, but now it looked almost white and there were dark circles under his eyes.

Sam noticed this too and was the first to speak, "Father? What's wrong?"

He didn't look at his son, or her, he just sort of gazed blankly at some random point in space just over their heads, "It's over Sam. We have to sell this land."

"What?" Sam whispered.

Santana just stood there shocked, they had fought tooth and nail to keep every acre and every mouth fed that lived on it, why in the world would he want to sell his land now?

"I received a letter some time ago and have done everything I can to fight and bargain, but there is nothing that can be done. King Abrams is leaving to begin conquests overseas and he wishes to convert the land surrounding his kingdom into battlements to better protect his castle when he leaves."

"He can't just do that!"

The older man chuckled, "He's the king, he can do as he likes."

"What about us?"

"I suppose Steven will accompany the king to this new land, and they plan to recruit all the boys that are of age meaning you will either join him or return here as a soldier… after this has all been destroyed." Seeing his son's ire rising, he sighed, "I understand your feelings, trust me son I have them as well, but there is nothing we can do but leave or prepare to face the king's guards armed with nothing but empty wine barrels."

The young man sighed in a way that showed he grudgingly saw the sense in his father's decision, "We should leave then." He turned to Santana with a relatively small smile - his mouth could only contract so much. "We should pack then."

He gave his son a meaningful look, "Actually, we can't afford to take her with us," both Sam and Santana turned to look at the older man with wide eyes, "In exchange for a few more days to leave, I sold her into the king's service. He'll even provide transportation for her to get there, so we don't lose time in moving out."

"But Santana's been part of our family for years."

He looked at the dark-skinned girl who was staring back with burning brown eyes and shook his head, "You are my youngest son and yet I have apparently neglected you too much to have you think that a slave is ever actually a part of our family. Make no mistake Sam, bedding her makes her no less of a slave," he said firmly.

Sam's face went red, "Wha-"

"It's already done," and with that, Mister Evans turned and walked away.

He looked over at her with a horrified face, "How…how can he just say that?"

"I'm not surprised by people anymore," Santana said coldly even though on the inside she was screaming.

"This isn't right," he said angrily looking after his father's retreating form.

She didn't say anything until she saw him move deliberately to follow the older man, she grabbed his arm, but only briefly as she glanced at his mother in the distance watching them carefully as always. "Don't. You're always telling me not to pick fights, don't you go doing the same."

"Picking a fight?" he looked at her confused, "If that's so, then I think this is a fight worth picking…," then he stopped and a wounded look crossed his features, "Don't you want to stay with me?"

"I do, but it's a fight you can't win and you don't need to make an enemy out of your family right now."

He looked after his father and then back at her desperately, "I don't want you to go."

"I'll be fine," she said, pulling out her old cloak of stony hatred that Sam had somehow gotten her to remove despite her current situation. With it she could look him in the eyes and lie to his face without breaking down in tears, "I'll be fine wherever I go, you don't have to worry about me."

Seeing her resolve made him straighten up and nod, but he still pulled her close in a hug that almost shattered her cloak on contact.

A carriage arrived to pick her up within the week and she climbed in without so much as a backwards glance. Sam, despite her constant reassurances that she would be alright, had tried to be comforting to her every moment up until this one and even now was shooting her encouraging looks; she ignored them all, because she didn't want to cry the whole trip.

But as the carriage pulled away it turned out to be impossible to not even glance back at the place that she had called home for so long. When she was sure she had traveled far enough for everyone to have gone, she turned in her seat and looked out the back window. There she saw the vineyard outlined in the sunset and Sam standing stock still in the middle of the road. She tried not to miss him, to not have an urge to run back and hug him one last time for being the only good thing in her life after everything else had gone up in smoke, but like looking back it proved to be a futile thing to fight.

She allowed herself one last glance before she turned around, jaw set in a determined clench to take the focus off the tears prickling her eyes.

That was the last time she saw Sam Evans.

The carriage carried her across the bright, lush farmlands and into a vapid stretch of land that seemed to go on forever. The closer she traveled to her destination, the more impoverished the area seemed to become; even the earth looked less alive. A look that mirrored her own feelings as she was carried further and further from the life she had known and more so when the small loaf of stale bread she had been allowed to take ran out. The bleak landscape went on that way until the end of the second day of travel, when sun had almost completed its journey into night. It was then that Santana woke from a deep, listless sleep just in time to see the world suddenly light up again.

They had come to the top of a steep hill and below was what Santana was tempted to think of as a paradise upon first glance. In the distance was an enormous castle, bathed in the red of the setting sun and the gold, white and blue hues coming from unidentified sources, hidden by the large wall that surrounded the entire structure. The castle was leagues away, yet was clearly bustling with life even at this late hour, smoke rose from the chimneys and the very faint shadows that could be seen from the rising light danced with the movement of figures below. And for a brief moment from her position on the hill she saw something bigger, something wider and more endless, and as the carriage carried on towards the bottom of the hill she realized she had gotten her first glimpse of the ocean.

The sun had completed its descent by the time she had moved close enough to make out anything more definite about her new home. One of the first things she realized, was that there was a town right outside the gates that had been hidden from view by the all encompassing shadow the castle cast. The town was actually quite large and seemed to be completely untouched by the poverty of the lands surrounding it. However, it was quiet and seemingly embracing the darkness that shrouded it; the people were still and the night was quiet.

The moment the castle gate was opened the world changed, color and light spilled from the open door and Santana was pulled into a bustling city that seemed a mirror of the one just behind her.

This was the city of the king. This was where the wealthy came to live and die in the riches they had acquired.

Nearest the entrance were endless streets of shops, some closed as they were clearly to be frequented in the day, but many more were open selling spirits, food and women. The carriage pulled her through streets full of venders selling only the most high-quality wares, their stalls lit with lanterns covered in colored paper that splashed the streets in bright blues, golds, and reds. Every now and again she could see a person in garb unbecoming of such a wealthy town and assumed them to be slaves on an errand for their masters. They passed other carriages on the wide, well-paved road on their way past the lively nightlife and to the residential area beyond where she saw the largest houses she had ever seen; until this moment Santana hadn't known they could be built more than three floors high.

The lights from the lanterns in the streets and the ones from the rowdy businesses behind them cast everything in an unusual light, making her journey to the castle even more surreal. Especially now, since she couldn't see the top of it any longer. Not even if she craned her neck back.

They came to another gate, but this one was heavily guarded and the driver had to stop and talk to one of the armored men standing vigil before they could pass. It seemed to take forever for the heavy iron gate to lift, but once it was high enough to clear the carriage it moved forward and gave her an uninhibited view of the castle itself.

To her surprise, it was even more alive than the town had been, though it was only servants and a few soldiers that could be seen moving around.

The carriage came to a stop by a large stone archway where she saw a handsome man with skin tone similar to her own, he was well dressed and if he weren't here late in the evening in such an unsavory place she would have assumed he was high born. Unsure of what she should do, she sat completely still and was startled when the driver yanked the door open and threw her belongings out on the ground before almost tossing her out as well, but the man stopped him looking irritated.

"We'll have none of that," he said briskly as he pushed the driver away and extended a hand to Santana.

She took it and climbed down, feeling a wide array of feelings all at once having actually set foot on castle grounds. Mostly she felt stiff and hungry from constant uncomfortable travel with only two breaks to relieve herself and having run out of food the day before. Quickly, she gathered her bag of meager belongings off of the ground and stood waiting for the man to finish glaring at the driver as he climbed back up into the carriage and rode off.

Shaking his head slightly the man turned back to her and extended his hand, "You must be the woman from the Evans estate. I am Matthew Rutherford." When she only nodded quietly he raised an eyebrow, "And you are?" She only frowned back; he smiled slightly, "They didn't bother to provide me with your actual name."

"Santana," she said quietly.

"Lovely, it hails from the lands in the Far South, if I'm not mistaken."

She shrugged; she had no idea where her name came from, "I'm not sure."

"Well, Santana as much as it pains me I won't be able to stay with you long, I know upon first arrival it is preferable to not be passed from person to person, but that is what must happen here," he said turning to walk as he talked to her. Disoriented, Santana allowed him to get several steps away before she realized she was supposed to follow. "You are to be a lady in waiting to the princess, your duties and how to do them will be explained by Tina, she served the princess for many years before you and you would do well to heed her council, er, should she be inclined to give any."

The name and Matthew's ambiguous statement about her left Santana feeling quite uneasy, but as was her habit in a new place she displayed no sign of being disturbed. They walked from the stone archway down a long hallway full of doors, Matthew began explaining where each one went as they passed and slowly it dawned on her that she was going to get lost.

And often at that.

"This one goes to the kitchens, this one to the stables, this one to the blacksmiths and the armory, though I don't see you having much use for it. This one is to the gardens and these lead to the royal hall where our illustrious rulers live, this one goes to the observatory," he rattled off quickly hardly giving her a chance to take in the information, "In the corners are the doors that lead to the four corner towers that serve as servants' sleeping quarters. The one for those who serve the royal family directly is on the right, but fear not this will all be explained when- ah! Tina!" he exclaimed upon seeing a woman in a white blouse and long, black dress approach.

Santana had varied experiences with foreigners, on the whole they tended to be nicer as they held none of the prejudices that those born and raised in this land did. In her youth she liked to be near adults that were from far off places since they were generally less inclined to beat her, most of the time anyway. Her time seeking them out meant she could immediately tell that this woman hailed from overseas though she wasn't sure from where exactly. However, there was nothing about her face that made Santana think that if she were still a child she wouldn't receive a firm backhand for some small blunder - maybe only her parents had been from overseas. Tina's eyes were hard, cold and piercing with a challenging ferocity that made Santana want to look away, but she didn't, she refused to show weakness of any kind to these people, slave or not.

With a flourish, Matthew presented the surly woman before him, "This is Tina. She will be your guide from here," he said and backed away, seemingly disappearing into the shadows.

"This way," the woman grunted before turning on her heels and marching to one of the doors Santana barely recalled led to her new sleeping quarters. "There are three things to remember: do not get in the way, do not get lost, do not anger the royals or the understeward."

Her heavy accent meant she hadn't been born on the mainland. It also meant, though she was well spoken, that she was hard to understand, so Santana only nodded and broke into a small jog to keep up.

"The king and queen's chambers are at the far end of the north tower, the prince and princess are nearer to us. You are never to use the main halls to travel from one place to another, only the back stairways. The only time such a thing is permitted is when you are accompanying a royal from one place to another."

"How will I know the difference?" Santana asked breathlessly as they began to climb a daunting number of stairs.

"You will know."

The stairwell was tall and twisting, leading them to a long hall full of doors that all led to more stairwells. It became quickly apparent that the routes they were taking were extraordinarily long as the sensible path had already been occupied by the royals, so the servants had winding halls and stairs built around it so as to be both out of the way and aesthetically pleasing externally. From the ground the tower hadn't been that far away, but they walked up what felt like a never-ending supply of stairs.

They seemed to ascend forever and then, absurdly, the stairwell led them back down and into another short hall almost just like the one she had just left, the only outstanding difference was that this area was incredibly well kept. The stone walls were a much lighter grey and the wooden steps were arrow straight and made from sturdy, well-treated wood. Candles in fine holders replaced torches and there was soft carpeting underfoot.

When they stopped, Santana was exhausted and battling between falling to the floor in agony to cradle her burning calves and just plain falling to the floor in the hope that her body could somehow manage to get enough air, because gasping for breath didn't seem to do the trick any longer.

Tina watched her pant for a moment before walking to one of three doors in the small, dank hall they had reached and waited impatiently. Santana managed to stay on her feet and trudged over to where the other woman stood.

"This is the royal's passage," she said opening the door and showing Santana the long hallway beyond that was clearly in the heart of the castle, there were paintings of past kings hanging one after the other. There were golden chandeliers lighting the hallways and velvety carpeting on the floor. It was like another world. When Tina closed the door again the small hallway she had been so impressed with seemed almost dour.

Pointing to the remaining door she continued, "Understeward Karofsky sleeps there, he is in charge of all servants except the king and queens', but is in charge of all discipline. Again, do not cross him, he gives pain happily, do not give him a reason."

Santana knew the type and decided to make herself as invisible to him as possible. Tina opened the remaining door and revealed a room that looked more like a stable than sleeping quarters, individual living spaces separated by stone walls, a bed and nightstand with a single drawer marking each one. There was something like a gate at the front of them that went about chest high, which she supposed was some sort of door that would only prove useful if one were modest during changing.

To the far side of the room there was a drawing table by a small window, which she found odd since in her experience slaves weren't taught to read, write or draw. Even with all the years of schooling her parents had given her she could only remember how to read a little of the common tongue.

"Are we expected to write?" Santana asked in trepidation as she eyed the small table.

"No, that is for Matthew," Tina replied shortly as if the question had been insultingly stupid, "We eat in the morning before we greet the prince and princess and we eat at night after they have gone to bed. It is time for supper, we must head back."

"Now?" she asked reflexively, her legs hadn't stopped burning yet.

The woman became immediately exasperated, "Whenever you feel like," she snapped before leaving Santana completely alone in the dark room with no idea where the dining hall was or how to even go back the way she came.

Turning, she saw that of the stalls that lined both walls only one on the end seemed available, so she trudged over to it and tossed her bag on the ratty bed.

Sitting, she rubbed her burning calves and tried to figure out what to do. She needed food, she hadn't eaten for quite some time, but those stairs made her want to wait it out. Then again the morning was sure to be full of all new, far more confusing things so it seemed best to figure out where to get her day's rations now.

With a heavy sigh she stood and began to retrace her steps, hoping to at least make it back to the main courtyard. And in no short amount of time she was completely lost.

The winding staircases took her all over the castle, at least that was what she figured from the various views the few windows she passed provided. In desperation she opened random doors looking, hoping to find someone who could help or, hopefully, the dining hall. Most doors led to more stairs or another hallway with more doors and occasionally they opened up into the royal's hallway, which she took special care to not set one toe on. She walked until her legs felt like fire, until she was sure she must be halfway back home. Then, finally, a door opened up that led her outside into the night, but it wasn't at all a place she wanted to stumble upon.

There was a wide circular courtyard with a sizeable structure in the middle, set level with two large, ornate chairs set to have a bird's eye view of the platform across from it. She knew the chairs were for the king and queen and she knew the structure was an executioner's block.

At the top was a man, apparently attempting to disassemble the apparatus which was somehow a small comfort.

She worried for a moment if this man might be Karofsky, but then decided one way or another she needed to find out and since she hadn't seen another living person for quite some time, he was her last hope of making it back to her room before the sun rose again.

Not wanting to cause offence if this was indeed the understeward, she made her way up and announced herself as politely as possible, "Good sir, could you help me?"

The man jumped a little, clearly startled by her presence and turned to look at her, when his eyes laid on her figure a sly smile crept up his lips, "I surely hope so m'lady," he replied in the proper tone the nobles used, but with the affected accent of a born and raised slave. She realized she had merely stumbled onto a man finishing his daily work.

"Can you tell me where the dining hall is?" she asked.

He frowned, "For the royals or th' small folk?"

She wanted to make a smart remark about it being the 'small folks' dinner time now and make him take a guess, but seeing as how she needed his help she opted not to do that.

"Small folk."

"T'was a fool's question," he said in a fake lordly voice, "The food is long gone, love."

She scowled at the term, but forgot her anger at it in the dismay of having lost her chance for a meal, the hunger she felt before had become desperately ravenous, "I see," she sighed.

"No need to fret, I have friends in low places," he said with a smile that faltered after a few seconds, "Er, that is to say I know a few ladies who handle th' meals."

Santana didn't know what to make of the man, he was attempting to charm her, that much was obvious, and she was having none of it, but underneath his misguided courting he seemed like a kind person. She had learned long ago not to underestimate that quality.

"I could use a meal," she said tentatively, not sure if he were about to ask for something in exchange, but instead of making a fuss he leapt up and skillfully descended the scaffolding leaving Santana to stand alone atop the structure in the dark of the night.

It occurred to her that regardless of the reason, it was unwise to stand around on an executioner's block and was about to descend the stairs when she turned and saw the most breathtaking view.

From her position she could see over all of the castle, the outer court where the nobles lived, outside the castle gates to the city and beyond. The town gave way to trees and the trees stopped abruptly at a cliff face that dropped down into the ocean. She knew it was the ocean, because she had never seen so much water in her life, it went on forever and ever until it met the sky and they became one. The moon was reflected on the black surface like glass that had shattered into a million glittering pieces. Looking at it reminded her of those private talks with Sam, in a time that seemed so distant now it could have been imagined. Back then in her rundown shack when he told her the stories of water that went on forever, though she swore she didn't believe it, it had always fascinated her to think about what such a thing would look like. It was beyond anything she had ever imagined.

A cold gust of wind came in from the water and she turned her back to it, facing the other way she could see the hill in the distance that had afforded her an early glimpse of her new home. For a fleeting moment she wished she could be back on that road and traveling home, but she knew that was a pointless wish. She had no home, her home had burned to the ground and even the Evans' wouldn't be keeping their land.

Even if at this very moment she were set free, there was nowhere to go.

The thought saddened her and made her more weary than her journey up the never-ending stairs.

"One bowl of gruel for the lady." The man's voice sounded in her ear making her jump, but when she turned she was pleased to see he did in fact have a bowl of stew with a chunk of bread sticking out.

It wasn't in her nature to thank others, so she only took the bowl and asked, "What's your name?"

"Puck," he said grinning widely.

Using the hard bread as a utensil, she scooped some of the stew into her mouth letting the taste flood her senses.

If she hadn't been so hungry, she would have gagged.

"Are all the names here so strange?" she asked as her eyes watered from the bitter taste of her food.

His eyebrows shot up, "Slow down there miss, let's hear your name before ya start passing out judgments like that."

"Santana," she said, for some reason feeling irritated that she had to keep introducing herself.

He thought it over, then shrugged, "Actually that name is really nice, I have no comment."

As she hungrily downed several more mouthfuls of the foul food, Puck sat and patted the spot next to him. Santana didn't feel any better about being in such an ominous spot, but she was hungry and tired and just wanted to finish her meal. Quickly she sat so she could return to shoveling the gruel into her mouth and Puck watched her, completely amused.

"So, what other kinds of weird names have you been hearin' around?"

"Tina," she said thickly.

He chuckled, "T'aint even her name. Was Prince Archibald's dog's name before it was hers."

Santana didn't quite follow and didn't care enough to try and work out what all of that meant, "What's a lady in waiting?" she asked, now eating her bread as she had finished the stew.

He frowned, "Uh… a personal servant for the queen or princess, why?"

"I'm supposed to be one," she said after finishing the bread.

"You're the princess' new lady in waitin'?" he said, but not with surprise or awe, it was with an air of sorrow and pity Santana did not miss.

"Is that bad?"

"No…" he said cryptically, "T'aint bad just, maybe, difficult… Where are you from?"

His sudden change in topic made her blink and answer reflexively, "The Western lands, just on the border."

"Farm girl then, huh?" he asked, his eyes twinkling as if that meant something special.


His smile faded, "A vineyard? So you got any experience with birthin' live things?"

She met his confused look with one of her own, "Are we having the same conversation?"

Puck shook his head, "Nevermind, don't matter, kind of th' point anyway."

Deciding not to try and decrypt that either, she looked longingly down at her empty bowl, feeling sorry there wasn't more of the horrible tasting food in it, even as a sated weariness made her yawn, "Why are you out here on a butcher's block?" she asked absently.

"Takin' it down actually. Nobody was killed, was just up to help quell civil unrest."

"What does that mean?"

He shrugged, "Dunno, that's just what they told me when they had me build it. King Abrams ain't so bad, more bark than bite when it comes to his own, so I figure that's what this was about." She nodded sleepily and he elbowed her gently, "You look done in, want help back to your chambers?"

Santana attempted a response, but was stopped by another yawn. Puck smiled again and helped her to her feet. He guided her back the way she had come and through a hallway that may or may not have been the one she took to get there, she couldn't remember. All she did know was that when she saw the stairs her body rebelled, she dug her heels in and groaned in displeasure.

Puck seemed to understand as he chuckled and easily lifted her off her feet, she would have protested, but his help meant she could get to her rooms without having to do anything so she couldn't work herself up over the invasion of her space. She felt him chuckle once more when she relaxed into him, a sound that rumbled in his chest and tempted her to smile as well. However, she was still half asleep and unwilling to do anything but yawn again, so she did.

She didn't know who Puck was, what his job at the castle entailed or if he really was a slave. Whoever he was he did deliver her to her bed safely and left as silently as he came.

Sleep made short work of the remaining night, all Santana was aware of in the twilight between waking and dreams was that she missed home… she missed Sam.

A/N: Been working on this for a while. It's had a damn near endless number of rewrites and re-edits that took it from being set in space to this fictional earth setting and all the places in between. I have always known where this story is going (actually I knew the ending before I even knew what I wanted the main plot to be) so take my paw and let me take you on this journey :)