Jaejoong hadn’t bothered to think back to his earlier days in what felt like a million years. It might also be that he just never had the time; but staring at the dead-silent runt clinging to the front of his sleeveless tunic as if the child’s life depended on it, suddenly it all came back to him. Especially the sounds: the sounds of restless cattle bellowing, the sounds of men’s rushed hollers, the humming of his multiple older sisters while they worked on tanning tent leathers; and of course, the cries of babies.
This particular one in his arms was quiet compared to the babies he remembered crawling on the floor of their hut. Too quiet, with his small features distorted in an unsightly scowl and endless streams of sweat rolling down his neck. Jaejoong wondered if he was simply too tired and hungry to emit a sound. Jaejoong himself usually preferred to stay silent, most often not answering the sour nagging any movement of his head aroused in the couple of girls who were sleeping next to him, tied to him at their hair with a painful, messy knot.
The toddler’s breaths were so shallow Jaejoong could tell if he was breathing at all only when he placed the back of his hand hovering over the little boy’s open lips, feeling the erratic, slight puffs of moistened air coming out of his mouth. Not knowing what to do, Jaejoong just stared at the little boy at loss, stroking his brow with a bony finger, trying to smoothen out the creases on his face.
“As long as he keeps hanging onto you like that, you’ve got no worries son,” a middle-aged woman seated a few metres from Jaejoong croaked, nodding towards him. The woman, who probably looked well beyond her years, arduously reached her chained left hand to her right sleeve, pulling out a tiny scrap of hard bread. She tossed it over to Jaejoong and sniggered when it knocked him in the face, making him blink in confusion.
“Put it in his mouth and make him bite on it,” the woman advised, brushing back her untamed hair. “He’s probably crying because he's teething. He’s too exhausted to bawl from mere hunger...”
Jaejoong picked up the piece from the splintered floor, popping it in his mouth to split it into two even smaller halves. He wouldn’t want the little boy to die of choking during the first night he was under his care.
“Thank you for your kind help, mother,” he whispered with a hoarse voice, picking the other bit from between his lips and gently wiggling it inside the toddler’s mouth. The child opened his eyes, staring straight into Jaejoong’s with his hazel orbs for an indefinite moment before closing them again. Tightening his grip on Jaejoong’s clothing, he slowly started chewing on the bit of food in his mouth. Jaejoong released a breath—it was the first definite signal that the boy was actually more alive than dead.
Sucking on his own bit of the stone-hard bread, Jaejoong untangled a rug that had been tied to his narrow hips and covered himself and the toddler with it the best he could. The faded figures decorating the fabric had always brought him a sense of comfort, along with the familiar faint smell emitting from the torn piece of cloth. Hoping it would do the same for the baby, he tried to find a more comfortable position against the wall and brought his head closer to the slumbering girl he was tied to. He started humming softly, watching the creases on the child’s face gradually smoothen out. Deciding he had done everything he could, he finally closed his eyes, clutching the child closer to his thin breast.
One of the first memories Jaejoong had of his life in the steppe was one of the many men he called his father—recalling, it might have been his mother’s eldest brother—opening the door to their hut and stepping inside with a loud whistle marking the return of the household’s men. Jaejoong released a delighted squeal, stumbling forward to give him a hug. The hug reached only halfway up his uncle’s thigh, but that didn’t matter as the man bent down to scoop his nephew up into a tight embrace.
“You do know that your father is a great man, and even if I would like to announce that about myself too,” the man chuckled, “you do also know that I am talking about your birthfather here, don’t you, Jaejoong my son?”
Jaejoong giggled, squishing his little nose against his cheerful uncle’s cheek.
“I know, father,” he smiled and buried his short, chubby fingers into his uncle’s beard. He could hear his birthmother huffing in the background, displeased that her brother had once again returned before her husband.
“As your sister I must relieve you of your inconceivable delusions and tell you, brother, that you think much too highly of yourself! You must be the laziest man within a 300 miles’ radius in these plains, always the first man to return home!” she scolded, crossing her arms on her breast and giving her brother a pout that would have never suited another woman of her age. Her brother just sniggered, taking a few long strides towards her until he was close enough to place Jaejoong in her arms, not before kissing her temple.
“Dearest sister, birthmother of eight daughters and one son, sister of two brothers and three sisters, the maintainer of the household of your honorary husband,” Jaejoong’s uncle turned to gesture randomly at the family tree rug hanging on the northern wall of the hut. ”I certainly couldn’t say the same thing about you,” he ended his mocking speech and smiled playfully at her. Jaejoong followed the conversation with wide eyes, making little sense out of it. The only thing he understood was that they must have been talking about relatives, since the family rug was involved, and that was also where his own concerns laid: on his birthfather.
“Is birthfather coming home soon, father?” he enquired reaching out his hands and pressing his soft palms against his uncle’s rough cheeks.
“Yes! Yes, Jaejoong my son, that is exactly what I came to talk to your mother about!” His uncle suddenly embraced them both taking his sister and his nephew into his arms.
“Wonderful news! Your honorary husband is about to become the mightiest man of the village—which I don’t doubt he already is inside your pretty head,” he added playfully only to receive a hard smack on his shoulder from Jaejoong’s mother. “He was appointed a position as a mediator in the local governmental institution. He will leave for the city, dear sister, he will be the first man in this little village of ours with an occupation in the city!”
Jaejoong’s mother’s mouth dropped open as she squished her only son to her chest. Jaejoong squirmed, uncomfortable, but unable to escape his mother’s death grip.
“I will… We will not see him before he leaves?”
“Unfortunately he had to follow the messengers immediately… There has been trouble between the nomad people and our southernmost villages. He gave me a few orders before riding off to the sunset though,” Jaejoong’s uncle smiled sweetly and reached to ruffle his nephew’s already tangled hair. “He told me to teach this little fellow how to read and write. I think he’s going to have you succeed him, twerp.”
The last memory Jaejoong had of his home was fire. His father—all of them—had always warned him about fire. Living in the plains, once fire caught the grass, the winds would carry it effortlessly until it reached the large waters in the northeastern coast. But this was no ordinary fire. This was even worse; it was a fire lit by men.
He had been inside the hut alone, a rare occasion; but as a child being taught to read and write, even when the others would leave to attend the cattle he would sometimes be left inside by himself, only in the company of his books. His mother would pinch his cheek and tell him to stay away from the stove, teasing him that even if he understood the magic of the written word he was not a man yet and thus he was to stay away from fire.
Jaejoong was lying on the floor flat on his stomach, humming and tracing text with his finger as he read. Hairs of wiry fur tickled his tummy every time he shifted in order to flip a page or reach for a dictionary. As soon as he encountered an unfamiliar character, he would search for the strange logogram in the dictionary he had spread open on his right side, and once he found it, he would brush his fingertip over the strokes in order to memorise the meaning and the right order of writing it.
Suddenly the door of the hut burst open. Jaejoong jerked his head up, startled.
“Brother!” a young man, a dozen years older than Jaejoong, let out a breathy cry. It was one of his oldest cousins from his mother’s side. The man rushed towards the child who had clambered to sit up, careful not to mix up the page he was currently reading.
“They didn’t reach the village yet? Thank all our forefathers!”
He ushered Jaejoong to stand up, rushing to the northern wall and started to hastily tear down the family rug. Jaejoong blinked, not understanding.
“What are you doing, brother?” he asked warily, bending down to close his books and gather them to his chest, guessing that his cousin would not let him continue his study right now.
“Can’t you hear the noise? We have to leave immediately! The nomad people are coming! Our fathers have already left to fight them,” his cousin hushed him. He hurried to Jaejoong with the family rug in his hands and gestured for the boy to raise his arms up. He wrapped the cloth around Jaejoong’s body, tying it on a tight knot over one of his shoulders and his chest.
Jaejoong shot his cousin a questioning look, confused about everything. Why did his cousin take the family rug down? On many evenings his birthmother had reminded him about how important it was, tracing her fingers along the family tree’s bloodlines and teaching him the names and relations of each person. Jaejoong remembered the time when his birthmother’s youngest sister had gotten married and moved into their household with her husband. The extended family had had to finally build a new hut since the previous one had been much too small for so many people. The day the new residence had finally been ready to be inhabited, the first thing his mother had done was to rush to the northern wall to put the rug up. Rubbing her hands together to dust them off, she had stood before the fabric for a short moment, humming a silent prayer to their forefathers. Everyone else had stood silent behind her, listening earnestly to her plea for prosperous and peaceful years in the new home.
His cousin had just opened his mouth to say something when they heard a loud crush and a bloodcurdling scream from outside. Jaejoong stiffened, tightening the grip he had on his books with his other arm and clutching his other hand in the rug around his body, trying to find solace in its curly threads. His cousin had frozen on his spot too.
“Brother…” Jaejoong glanced upwards, scared. His cousin placed his palms on Jaejoong’s shoulders, trying to calm him. For what felt like a thousand years, they listened to the uproar resounding from outside the hut, sounds of running steps, screeching voices, and the most horrifying sound of them all: a static, low noise that could only come from either an ocean or, a fire.
“The nomads are here,” the young man whispered into his young cousin’s ear. “We need to get away from the village. Grab your books, brother.”
They managed to take only a few steps towards the door when it was torn open. A haggard-looking man, dressed in a long gown different from the tunics Jaejoong’s people wore, blinked at Jaejoong’s cousin for a second before noticing the small boy standing in front of him, his cousin’s strong fingers clutching Jaejoong’s shoulders in an iron grip. The nomad appraised the little boy for a moment, letting his gaze linger on the books Jaejoong was holding tightly against his chest.
“Hey friends!” he yelled over his shoulder. “You might want to see this one! This one is of a nice age, and a boy, too!”
Hearing the exclamation, Jaejoong’s cousin rushed to step up and push the boy behind him. The noble act soon proved futile though, as a few more nomad men dashed inside, one of the buffer ones charging at the young man who was desperately trying to protect his young cousin. The attacking man grabbed the young fellow in a headlock while another paraded around him in a relaxed manner until he reached Jaejoong. He then proceeded to rip the books out of Jaejoong’s arms, pushing him and making him tumble over.
“Brother!” he cried. “My books!”
“Why bother carrying these with you, you filthy northern bastard child,” the man sniggered, “that’s only more unnecessary dead weight on a long trip you’re about to take. I have a much better use for them!”
The man raised one of the books up high and knocked Jaejoong’s cousin on the back of his head with the gold leaf decorated dictionary that had been the family’s most precious valuable for centuries already. The blow produced a nasty sound, but Jaejoong paid no heed to the treatment the book received when he saw his cousin’s head lull forward as the young man fell unconscious. Jaejoong’s breath hitched, he could already feel his eyes filling with furious, horrified tears.
“Are we taking this one too?” the stout man holding his cousin asked, giving him an assessing once-over.
“Nah, he’s too old. He will only bring trouble: he knows the steppe too well, he will escape,” a shorter but equally sturdy one replied.
The nomad men all turned to face Jaejoong, and he had never felt so small and defenceless in his whole life. The man who had knocked out his cousin approached him, grabbing the family rug at his chest and heaving him up on his shoulder.
“Brother!!” the child cried out, reaching for his cousin and kicking his short legs in the air. “Broth—brother! Father!”
The man didn’t even bother to muffle his yells, as there was no one to come to his rescue anyway. The last sight he saw while being taken out of the door was how their attackers discarded his cousin’s lifeless body on the floor, one of them throwing down a torch. It was a matter of seconds before the precious paper heirlooms caught fire, obscuring Jaejoong’s view with the thick, nasty smoke of burning word.
Jaejoong was eight years old when he left the peaceful confines of his village for the first time in his life. The sight before his eyes was as discouraging as it was hauntingly beautiful: tall flames rising up to touch the steppe’s vast sky, eating away hungrily on the dry wood of the small huts of his birthplace.
“These northern steppe kids are so easy to handle!” a chunky man Jaejoong was being handed to exclaimed delighted. “Look,” he took a frim grip of the boy’s long, coarse black hair, “even the boys have long hair. Go to the same pile with those scrawny girls but sell for a much higher price!”
The nomad men nodded along disinterestedly, more keen on the sum of money a healthy young boy in the best age for slave trade would earn them.
“Ah, you are truly the best middlemen a humble slaver could hope for!” the slaver purred as he dragged Jaejoong along by his hair easily. “Always bringing in the best goods!”
After having been taken from his home, Jaejoong had soon learnt resistance did nothing but earnt him a few extra slaps. Still, he never stopped rebelling; every time someone grabbed him he would scream, and every time a hand covered his mouth to shut him up, he would bite. Now, being dragged by the hair, he immediately started struggling against the offensive hands, making sure not to give his holder the pleasure of seeing him cry, letting only angry grunts escape his lips.
The slaver pushed him against the wall, next to a pair of stick skinny girls, maybe a few years older than Jaejoong, tied to each other at their hair. The girls were crouching down side by side, murmuring to each other in low voices, unfazed by the sudden ruckus next to them. The slaver grabbed a bunch of one of the girl's straggly hair and holding a thick lock of Jaejoong’s hair in his other hand, he swiftly tied the tufts together in a complicated knot. The girl gave Jaejoong an impassive glance and shifted away from him as much as their tied hair allowed.
“Fiery eyes,” the slaver noted, taking hold of Jaejoong’s chin. Jaejoong answered his stare with the angriest glower he could manage, making the slaver chuckle in delight once again. “How brilliant! This craving for life… It’s sure to assure the clients you won’t give up and kick the bucket the first moment they have a little shortage of food. Excellent! Excellent! I can just hear the money pouring in!” The slaver released Jaejoong’s chin, tapped his nose mockingly and stood up.
Jaejoong watched the slaver walk away, rubbing his plump hands with joy. When he turned to the girls next to him, he was faced with an unexpected sight.
“Just because you are tied to us, don’t think that makes us friends,” the girl he was tied to hissed, baring her teeth like a wild tiger cub. “Just keep to yourself or I’ll pull at your hair, you filthy boy.”
She then turned her back at a dumbfounded Jaejoong to continue whispering with her friend. Jaejoong settled with just shrugging his shoulders and turned to face the room, studying his new environment.
Over half a year had already passed since Jaejoong had been forced to leave his home, and his stay at the slaver’s warehouse was threatening to extend. At least he preferred it to the hardships he had had to endure during the long travel from his northern home to the south. The trip had lasted and lasted, food had been scarce and so had water, and Jaejoong wasn’t used to traveling. Most of the time he had had to walk, stumbling next to the one of the nomad men’s beautiful horses as his both wrists were tied to the rug covering the span of its wide back.
At night he and all the other slaves were put in the middle of the camp, chained tightly to each other. At the beginning of the trek, Jaejoong would cry; letting out quiet sniffles when he remembered his mother, his father, all his other relatives and especially his cousin, the young man whose fate he was frighteningly unsure of. The weeping only earnt him annoyed glances and an occasional kick from someone who claimed that he couldn’t sleep with Jaejoong’s bawling reverberating throughout the whole steppe. The other slaves eyed him with pity; he was the youngest traveller, and sometimes they would try to comfort him with a scrap of food they had saved from their own share. Jaejoong always accepted with gratitude, and the slaves would shower him with compliments about how he hadn’t forgotten his manners even in such an inhumane situation.
When they finally reached the city, the nomads went around selling each slave to a different reseller. It was a common practice; no one was a fool enough to buy a band of slaves of the same origin, they would only cause trouble with their attempts at rebellion. So, Jaejoong had had to part with the comforting presences of his own people, ending up at the fat slaver’s place. There were so many people in the warehouse that he got noticed and consequently hit a lot less than during the travel, most of the time only when he tried to escape. They also got a daily ration of food; while it was not large, it was significantly more than he had got during the trek. All in all, Jaejoong reckoned he was to feel blessed.
Jaejoong’s new life constituted mostly of failed escape attempts, punishments, more failed escape attempts and new beatings. The girls he was tied to would cry out and scold Jaejoong, as every time he was dragged around their scalp would suffer too. It didn’t help to enhance the chilly attitude the girls already had towards him, but Jaejoong didn’t care. He was fine by himself; he didn’t need any deceitful friends to hinder his efforts and drag him down.
The days he hated the most were the market days. He would have to stand outside for hours, naked under the burning sun, squeezed between the sweating bodies of dozens of other slaves, adults and children alike. Most of the time there was someone who wanted to bargain for him, but as he would always try to make a run for it when they detached him from the girls, he would remain unpurchased every time. No one wanted to buy a running slave.
His flights were not successful either; once he got as far as thinking that he had finally shaken off his pursuers, but in a moment’s hesitance of which way to take, too high on his newfound freedom, he lingered at a crossroads for a second too long; only to feel a pair of disgustingly familiar hands grab his hair. The slaver’s underling cursed softly as he hauled him up on his shoulder, and soon Jaejoong was back in the safety of the confines of the slaver’s warehouse. The initial liking the slaver had taken to Jaejoong was long gone as he damned the boy to the deepest pits of hell for denying him the fortune that selling such a healthy northerner of good age to a nice, well-off family would have gained him.
One night, Jaejoong had just managed to fall asleep even with the ever-present hunger gnawing at his insides, when he was abruptly pulled out from his light slumber. One of the slaver’s underlings was standing in the middle of the room, making a loud racket.
“Which one of you hoes admits to this bastard,” the particularly nasty-looking man roared, shaking a small, naked child in his hands, holding him at an arm’s length from his body as if disgusted by the idea of the toddler touching his clothes. The child looked positively famished, not even bothering to open his eyes while he squirmed feebly in an attempt to free himself.
The slaver’s aide turned around and around, casting menacing glances at every woman in his vicinity.
“No one?! Well then no one must care if I dispose of him right here!”
Jaejoong stared, a sick feeling curling in his empty stomach as his gaze lingered on the child’s small fingers grabbing desperately onto nothingness. The malicious-looking man raised the little boy above his head, keeping a dramatic pause and letting his wicked gaze roam about the room. Everyone was nailed to their spots, holding their breaths, watching the impeding doom from the sidelines.
“He’s mine!” Jaejoong screeched plunging forward and then he froze, surprised at himself. The girls tied to him scampered along, grabbing at the roots of their hair, groaning. The slaver’s aide jerked around, casting Jaejoong a questioning look when he saw a young boy with shuddering knees standing at a two metres' distance from him. Jaejoong lowered his eyes, took a deep breath and raised his head again to glower at the slaver.
“I beg your pardon?” The slaver’s aide raised one of his eyebrows mockingly.
“Yes! I-I mean… Yes, he’s my— he’s my little brother!”
The man looked at him, shifted his eyes back to the toddler still struggling weakly against the large hands holding him, and again back to Jaejoong, who had started to chew on his lower lip, doubting his decisions already.
“Ha-ha! What a whore did you have for a mother, paleface. Well your people must be all whores since you don’t even know who your parents are, calling just about everyone your mother and father!”
The slaver’s underling released a magnificent chuckle, visibly delighted with his own discovery. Then he cleared his throat, “Are you seriously telling me this brown scamp was born from the same hoe as you were?“
Jaejoong winced but tried his best to keep his expression stable.
The slaver’s aide blinked at him for a moment, contemplating, until an amused smile twisted the corner of his mouth. He threw the child at Jaejoong, who once again leaped forward in order to catch the child safely, dragging the two unfortunate girls along.
“All yours, son,” he bit out, mocking the formal way of addressing of Jaejoong’s people.
“You better never do that again,” the girl next to him hissed, eyeing the slaver’s aide’s wide back drawing away and reaching her hand to pull her friend up from the floor. Her friend snorted and took hold of her hand.
“Even if you don’t care for your own life and well-being, which you obviously do not since you are willing to share your portion with a random kid—you are aware that children under three years old don’t get their own food, aren’t you—,” she gave the motionless child on Jaejoong’s lap a pointed look, “you have no right to get us killed along with you!”
“Hey. Hey, son.”
Gradually pulling him out of his restless slumber, Jaejoong realised the voice was talking to him. Raising his head carefully as not to disturb the girl next to him, he searched for the origin of the sound with hazy eyes.
“Why did you take him?”
Jaejoong focused his eyes on a bare-chested woman with a young body and an old face, much like all the other slaves. The woman was darker-skinned like the child in his arms, and despite his state of drowsiness, he made the connection quick enough.
“My firstborn, why did you take him?” she repeated, her steady but unreadable gaze on Jaejoong.
“Why didn’t you, mother?” he countered, suddenly feeling aggravated. The woman sighed.
“You are still so young, son.” She smiled wistfully and reached out her hand, gesturing in vague directions around her. “He is worth more than this, son. I was only trying to help him… You should know! You’re but a child yourself, son… But you should know.”
Jaejoong looked at her face and saw the truth in her eyes—she was truly trying to protect her son from the fate of a slave. Even so, he couldn’t understand. Maybe it was because he was still a child himself, but he had always felt a spark hidden inside him, a spark he had desperately searched for in the other slaves’ eyes, finding nothing to his great disappointment. Now, looking in the eyes of this young mother, he most definitely couldn’t find it there. All he saw was submission; submission to the slavers, submission to the circumstances, submission to fate.
“You defiant child.”
The mother of the toddler in Jaejoong’s arms shifted, grazing her eyes over her own baby and the other child, much too young to be responsible for a life of another human being.
“His name is Yunho. Take good care of him for me, son.”