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The Pie that Binds

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Part 1



Prologue



There's order in stone, even when it's the untouched areas of the mountain slopes, may it be jagged ridges or smooth surfaces; hot to the touch or cool, depending on sun and wind and weather.

Jared is not stupid. He knows that every living creature depends on plants and trees, but the woods – the deep green beyond the groomed parks and gardens – make him uneasy. Still, he doesn't stop, doesn't turn when his quarry crosses the lines into the untouched woods.

Tahmoh is right behind him, a steady presence, representing familiarity and safety. The other members of the hunting party are falling behind, their horses too slow and the horsemen too wary of the shadows under the tall trees. Jared doesn't care – the biggest threat he could face would be a wild boar, though they usually don't roam this part of the forest.

It's cool in the shade of the trees, the air pleasant after the stifling heat in the City. Jared and Tahmoh's horses are grunting and sweating, but don't lose their footing in the dense underbrush. Their hooves beat relentlessly against the moss covering the forest floor in thick cushions.

This is what Jared lives for, the rare hours of not being Sovereign, of not being forced to deny his own needs to serve a needy people. He's still young and wants to live his life on his own terms, but that's hard to do when you're Sovereign of a huge city and the lands surrounding it.

Beyond them is the wide, blue ocean – it sends fog and clouds inland, that become trapped in the sky-high mountains and never reach the regions on the other side. The City's water comes from streams and brooks that start in the south mountains, and are channeled inside its walls in ducts and canals, until they run through the woods and the steppe heading for the faraway sea.

Jared chases a young hind. She still has the long limbs of adolescence and the velocity of desperation, but Jared's arrow will halt her flight.

When there's no more room between the tree trunks for the horses to careen, and the danger of broken legs increases to near certainty, Jared leaps off without slowing down, darts between the brambles, still chasing his quarry.

He doesn't know what makes him stop.

Later, he will say it was the Kind Lady guiding him, who made him stop and listen and look.

Crawling silently over the moss, under the bushes, he reaches where he needs to be. Hidden securely away, he watches, and the more he watches, the more he wants.

Tahmoh joins him mere minutes later, breathing hard from his run after Jared, but Jared's breathing is now labured for a different reason.

~~~~~~~~~~

“You know I'd tie the knot with you in a heartbeat,” Matt says, petting slow circles on Jensen's belly.

Jensen nods sleepily. He can see rosy sunlight through his lids, feel it warm on his naked chest. The slightly calloused pads of Matt's fingers are soft on his skin, raising pleasant feelings in his groin.

Matt is a nice guy, and they have fun together. He has a bit of a temper, but he's courageous and smart, and also easy on the eyes. Plus, the Cohen clan is powerful in Jensen's tribe, and a union of the Ackles clan with the Cohens could be for the good of the whole tribe.

At the moment, though, Jensen doesn't want to think about tying the knot with him or anyone. He's content, lying in the sun, his stomach full of sweet berries.

Matt's humming, moving his hand down to Jensen's dick, which is already half hard awaiting Matt's ministrations.

“Wait,” Jensen says, placing his hand on Matt's. He looks into his friend's eyes. “You don't need to.”

“But I want,” Matt replies, “I really, really want.”

Then Matt's locking his lips with Jensen's, coaxing them open with his clever tongue, while his equally clever fingers cup Jensen's dick through his leather breeches, then loosen the ties to free it from its confines.

Jensen doesn't know whether he's guiding Matt's head down or Matt's leading him when Jensen's fingernails dig into Matt's scalp. It must be painful, but Jensen can't help it, and Matt hums around Jensen's dick with every lick and suck, so it can't be too bad. Then Jensen's brain stops thinking.

It is this – Jensen half-naked, blushed, skin glistening with sweat in the sunshine – writhing and moaning – getting head from his friend and lover – this seals Jensen's fate, because unbeknownst to him, there's a watcher hidden between the ferns.

He'd never think that the mothers' warnings to “be careful in the Woods” may apply to having sex in a clearing on a sunny day.



Chapter 1



The surface is smooth and hot under the palm of Jensen's hand, but there's nothing that indicates life – no movement, no heartbeat, no sounds.

Stone is lifeless, dead – so completely different from the forest soil or the tree trunks, from the babbling brooks or the rustling foliage. Still, there is so much life here, so many people – men, women, children. And so much noise.

The stone city is vast, with huge buildings painted in vivid colors and citizens dressed in traditional, multicolored wear. It's nothing like the brown and green of Jensen's Woods and his plain leather, which are more functional than pretty.

It's only a couple of hours, but Jensen is already homesick. He can't remember whose idea it was to take him to the city, so he can learn about the stone people. There are enough others to run for chief that are more suited than him – Danneel would have been a great chieftess – but Konrad took him when he decided to visit a friend, and now Jensen just wants to go back.

“You know, I brought you here to enjoy yourself,” his sire says.

“I know,” Jensen replies sighing. “It's just... it's overwhelming.”

“It is.” Konrad's hand pats Jensen's shoulder. encouragingly “But you need to be familiar with the stones and rocks of the city if you want to be a suitable chief one day.”

“I know.”

“The folk here are very different to ours, so you need to get to know them.”

“I know, Dad.”

“The males, however, are quite attractive.”

“Dad!”

A low chuckle indicates that Konrad is just teasing Jensen. With another pat to his shoulder, Konrad says goodbye.

“We will meet here in three spans,” he says. “Now go enjoy yourself.”

Jensen nods and watches his sire mounting the stairs leading to the upper part of the city, then he turns away and takes in the market bustle. So many unfamiliar impressions surround Jensen, pushing those thoughts to the back of his mind, that soon he's immersed in the crowd

There are stalls all over the square, traders vending every conceivable merchandise. There are higglers and hagglers, children and cattle, plus reputable and disreputable women, also merchants in furs, woolens, food stuffs, wood crafts, wrought-iron works, vegetables and pastries.

A group of men-at-arms wearing the guards' coats marches by, their leader tall, the men striking in grey and red leather.

The leader's clear eyes and Jensen's meet for a casual glance, and he's handsome enough – strong chin, broad shoulders – to spark interest in Jensen, which he has to ignore since the small group has already disappeared into the big crowd of townspeople.

Wide-eyed, Jensen passes by the rows of stalls, one next to the other, emitting countless colors and scents. A few of the things offered he recognizes since the Woodlanders trade with city dwellers, mostly game and furs for things they can't make themselves.

One of stalls attracts his notice.

An older man, clad in bright green and red robes, is selling cakes and pastries of all kinds.

One little thing, round and light brown, smells sweet and spicy and looks mouth-watering. Apparently, it's some kind of sweet bread with a fruity filling.

Jensen knows flatbread with berries and honey, but this is unlike anything he's ever had.

“Ah, young sir,” the merchant says with a slight twang, “Is your tongue in the mood for something it never tasted before?”

For a moment, Jensen is startled. Then he points at the round pastry, asksing, “What's that?”

The merchant explains, “This, young sir, is a sweet pie, filled with pears and elderberries, and seasoned with spices from the South. There's nothing like this in the whole City.”

Jensen hesitates. This little thing is teasing him, tugging at his tastebuds.

“It's only a small copper piece, young sir,” the merchant entices, “It's a very small price for such a delicacy.”

Ah yes, money. Jensen didn't plan on buying anything, so he didn't pocket any coins. But this little appetizing pie...

“Do you barter?” Jensen asks, thinking about what he has that he could barter with. The man doesn't look like he would be keen on arrows – that Jensen actually is not allowed to carry inside the city walls, but still does.

“Barter?”

“Excuse me,” a male voice from behind Jensen startles him. The leader of the guard shoulders past him to approach the merchant, exchanging words with him in a low voice.

Even though the guy's attractive, Jensen's now more interested in the delicacies before him and doesn't spare him thought.

The leader of the guard leaves after only a few moments, nodding a greeting towards Jensen, who's too lost in the pastry to notice.

The merchant addresses him.

“Would you part with that little necklace of yours in exchange for one of my most delicious pies, that make everyone in the City lick their fingers?” he asks, then adds, “young sir?”

Jensen's necklace? It's just a deer tendon with a few river mussels, one of those pretty stones the Heyerdahl clan digs up in the Southern hills and a couple of carved wood pendants, that Jensen's people trade in.

“My necklace?”

“Well... yes. It's a nice present for my little daughter since she loves mussels.” The merchant holds a pie out to Jensen, then another one. “Two pies?”

Two pies just for some mussels on a string? The sprig must be crazy about trinkets for her sire to barter them for his goods, but it's a deal to Jensen's liking. A moment later, he has two mouth-watering pastries, and the merchant looks equally pleased with their deal.

Jensen finds a clearing between all the stone buildings where there's grass and some trees. He sits down in the shade of a big oak tree and eats the pies.

Its top part is crispy, the lower part soft, and the inside... He recognizes pears and elderberries, but there's something else inside the filling that's just... indescribable. He certainly lacks the words to describe the taste.

The delicacies are gone too soon, leaving Jensen yearning for more. The next time he's in the city, he'll bring a pouch of river mussels. A really big one.

It's not yet autumn, but the position of the sun already heralds cooler nights. Right now though, it's still nice and warm, the sunshine tickling Jensen's feet while his legs and body rest in the cool shade.

Closing his eyes, he chases the pies' taste in his memory.

Jensen feels peaceful. He will meet with Matt another couple of times before making a decision about tying the knot with him.

Everything will be all right.

He is too content to open his eyes at the sound of advancing footsteps. The feel of cold steel against his throat startles him, however, and makes his eyelids fly open.

A tall man with bright eyes has a sword against Jensen's throat – the leader of the guard. He's surrounded by half a dozen warriors in slate gray and crimson garments, their swords drawn. They must be the city chieftain's men at arms.

“What...” Jensen starts, drawing further back against the tree trunk in an attempt to get to his hunting knife. However, he has no chance with the few arrows in his quiver and a knife, when his opponents are heavily armed and well trained.

“Shut up, thief,” their leader says, poking his blade into Jensen's skin. “You're under arrest.”

Jensen slowly moves his hands away fromhis weapons and splays his fingers. He doesn't want to die without a fight, but as things are, he has no chance fighting at all.

“Take him,” the leader says.

A soldier cautiously takes Jensen's weapons, two others grab Jensen. They twist his arms behind his back, using rope to bind his hands tightly, and pull him onto his feet.

Their leader sheathes his sword now Jensen doesn't pose a danger.

Jensen tries again to ask, but suddenly, it's dark, the sky gone. They've put a burlap hood over his head, and Jensen struggles for composure. The thing stinks, and there's not enough air reaching his lungs.

He's too busy trying to not freak out, so he just moves his legs as they haul him along.

His mind runs too fast to follow – what about his dad, what's happening, what about Matt, what do they want, how can he let his dad know, what do they want .

When Jensen stumbles over the cobbles or his own feet, the men drag him along uncaring of his difficulties.

He doesn't know where they're going, too busy breathing with too little air under the hood, but the noises finally change. He must be inside a big building – the soldiers' steps echo inside a stone hallway, while Jensen's thin leather shoes make hardly any noise.

When they finally stop, the stone floor's cold seeps slowly through the soles of his feet. Then the hood is removed.

Gulping in big mouthfuls of air, Jensen squints his eyes against the sudden light and takes his bearings.

He's in a room, which is made of stone of course, with high windows and stone benches, and there are wooden tables with men in dark robes that look like a type of uniform. One of them is sitting behind a huge table on a dais.

“Who's that?” the man asks, sounding kind of bored.

“A thief and crook,” the leader answers, writing something on a piece of paper and handing it to the man.

“No!” Jensen objects vociferously. “I'm not-”

A blow to his stomach forces him to his knees, knocking the breath out of his lungs.

“Shut up,” the soldier next to him hisses.

“Oh, a thief?” The man in the dark robe sighs, after reading and folding the paper. “Now this is an unexpected pleasure. It's not like there are never any thieves in my court room.”

Another sigh. “What did he do?”

“He stole pastries from Ashden, the baker.”

“Ashden? At least he has good taste.”

“I didn't steal them!” Jensen speaks up. It earns him another blow.

“No?” With a raised eyebrow, the man in the dark robe turns his focus on Jensen.

“We bartered,” Jensen wheezes, “I gave him my necklace for-”

“A necklace?” the man interrupts. “You want me to believe that Ashden gave you some of his goods in exchange for some worthless necklace?”

Bracing his arms on the table, the man stands and leans forward. “Do you think I'm stupid?”

When Jensen opens his mouth to argue, a blow to his head brings him down. Though he sees stars, he notices the silent communication taking place between the leader and the man, but he can't make sense out of it. Gods' Grove, he can't make sense out of anything that's happening!

“Ah well,” the man says, dropping back down in his chair, “I know you wood folk don't think much of personal property, so I'll teach you something. You're the Sovereign's property now. Take him to the zenana. Dismissed. Next.”

Jensen can't comprehend what has happened because of the pain behind his eyes. His stupid mind is too sluggish to think properly – his body too clumsy to put up a fight – and then the soldiers hoist him from the floor, which is stone and cold and inviting, and the leader turns to him.

His pale eyes remind Jensen of the sky before the rain starts to fall, threatening to drown the Woods.

The leader grins, “Soon, you'll meet your new god.”

~~~~~~

Today is worse.

During the past couple of weeks, he has been feeling unbalanced, haunted by the view of the two men having sex in the forest.

He was only able to see the blond one rather clearly – his face partly shadowed by the trees, his lips, glinting and wet with spit, half-opened in pleasure, his skin flushed and rosy.

Now Jared can't focus. He's nervous and itching to go for a ride. Also, he's been half-hard since lunch when slurping his soup reminded him of the noises the fair-haired guy made when the other one went down on him.

“You need to get laid, it seems,” Tahmoh teased when Jared couldn't stop fidgeting, but it was obvious that his friend worries about him.

It's nice outside, still warm enough for the windows to be opened. The clouds hovering over the mountains in the distance promie rain that will reach the City only as a slight rise in the conduit's water level.

Jared stares out of the window, putting more thought into a possible ride than into the problem at hand.

“She's of noble birth,” James Patrick says, “and I personally think three arms may be quite handy.”

“Hmmmh,” Jared hums.

“Jared,” James sighs, “you're not listening.”

“Hmmmh.”

“Your Majesty!”

Jared flinches, startled. “What? Sorry, James – I was woolgathering.”

“Yes, I noticed.” James' voice is scathing, and Jared feels a little guilty.

James takes this whole reign business so seriously. Though he's only the steward, he had acted as regent since Jared was just a snotty brat. Even now, when Jared is almost twenty summers old and grown up, James often has to pull the Sovereign by his ears to get his attention for state affairs.

Today's subject is especially terrible.

The politics of marriage. And breeding..

“You're old enough to have sired offspring in the zenana by now.” James stands with his arms folded in front of him.

The best way to tell his emotions, though, is his voice; inflection is traitorous, pitch is telltale.

Right now, James is pissed.

“But you're well aware,” he continues, “that none of these bastards are legitimate. If you care about your bloodline, you'll wed and father children in marriage, and soon.”

Sighing, Jared turns and leans against the window sill. He crosses his arms, mirroring James' posture.

He knows about the requirements to keep the royal bloodline alive. If he had dozens of children born in the zenana, none of them could be his heir, but he doesn't feel comfortable enough to find a companion.

He has distant cousins who live in the South and beyond the ocean. Some of them he has never met, others are guests on a regular basis, mainly to try to make him interested in marrying one of them.

In the end, it's up to him to maintain the monarchy.

The problem is – Jared is not interested in marrying. And he's anything but interested in women.

“I know, James,” he concedes. ”You've told me again and again. But this is such a huge decision, I don't want to be rushed. Or coerced.”

James voice goes softer, just a nuance. “I'd never do that, you know.”

Jared nods. James always was more like a father than a steward, keeping Jared safe, raising him.

“Nevertheless, you need to decide soon. Can you at least narrow down the choice?”

Jared sighs. There's no way around it, so he rifles through the stacks of paper on the desk and extracts five files of women he knows he could never be with and stay sane.

“There. Satisfied?”

“Absolutely. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Jared cringes at the title. It's James' way to rub in that there's no chance for Jared to escape marriage.

While James happily arranges and sorts the papers, Jared is just glad to have his peace for a week or so.

Turning to leave James' office, a movement outside the window, down in the castle yard, catches Jared's attention: City wardsmen are dragging an offender across the yard.

Jared can't see the man's face, but he sees that the man is lean, sees strong thighs and arm muscles flex under pale skin. It reminds him of the guy in the forest, a memory he already used way too often to jerk off to.

He has pictured his own tanned hands against the woods man's pale skin, holding his hips down, making him flush all over. As far as fantasies are concerned, those had been top quality.

Maybe he should find out who that guy is and search for him.

~~~~~~

Jensen desperately fights them on every step.

He didn't do what they accused him of, and he doesn't understand what's going on, but those sons of bitches are wrong if they think he'd just bow his head and keep still.

The men-at-arms drag him across a paved courtyard, through a wide, sturdy door, and up a flight of stairs.

Somehow he manages to loosen the ropes around his hands and takes advantage of fighting harder. Even five men trying to take a hold of him – Jensen keeps on kicking and punching and biting. The soldiers pay back in kind.

There must be a reason for them to not use weapons, but he's too busy to spare a thought about it. He's taking hits, and more than a few.

It's more a scramble than a fight. Still, he's scared that he won't get out alive if he surrenders, so he doesn't. His only hope is to get out of one of the windows lining the wall and down to the courtyard without breaking his back.

Casting off the soldiers Jensen frantically scrambles for the window. His fingers are digging into the sill when a heavy body slams into him from behind, and it's a reflex to buck it off.

It's also a reflex to grab the man's leather jerkin before he falls out of the window to his death.

This moment costs Jensen everything.

As a couple of soldiers go to their comrade's rescue, another one launches himself on Jensen, smashing his brow into the stone wall hard enough to daze him.

His finger nails scrape uselessly over hard stone until vice-like hands stop. The weight on his back forces him down and obstructs his lungs until it's pointless to try to breathe. Nice dark spots creep into his vision and his head hurts, so where's the benefit in staying conscious?

~~~~~~

“See, that's better,” she says.

Jensen grunts. He doesn't open his eyes, though. Doesn't want to because he has the feeling he doesn't like the world that exists outside his lids.

“Come on, sprig, open your eyes now.” The woman's hands are cool on his hot skin, stroking his brow and cupping his jaws.

He realizes that knows her, recognizes her from the touch of her fingers and the lilt in her speech.

“Danneel,” he breathes.

She chuckles good-naturedly. “Took you long enough. I should be offended by it.”

“I thought you were dead,” Jensen says, sitting up. He's somewhere with no colors and every color at once.

“I am.” Her beaming smile makes her look like dying was a nice thing to do on a summer night.

“Am I... dead, too?”

“No, stupid, of course you're not.” She slaps his arm. It doesn't hurt, not at all. Jensen's not sure he felt anything.

Danny is still as beautiful as she was years ago, her hair auburn like the autumn leaves, and she's radiating like the lakes on clear, crisp winter days. Her eyes, though, are blank.

“I don't remember your eye color,” Jensen says.

“That's because you never loved me the way I loved you,” she replies with a hint of regret.

“But I loved... love you,” Jensen protests.

“Like a sister, and that's not what I wanted.”

He drops his gaze. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be, sprig. That's just how things are.” Her voice is comforting, maybe hiding some tears, though. “Now wake up, you're choking.”

“What?”

“You need to wake up.”

And sure enough, Jensen's gagging and heaving, vomiting bile over his knees due to the strained posture he's in. Then he just slumps sideways, engulfed in dark and peace.

~~~~~~

“You're better now?” she asks.

“Danny?” Jensen's confused. It's definitely not Danneel's hands petting his hair, but the touch is soft and well-meaning.

Where are the guards?

“No, I'm Mother Devine. Open your eyes and look at me.”

He doesn't want to – the dark is cozy. Then the pain registers. Every inch of Jensen's body hurts. His head feels like it has been split open, and his shoulders are drawn back and held tight by something that blocks any movement of his arms or hands.

Mother Devine manhandles him – carefully, but forcefully – until he's sitting up straight, his arms still bound behind his back. When Jensen finally pries his eyes open and squints, there's an older woman kneeling in front of him.

Her eyes are kind, her skin is dark, and she smells like summer flowers.

“You poor boy,” she says, wiping his face with a pleasantly cool cloth. Jensen sighs in relief, his eyes falling closed again.

“No, no, don't sleep. You need to stay awake now.” She takes a small jar from a tray, that's sitting next to them on the floor. “I have something to ease the pain.”

The stuff inside the jar looks like the medicine Ida provides to the sick clanspeople.

Jensen studies the woman's face. He can't see clearly. There's too much noise and pain inside his skull, and too much light outside, but she doesn't look like she has evil intentions.

He nods.

The medicine tastes like Ida's, too.

Then she offers him water to drink, which tastes better than any water Jensen's ever had.

“Who are you,” he croaks. He clears his throat, continues, “Where am I?”

“Like I said, I'm Mother Devine, I'm the zenana mother, which means you're in the Sovereign's zenana, right?”

Jensen shifts uncomfortably. These damn fetters must be made from metal by the feel of them, they render his arms and wrists completely immobile.

What's a zenana?” he asks. He has never heard of it. He thought that city dwellers locked people in places called jail. Is this small stone room with the grilled window he's in a jail?

The walls are painted in bright colors, elaborately decorated with flowers and animals. The bed looks nice and comfortable, and next to a table and a couple of stools, there's a piece of furniture that's used to stow away things

If it wasn't for the grills and the sturdy door, it wouldn't look anything like a jail.

“It's where the Sovereign's Ladies, and sometimes Gents, live in the palace.”

At Jensen's blank stare, Mother Devine sighs. “All right. The Sovereign's a king, and his consort is a queen, right? He has to show not only his power and wealth, but also his virility. That's why there are a lot of beautiful people in the zenana who're available for all of his whims. And I, I'm the custodian. I take care of everyone living inside the zenana's walls.”

Slowly, very slowly, Jensen's tired brain catches up with what she's insinuating.

You mean they're – like – slaves?” he asks with growing horror.

She looks at him, ashamed or maybe scandalized, but she can't reply before the door opens.

The bright-eyed leader of the men-at-arms enters, and Jensen notices the muscles bulging under the leather uniform. It would not be easy to take him down – if Jensen could even get out of his fetters first.

Mother Devine leaves the room, taking the tray with her. Her place is taken by a couple of soldiers that grab Jensen, wrestle him down onto the bed, and fasten his wrists to the bed's wooden frame.

Clenching his hands, he can now see that the lower parts of his forearms are covered with metal bracelets intertwined in intricate designs and fixed to clasps that are embedded in the wood. There's no way he can get out of these bonds.

“I owe thanks to you,” the leader says. Glancing up, Jensen sees a severe look on his face. It makes his throat constrict.

“You saved Stephen's life,” the man continues. “So I will grant you reprieve until you're fully healed.”

“But... why?” Jensen asks the most important question. “I mean... Why am I here?”

“It's your punishment for stealing food.”

“But I didn't-”

“Enough!” Jensen's cut off by an angry gesture. “I'm fed up with you criminals claiming innocence.”

The leader angrily exits the room, leaving Jensen to his own confused thoughts for a few minutes. He can't think straight it seems – he's still hurting all over, but it's only a dull murmur now instead of the fierce roaring from before.

Jensen tugs at his bonds – to no effect. They're too solid, and he's too tired, exhausted even.

Another man comes in. He's old, maybe slightly older than Jensen's sire – Jensen's not sure. He can never determine people's ages correctly. Most often, he just leaves it at “elderly”.

The man looks surly, but not unkind. He kneels down next to Jensen, who tries to get away in a knee-jerk reaction.

“It's all right, son, I won't hurt you,” the man says in a bid to reassure. “I'm Jim, I'm here to take care of your injuries.”

“I'm good, there's no need-”

“Son, Mother Devine said you needed tending, so I'm going to tend to you. Believe me when I say you don't want to make acquaintance with her wooden spoon.”

Jensen's eyes grow impossibly wide. They use spoons to torture people?

“No, wait!” Jim says hastily. “I was only joking. It was meant as a joke!”

Jensen calms down, and Jim rubs a hand over his face, muttering, “Sweet Lady, I should be thinking more. In your situation, you're certainly not interested in stupid jokes.”

Jensen perks up his ears. “My situation ? What do you know about it?”

“Nothing! They didn't tell me a thing. I'm just here to attend your bruises.”

Jensen, though, can tell from the guilty look in his eyes that the old man knows more than he's saying.

Clearing his throat, Jim continues, “Anyway. I'll need to cut off the legs of your pants. You won't be allowed to keep them anyway, so I'll bring you some clothes later, all right?”

Jim works carefully, first cutting away Jensen's leather pants, and then bathing his limbs and torso with soft rags and warm water. Afterwards, he applies a fragrant salve to Jensen's bruises that are all over his body.

It's uncomfortable and humiliating, but Jensen soon realizes that Jim's touches are purely a matter of duty and, maybe, compassion, so he lies on the bed and can't help but relax and savor the ministrations with his eyes closed. His poor brain's too content to think much, so he just drifts off into sleep.

~~~~~~

Jared feels a bit fuzzy around the edges.

At the same time, he's so excited, he can't keep his legs still. So he just keeps drinking mead and wine, that has been sweetened to not kill his taste buds.

There's a fire burning in the fireplace. It's chilly in the evenings, especially in Jared's tower room, but he loves the view too much to move.

James is running out of patience, chasing him with paintings of beautiful girls and dossiers of rich women. Jared won't be able to put him off much longer.

“You know,” he says, his voice slurred, “I'd live in the forest if I could.”

“Hmm,” Tahmoh replies. He's not even half as drunk as Jared. “You know that the forest people are backward, don't you? They live in trees and wear animal skins. And they're morally compromised.”

“Uhm, what?”

Tahmoh sighs. “They marry just to bang someone, and then send their spouses packing.”

“You know damn well,” Jared takes another swig of mead, “that sometimes, I can't follow you when I'm drunk.”

“You can't follow even when you're sober,” Tahmoh says under his breath, also drinking from his mug.

“Hm, what?”

“What?”

Jensen has the impression that Tahmoh is only acting the innocent, but he feels too mellow to call him on it.

“I mean if I lived in the forest, James couldn't force me to marry.” Jared drops his head back, resting it on the back of the chair. “I know he wouldn't force me, but he's just... annoying me all the time. He knows I'll yield just to have my peace.”

“Do you really think living in the forest would solve your problem?”

Jared grunts. Of course it wouldn't. But it's a nice thing to fantasize about.

He always feels free, unburdened, when he's outside the City walls, even though it only lasts a few hours.

“What about the family zenana?” Tahmoh continues.

James turned his back on it since...” Jared sighs. “He has his wife and thinks bad about the Sovereign's Ladies. Seriously, did you ever discuss zenana with him? Don't.”

“I was thinking about Gents.”

Scrutinizing Tahmoh, all Jared sees is openness and concern. Of course Tahmoh knows , though they never mention it aloud. There's no discussion about the Sovereign's sexuality because there's nothing to discuss – Jared will marry, just like his grandfather and his forefathers, and keep the bloodline alive.

“Jim and Steven? I was riding on their knees when I was little. They're like... my grandfathers, I could never...” Jared shudders. “No.”

Sweet Lady, you're thick as a brick.” Tahmoh rolls his eyes. “Jared, you can re-open the family zenana. You can build your personal one and host all the boys and young men you want. This is acceptable because it's zenana.”

Tahmoh's right. It wouldn't be frowned upon to have a sexual relationship with a male if he was a zenana gent. But that's all it could be, a sexual relationship, and deep down, Jared wants more.

Besides, he'd still have to marry a woman – sire legitimate children, be a decent Sovereign. His life was foreordained either way, with no escape.

But when he thinks about the guy with the fair hair, everything seems possible.

Jared would abdicate and live in a little house in the forest. He would find the guy, and they would fall madly in love. Then they would live together happily and have sex all the time.

“You're thinking about him again, huh?” Tahmoh asks. “The guy from the forest?”

“Of course not!” But then Jared confesses, sighing, “Yes. Yes, I am. I can't get him out of my head, I don't know why.”

With a smug smile, Tahmoh says, “Maybe you should get your birthday present early, then.”



Chapter 2



It's been days, and most of the time, Jensen's alone with his mind, and he doesn't like what it comes up with.

One of the ideas he could live without is this new god the leader mentioned. Jensen doesn't know what – or who – he means, and he doesn't want to know.

Also he worries about his family. He can imagine what they are feeling right now. His mom must be worried sick, his father and his sire completely out of their minds.

Jensen can move about freely in the room now. His bruises are healed, and he's not bound, though he still wears the bracelets with small loops for chains to run through – the threat of fetters ever-present.

His efforts to get them off are equally futile as the ones to escape – the door's locked, and he can't break the grills. When he shifts the stool and stands on it, he can see houses, so many houses, but beyond all the stone buildings it's green. The tiniest bit of the Woods is visible, if he cranes his neck just right.

Sometimes, he hugs the wooden furniture, even when it feels wrong . They're too smooth, but they smell woodsy enough to remind him of his home when his eyes are closed.

To make things even worse, he's hungry – ravenous .

They had been giving him two meals a day, bowls of water to wash and empty buckets to relieve himself in.

Yesterday, though, there was no food.

The reasons that come into Jensen's mind are terrifying. The most probable one being that they'll starve him to death. He gets water to drink, though, so maybe that's not it.

Pacing about the room, he tries to ignore his gnawing hunger.

Suddenly, the door opens, and a tray is pushed inside.

Jensen rushes to the door, ignoring the lances pointed towards him from the outside. Impatiently, he waits for the door to close again so he ca n g et to the food on the tray. Finally , a meal! It's just some bread and cheese and a jug of stale water, but Gods' Grove, it's the best thing he ever had!

There's only a tiny bit of bread left when he starts feeling weird.

It's a good thing he's already sitting on the floor, but he feels better sliding down the wall and lying on the stone floor.

What's happening? Is he sick? Poisoned?

Sprawled out over the ground, Jensen thinks the ceiling is particularly pretty today. In all the time staring at it, he never noticed the delicate patterns in the plaster.

So very pretty .

The door opens, and Jensen's head floats to the side to see the Divine Mother come in. He can't help laughing.

“Oh, poor child, what did they do to you?” Mother says, eyes wet with unshed tears. The flowers on her dress are growing onto the floor and forming a nice meadow, covering the sparkling stone tiles, that are breathing slowly under Jensen's hands.

Jensen giggles, but growls when a man in uniform approaches. He doesn't like the tall man with the ice eyes.

“Sorry about the lack of food, but I had to make sure you eat all of it today,” says the snake that's coiling around his waist. It's a beautiful beast, and Jensen is fascinated at how its scales fall to the ground like snowflakes.

“The time has come,” the man announces. “Now you'll meet your god.”

Jensen's breath hitches. A god? They'll let him see a god ?

He jumps to his feet immediately, carefully avoiding the vivacious flowers. “Really?” he asks unbelieving, “A god? That's fantastic!”

“Come now, son,” Mother says. “You need to take a bath and put on some new clothes.”

“We'll go see a god, won't we?”

“Yes, son. Come now.”

She's ushering him outside. The corridor's so pretty with all the flowers everywhere, tickling between Jensen's toes as he bounces. He doesn't deign to look at the bears in uniform that escort them.

~~~~~~

Jared's mood is bad.

The weather has been awful lately, so he's been stuck inside the palace for too long. It didn't help that Tahmoh didn't explain this early birthday thing. All Jared wants to do, before turning in, is mope around, drinking too much wine in front of the fireplace and watching the flames.

He lets the door shut behind him and drops his embroidered vest to the floor, followed by his shirt with the puffy sleeves. He feels better without the restricting clothing – unfortunately, it's fashion.

Pouring water from the jug into the basin on the side table in the corner, he splashes some cool water on his face.

As he reaches for a towel, a noise from the next room makes him stop. Curiously, he walks into his bedroom.

His breath hitches.

Standing next to his bed, clad in a traditional wedding veil and little more, pale skin adorned with sparkling jewelry, there's the most beautiful male Jared has ever seen.

His skin shines in the candlelight, and Jared knows that the oils that are rubbed onto him are fragrant.

The young man's fingers twitch, tapping a silent rhythm against his well-shaped thighs. He's looking down intently and humming, but when Jared enters, he raises his head and smiles. His lips are plush and pink, and Jared would gladly spend an eternity in the Dark Cave of the underworld just to kiss that mouth once. His dick wants to do more than kiss. The alluring lips part, and the young man breathes a word that could be god .

Luckily, he's the Sovereign, and this gift of the gods seems more than willing.

“Who're you?” Jared asks excited. “What's your name?”

There's a short break as if he has to think about it, but then the man replies, “Yours.”

You mean, like in mine?”

The man nods his assent. “They said I'm yours. So, I'm yours.”

Then he smiles so perfectly that Jared's heart bursts with joy, and his dick swells with arousal.

“You're Tahmohs present, aren't you?”

He only gets a shrug for an answer, but that makes the veil slide down his wide shoulders to pool around his perfect toes.

Jared can't contain himself anymore.

“Mine,” he growls, wrapping his arms around hot flesh and pressing his lips against soft, plush ones, licking inside.

After only a moment's hesitation, the body in Jared's arms melts against his, and with a sigh, the other man's mouth grants access.

It's the best fucking kiss of Jared's young life.

Granted, he hasn't done much kissing yet. As the Sovereign, he's supposed to think about the line of succession first, and it wasn't worth the telling-off he got from James, who was disgusted. So it was only a few kisses with the stable boy, one of the kitchen boys, the son of one of the guards – and they didn't do much beyond some fumbling and groping.

When they part, the-man-called-Mine's lips are puffy and shiny, and he looks dazed, his eyes blown so wide they seem to be all black.

“Bed,” Jared orders, shedding his constricting breeches. Mine complies.

The duvet's colors make Mine's skin stand out, the candle flames make it look like honey.

Heedless of the gold chains and gemstones, Jared pulls everything off and drops them on the floor in order to get to the delicacy beneath, licking and nibbling everywhere he can reach. What registers are the vambraces Mine's wearing – ornate metal arm bands which are signs of submission and ownership.

Mine's skin actually tastes like roses and honey due to the oils rubbed onto it. The thought that it was Mine who oiled himself – spreading scented fluid all over himself – has Jared squeezing the root of his dick. He doesn't want to come yet, but his dick wants to go inside , and he believes the little fucker knows what to do.

Manhandling the.man-called-Mine onto his belly, Jared finds a new wonder right in front of him – the perfection of Mine's ass.

It's too much – Jared can't help blanketing the young man and humping the cleft between his ass cheeks. Enthusiastically, he bites into the soft flesh of Mine's shoulders, then smooths the pain over with licks and kisses. Nevertheless, the marks will be visible the next day, maybe even for a few days longer.

Mine's humming, the noise stifled by the soft pillows.

Jared's humping turns frantic. The warm flesh beneath him rubs exquisitely against his dick. It's all slick with his pre-come, and then the head catches against the rim of Mine's hole.

Jared comes harder than he ever thought possible, painting Mine's back in wet, white stripes, marking him further.

After a few moments of riding the high and coming down again, Jared rolls off Mine's body, dropping onto his back. With a very satisfied sigh, Jared falls asleep.

If he had spared just a glance or a thought beyond his own need , he would have noticed that his bed partner was asleep before Jared finished, that he never was very aroused, and thus, never came.

~~~~~~

Something's bothering Jared, but he can't tell what it is.

He's lying awake and staring into the dark. The room is not completely dark. There's one candle left burning, though his brain doesn't register the small amount of light at first.

Then he hears the crying – sobbing .

Sitting up, he asks, “Mine?” because he still doesn't know the young man's name.

The other man is standing in front of the south wall, patting and stroking the stone. His shadow dances with the movements.

“Mine?” Jared asks again.

No reaction.

“What are you doing there?” Jared stands and walks over to Mine, putting a soothing hand on his shoulder.

Mine's shaking all over. His body is cold and clammy. He turns, and his pupils are pinpricks in a sea of green leaves.

Beautiful eyes , Jared thinks, green like the forest , but then the enormity of the situation registers.

“Where are the trees?” Mine whispers, his voice hoarse and sick. “I can see them, but they're not here. Why are they cold? They're like stone. But I can see them, but they're not here.” Turning again, he continues running his hands over the wall.

“It's a mural,” Jared says, “see? The trees are only painted on the wall.”

In a last-ditch effort, Mine scratches at the plaster, scraping off paint. His fingernails are chipped, and to Jared's horror, he can see traces of blood.

“Mine,” he urges, taking the shaking hands in his. “Mine! Stop it!”

The other man all but crumples into Jared's arms. Raising his eyes and staring into Jared's, he asks confused, “Who're you?”

His breathing is labored and his face wet with tears, and still, he's more beautiful than Jared can ever hope to be. Mine lifts his hand to touch his own brow, smudging it with blood, and continues, “I was in the Woods, among the trees, home , and then there was only stone. Everywhere. Nothing but stone. Where am I? Who're you?”

What's Jared supposed to do ?

Jared's getting desperate. “I'm Jared,” he answers, “I'm the Sovereign, and you're in the palace. You came to me...”

“No.” Mine's shaking his head vehemently. “No, that's not right. I don't know you, I didn't come to...”

He trails off. The rest of the sentence is lost in silence.

Mine stares unfocused, right through Jared, until his eyes roll back into his head, and he slumps down unconscious.

~~~~~~

“You stupid fuck,” Jared hisses through his teeth and slams Tahmoh's back against the door. “What did you do?”

Mine lies in Jared's bed, the doctor attending to him because he's seriously sick .

While waiting for the doctor to come, Jared worked some linen pants onto Mine's unresponding legs with difficulty. He hadn't wanted to humiliate him even more by leaving him naked in front of others.

It took only a few moments for Riching to find that it was some kind of poison, which made Jared explode into Tahmoh's face when the guard commander entered the room.

“I didn't do anything!” Tahmoh slaps Jared's arms away and starts pacing the length of the room angrily.

“I just gave him something to... enjoy the night. I didn't know he couldn't stomach it.” He stops in front of Jared. “I just thought he was perfect to distract you from all the pining for that guy from the forest.”

“So... you just persuade him to have sex with... wait!”

Tahmoh lowers his eyes to the floor, looking decidedly – guilty .

Tahmoh, was he here of his own free will or did you force him?”

“Yeah, well...” Tahmoh tries.

“Sweet Lady!” Jared cries, rubbing a hand over his face. “You did force him! You just grabbed a guy from the street because he looks like another guy, and then you drugged him in order to be raped...” Jared's legs give out. He slumps down on the nearest seat and continues, “By me.”

“Jared, it's not... what you think it is!” Tahmoh kneels down in front of his friend, takes hold of both of his shoulders in a reassuring grasp. “He's a criminal. He was convicted and sentenced to the zenana, and I meant to let him go when you were done with him.”

Tahmoh's words are supposed to soothe Jared, but that's not happening, quite the contrary.

Jared stares at Tahmoh's face, and his horror grows with every breath.

“Ah, Lady, you need to breathe, Jared!” Tahmoh exclaims, shaking him, so Jared will draw in air.

“What's wrong?”

“Tahmoh, we don't...” Jared wheezes. “We don't use the zenana as punishment. It's an honor to live there. But... it was me, I was his punishment.”

Jared wipes furiously at his eyes, trying to not cry, while Tahmoh turns pale.

“Oh no,” he whispers. “Sweet Lady, no. I'm sorry... I never meant...”

What?” Jared can't believe what his friend just said. “Tahmoh, what did you do?”

The commander sits down heavily and rubs his face with his hands.

“I'm so sorry. These past weeks, you've been so sad, so...” He sighs. “You were pining for that guy you saw in the forest, and I just wanted to do something nice for you.” He looks at Jared, his eyes glistening with tears. “I never meant to hurt you. I just wanted you to have a good time for once.”

Jared puts a hand on Tahmoh's knee. “All my life you've looked out for me, you're my friend. But... Did you ever think about...” Jared hesitates. He still doesn't know Mine's actual name, so he indicates the man in the bed. “Him?”

Bowing his head, apparently ashamed, Tahmoh breathes, “No.”

Jared inhales deeply, lets the air out in a sigh. This affair is such a mess.

He feels so sorry for the poor man. What crime justifies this kind of sentence? The zenana was never used to make offenders atone for their crimes; it was supposed to be a cherished institution where the Sovereign's ladies and gents dedicated their lives to their king.

It still is considered an honor to be chosen for the zenana, even though it's been practically closed since Jared's father died. All James, who actually is not fond of that concept even though he uses it for the realm's sake, could do was administer until Jared was of age, but he wasn't interested in the women at all.

The man in the bed, did he know what to expect? Didhe know that the zenana residents can't refuse the Sovereign unless they're sick?

Does he know how gorgeous he is?

~~~~~~

Jensen was asleep, and now he's not.

At least he thinks he's awake, staring at the bland, cracked ceiling.

“Do you feel better?” a familiar voice pipes up.

Jensen remains silent, mulling over the question. He feels better, though he can hardly remember being sick. The hours – days? – before are shrouded in a veil that's sparkling and multi-colored.

He remembers blurrily the tall man with the strong hands, manhandling him, biting him – there .

Jensen finds the mark high on his shoulder easily, presses on it, hisses. That's the only thing, though, that's hurting. He may be feeling exhausted and faint, but apart from that, his body is fine.

He says, not looking at the woman, “You're the mother.”

“Yes, I'm the zenana mother. I care for everyone living here.”

Rolling his head now, Jensen turns accusing eyes on her. She looks old, older than the last time he saw her.

“I'm in charge of the zenana,” she says with tears in her voice. “But I can't refuse the Sovereign. He's the only one I have to bow to. Believe me, I tried to talk to Lord Penikett, but it was in vain.”

“Who?”

“The commander of the guard. He brought you here, said the Sovereign wanted to see you as soon as you were healed from the fight.”

She drops her gaze, fidgets with some rags in her lap. “You can't be forced into the zenana. It's an honor to be called, but you can refuse.”

“That's nice,” Jensen's voice drips with sarcasm. “Too bad no one told me because I WOULD HAVE!”

“The Lord Commander insisted in obeying the royal order. I urged him to ask His Majesty to give audience to me.” She wipes her eyes with one of the rags. “I tried. I really tried, but I failed.”

Jensen believes her. Reaching his arm, he takes her hand in his and squeezes.

Even if it doesn't change a thing about his fucked up situation, it still feels good.

~~~~~~

Mother Devine has a very charming daughter, Lisa, who has kind dark eyes and a shock of untamed hair and wears a lot of jingling gold jewelry, that makes her shine even more.

She saves Jensen from going stir-crazy.

Whenever he's alone in his room, his mind provides images from the night – short flashes of hands or lips or candles, but he never gets the complete picture. When he tries to picture the Sovereign, he feels awe and reverence and the need to drop on his knees, thinks about god and gorgeous , but can't see the face in his mind's eye.

The home sickness is even worse. He can feel it keenly slithering through his bones like a blind worm, making him sick to the stomach

Lisa keeps him company, telling stories about her life in the zenana and how it's different now that the Sovereign shows little interest in it. Apparently, the so-called family zenana is open for everyone that's royalty or the king deems worthy, so sometimes the Sovereign's relatives on a visit or ambassadors are allowed to use it. The personal zenana houses the official mistress or mistresses with their kids, but there are none at the moment.

She tells him about her mom's home, deep in the south, where she was a princess – a land of sun and sand and no trees. Lisa's never been there as she was born in the zenana. She'll never leave it and if she does, she'll just move to another king's zenana where she will be living at his every whim.

Jensen can't imagine a life like this.

And then he remembers his own life now. It looks very much like he has become what she has been since birth – a slave.

Lisa doesn't seem to be too sad, though. She nurses him back on his feet, keeps him sane, but still – Jensen thinks that she pities him and is just trying to raise his spirit.

He needs to get out. Surviving at a place where the air smells like dust and rocks, is not an option. He's biding his time, waiting patiently for his strength to return, for an opportunity to occur.

~~~~~~

Jared has to live with his shame.

All the time, his thoughts wander back to the poor guy he almost raped. No, he did rape him.

He was too tangled in his own vanity to question the guy's presence in his rooms, was thinking only with his dick.

He still doesn't know his name. Huh . Looks like even Tahmoh doesn't know it, which would be very weird given that he's the commander of the guard.

Now he feels the urge to go apologize, but at the same time, he doesn't want to. It would mean to look his shame in the forest-green eyes and admit his sins. Lady, this matter would condemn him to the Dark Cave if it wasn't for the fact that the Sovereign is also the High Priest of the Sweet Lady's Blessings, so all Jared has to do is an ablution to get rid of the Stain.

He still raped a man.

Besides, there's a solid reason to not see him that consumes too much of his time: a trade delegation from the Northern Lands.

Jared didn't know to expect their arrival – he would have known if he could be bothered to pay attention to business – and now he's stuck in negotiations he can't pay the necessary attention to.

What on earth is an Omund?” he asks Tahmoh under his breath, leaning back in his chair to get within earshot.

“Don't know,” Tahmoh replies equally low. “I think it's some kind of earl or duke.”

The members of the delegation are a wild bunch, clad in leather and pelts, with long beards and unkempt hair. Though their leader, Timothy, looks quite handsome with his groomed beard and shoulder-length hair, that's streaked with silver.

But, Lady, is he old !

They call themselves Whykings. What a ludicrous name! Apparently, though, it's absolutely essential for the Sovereign to form a liaison with them, so Jared bears James' admonitory looks whenever he wiggles in his chair in search of a comfortable position.

The next day, a tour of the palace including the zenana is planned, so there's no way to delay the inevitable.

The door of the guy's room is guarded, which puzzles Jared. There are never guards in the zenana; apparently this has something to do with the guy being a criminal.

When the door opens, he sees the guy sitting on the bed, Lisa on a small footstool in front of him.

He used to play a lot with Lisa. She's just a few years older, and he called her berry because that was what her mother does.

Both their heads turn towards him, and he staggers under the weight of their looks – the guy's stunning green eyes turning dark with horror, Lisa's growing hard with anger.

She stands without a word and leaves after granting the guy an encouraging smile and ignoring Jared on her way out.

Okay, what to say now?

“Uhm.” Jared clears his throat. “Hi.”

The guy just stares silently.

Again, Jared notices how beautiful he is – full lips, hair cut short like the forest people do, freckles .

“Uhm, well. I'm... I...”

“You're real!” the man blurts out.

“Excuse me?”

“I-I thought you were a figment of my imagination.”

Jared's baffled. What?

“Are you... a god?”

WHAT?

Then the guy gasps. “Gods' Grove, you're him .”

The reaction to his realization – his face falls in a completely different expression of horror – makes Jared sad. He usually cares little what people think of him, but it's something else this time.

Uhm yeah,” he stammers. “I'm the one who...” Raped you goes unsaid. “I'm the Sovereign, my name's Jared.”

The guy keeps silent, though, just stares at him with burning green eyes.

Jared doesn't expect him to salute or bow because... well, because . But he feels uncomfortable, scrapes his foot over the floor, still feels the need to squirm under the scrutiny, so he drops down on the footstool Lisa occupied before.

He wants to talk to the man – communicate. Yes, communication is good .

How to begin, though?

“Uhm – why would you think I were... a god?”

Suddenly the eyes are gone, cast down to the floor. Fingers are fiddling with the tunic's hem Gorgeous Guy's wearing, and Jared admires the long, nimble digits.

“I-I... uh. I don't know.” The voice is deep and makes shivers run down Jared's spine. Then he recognizes its tone, and the shivers vanish, leaving behind only knots in his stomach.

“I don't remember much from... that night. It's mostly colors and... feelings. Someone said you're a god, and I... I was...”

Jared doesn't even feel the tear drops rolling down his cheeks when he says, “I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, I didn't know they drugged you.” He sniffles. “I should have noticed, but I didn't, and I-I-I...”

He sinks down to his knees, hides his face in his hands, crying.

“Forgive me. Please, forgive me.”

Jared flinches at the hand touching his shoulder, the fingers' heat warming his skin beneath his clothes.

Looking up, through a blur of tears he sees leaf-green eyes, that are serious but not hateful, and he hopes .

For a few moments, only breathing can be heard.

Then Gorgeous Guy says, “Jensen. My name's Jensen.”

~~~~~~

So that's what a king looks like?

Jensen recognizes the young man the moment he lays eyes on him. His heart skips a beat, he gets sick to his stomach, but later, when he learns who he is, Jensen still is disappointed, just a tiny bit deep down.

Whenever someone spoke of the city's Sovereign, he pictured a tall man with a beard and broad shoulders who looks... well, regal . But the person in front of him is just a boy , even younger than Jensen.

He doesn't look like a king at all with his shaggy hair the color of chestnuts and his face's smooth skin and those sad eyes – he doesn't look like a god either. Jared's still tall and lean, though certainly promising an imposing figure once he's fully grown.

Jensen can't comprehend how he came up with the idea of this boy being a god. However, his mind contains some pretty big holes of the last days, and what he does remember is mostly blurry.

It's difficult to combine the larger than life god with the crying Jared next to him.

Somehow, they both end up sitting on the floor side by side, their tears dried and their stories shared.

“You're going to be the chief?” Jared asks wide-eyed.

Jensen can't remember anyone in his tribe with eyes equally expressive as those before him – ever changing, never the same color of brown and blue and grey.

“No,” Jensen answers. “I'm just groomed to become chief like everybody else. The tribe selects whoever they think suitable.”

You mean everyone can be chief?”

“If they're suitable and up to the expectations, yes.”

“Even – the girls?”

“Of course. Why wouldn't they?”

“This is just... I mean, I wouldn't be Sovereign if it wasn't for my family...” Jared sighs. “The title is hereditary, passed on by primogeniture. I had three older brothers, so I never would be considered crown prince if they still lived.”

“I'm sorry. Growing up all alone, it must be very hard.”

Don't be.” A small, sad smile is tugging at Jared's lips. “I was too little to remember them, and I never was alone, not really. James Patrick, the steward, was like an uncle to me, and I had playmates and Mommy Devine.”

Playmates . Jared didn't say friends , didn't he have any?

Jensen's tribe is more like a tight-knit family, relying on each other so everyone survives the harsh winters. He has many friends; some of them are like his brothers, some he lost to sickness and hunger.

And then there was Danneel who was his twin sister from another mother. He was devastated when she died, still feels the pain of her loss daily, but if he never knew her at all – the thought is saddening.

“Jensen?”

Noticing that Jared asked a question, Jensen pulls himself together. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“Why're you here?” Jared repeats, his voice unsure.

Ah, that's what Jensen wants to know too.

“Don't know.”

“I mean...” Jared sighs. “It's considered an honor to be a lady of the zenana, to live here is not punishment. So, well, what did they sentence you for? What did you do?”

Yeah, your Mother already told me how honorable it is to be here.” Jensen utters through gritted teeth. “You want to know what I did? I tell you what I did!”

He jumps to his feet, starts pacing in the small room, gestures agitatedly. “I was sitting under a tree when the guard jumped me, accusing me of being a thief and hauling me to court.”

He stops, turns, stabs his finger in Jared's face. “So you know what I did? Fucking nothing ! I paid for my food!”

Jared looks completely baffled. “What...? I don't... understand?”

Then I'll use simple words,” Jensen spits. “I bought pies at the market. I paid for them with a necklace my niece made for me. The merchant was okay with it. Then the guard came, and their... commander said I was a thief because he never would sell his goods for some trinket. And as the next thing, I found myself in this room and being treated like a slave.”

The commander... you mean Tahmoh?” Jared asks incredulously. “I can't believe-”

If that's his name – yes.” Jensen crosses his arms in front of his chest, looming over the Sovereign who's still sitting on the floor. “Believe me, he did this to me.”

Jared climbs to his feet, looks at Jensen with a curtain of tears veiling his eyes. He stammers, “I-I'm sorry, Jensen. I'll... fix it. Trust me, I'll fix it.”

He hurries out of the room, yelling “Get the fuck out!” to someone, and Jensen is alone in this jail room with the door open for the first time.



Chapter 3



The zenana is an odd place.

The first tentative steps Jensen takes outside the walls to which he has been confined show him rooms and halls made of stone that pretend not to be rock. Trees and animals are everywhere: painted on walls, made of little pieces of stone on floors and ceilings – Ida called those mosaics , he remembers.

Even some windows are painted onto the plaster, allowing glimpses of painted landscapes. Others are covered with glass, hard and see-through, tempting him with promises of sky and freedom, but withholding both of it.

Many of the rooms seem unoccupied, emptied of furniture, as if there used to be more people living here. He can't find an exit, only doors and hallways leading further into the building, and he's genuinely happy to run into Mother Devine, who takes him to get some decent food into his stomach.

The zenana's residents are gathered in a room with a large hole in the roof that Mother Devine calls an atrium. Everyone's lounging on couches or cushions, and there are large trays full of food between them.

Jensen estimates that there are about thirty women and girls, though it's hard to count because they walk in and out of the atrium. They wear colorful, flowing robes and tunics and clunky gold jewelry, that's jingling and twinkling with every move. There are only a few children, most of the women are at least Jensen's age or much older.

Mother Devine makes him sit on a comfortable cushion and shoves a plate into his hands. The food is definitely better than the stuff he was given before. There are cold cuts of meat and hot stew, cheese and bread, spicy vegetables and sweet fruits, also a wide choice of pies that turn his stomach – no way he's going to touch any of those.

No one makes a fuss about Jensen's presence, even the children seem to ignore him, only sneaking a peek at him when they feel safe.

“So, did Jared come back to his mind and let you go?” Mother Devine asks from the deep cushions next to Jensen.

He swallows the morsel of beef in his mouth. “I don't know,” he answers truthfully. “He was very upset.”

“Ah, that's good. He lives in a cocoon here and sometimes, he just needs a healthy bit of reality shoved in his face.”

Jensen studies her face. There's a small, affectionate smile playing on her lips.

“You raised him, didn't you?”

“Yes,” she replies, her mind far away, visiting past times. “He was a cute little boy. I know I shouldn't be saying this about the Sovereign, but he never grew into the role.”

“He is still your little boy?” It's not a question, not really, because it's apparent how fond Mother is of the Sovereign.

“Yes. He used to call me mommy. He played with Lisa and was best friends with her until he was old enough to say that girls have cooties.” She chuckles. “Even then, he kept on stealing into here, getting up to nonsense with her.”

“But he never... bedded her?”

She looks at him, horrified. “No! He wouldn't dare!”

For a moment, Jensen's silent, thinking about the odd reaction. “Why? She can't refuse the king, and as you said yourself, it's an honor. So – why ?”

She doesn't answer, stares straight on, and Jensen's glad that no one's near enough to listen to their conversation. Mother Devine is nice to him, and he wouldn't want to hurt her unnecessarilly.

Leaning closer to her, he asks under his breath, “They're siblings, aren't they? Not just by law, but actually elated?”

Her shoulders slump. “They are. I never told them.”

With a deep breath, she continues, “You know, I was a princess back home, and Jared's father, King Luther, valued my opinion when it was about the Southern Lands. He always knew how to cherish the ladies and employ them to the state's advantage. But, with the steward, I... I never felt safe to tell anyone. The City has undoubtedly thrived under his regency, but he never forgets what's to his personal benefit.”

She puts a warm hand on Jensen's arm. “Every child born in the zenana is considered the Sovereign's. Jared thinks of Lisa like a cousin, but if I told him she's his true sister, he'd never let her fulfill her duty.”

“Her duty? What's that?”

“To leave. Go wherever the Sovereign tells her to go in order to cement alliances. So I'm begging you – please don't tell.”

Jensen looks into her dark eyes, sees desperation and affection. He doesn't understand why she wants her daughter to trade one cage for another, but he can't deny her request.

He nods.

Mother Devine smiles at him gratefully and then, thank the Skies, the awkward moment is broken by someone laughing.

Jensen resumes eating.

The conversation makes him think. The zenana mother concealed the fact of Lisa being his sister from Jared, the commander of the guard didn't tell him about Jensen's capture – how much does Jared – the Sovereign – know about what's going on?

As the chief of state, he has to rule – his youth can't be an excuse for staying out of government affairs – or was it a deliberate deception on the part of his advisors?

Jensen doesn't care. It's not his job to tell a king how to do his job.

~~~~~~

Jared's fuming.

He charges into Tahmoh's rooms and finds him in the arms of his wife.

She may be a beautiful woman, but Jared never took to her. She takes one look at his face and disentangles herself. leaving with a small bow towards him.

Jared stops just shy of poking Tahmoh's face with his nose and stabs a finger painfully in his ribs.

“You're so deep in the shit,” he hisses. “You may be drowning in it.”

He keeps on stabbing, because the alternative would be throwing punches.

So you charged Jensen, an innocent man, and got him sentenced to something that never happened before. You drugged him. Why? What for? And don't you dare tell me you did it for me, because I'll rip your lungs out if you do!”

Tahmoh's eyes are red-rimmed, he looks pale and shaken.

Good .

With a deep breath and a deeper sigh, Tahmoh slumps into a chair.

“But I did,” he confesses. “I wanted you to at least have once what you needed.”

Looking up at Jared, he continues, and Jared can see the sincerity in his eyes.

I know you're not into females, and I know you'd never act on your feelings. You'd marry a woman out of this sense of duty of yours and be unhappy all of your life. You were pining after the guy from the forest, and then, a man who just looked like him fell into my lap. I just thought if you had a man once you could see to your own needs, and if he was a zenana gent, there'd be no harm done to your position.

There are different ways to fulfill your duty as sovereign, but you never listened to me. You want to be a king he can be proud of, and that's good. But it would make you unhappy in the long run because you'd deny your own needs. I can't let you destroy yourself. I can't.”

Jared is...

He can't keep his legs working. Thankfully, there's a chair where Jared's falling down.

“I-I'm... Oh fuck. It's my fault.”

“NO!” Tahmoh quickly reassures him. “No, it was my decision. And you're right, I didn't think about him, about the consequences. I didn't know the drugs could hurt him. I just wanted to make it easier for him.”

Jared can't make his throat work properly. All he can manage is a whisper. “His name's Jensen. He lives in the forest, just outside the City walls. He was accompanying his father.” Jared snuffles. “He trusted us to be safe here, and we betrayed him.”

The realization is painful – maybe it's a regular thing for kings to feel like an ass, but it's the first time for Jared. It's not one of those Jared, you're an ass feelings – he'd had enough of those – but this time, it's Your Majesty, you are a royal ass .

I betrayed him.” Because he was not being a king – was not interested in his people's fates and fortunes, didn't want his royal duties to interfere with his whims.

Jared is nothing but a spoiled brat.

Not any more, though.

He wipes his nose on his sleeve, stands and looks at Tahmoh with determination.

“Arrange his release and bring him to me so we can talk about reparations. Go, now!”

Tahmoh stands as well. He's pale, but his eyes are shining with something like... pride ? He bows and leaves Jared alone to his guilty conscience.

Sadly, his attempt at drowning the loud voice of his conscience in a goblet of wine fails, so in the end, he just sits in front of the fireplace, looking at the cold ashes.

He startles as the doors fly open, banging against the walls.

Tahmoh rushes in, clearly upset.

“I can't find him. The man from the forest...”

“Jensen?”

“He's gone.”

~~~~~~

Jensen's pleasantly full.

The food's good, but he's not quite sure what to think of the company.

He feels too shy to start conversations, and the women keep to themselves – possibly they've been instructed to keep away from him.

After the meal, Mother Devine excuses herself for some duties that can't to be postponed, so she points him the way to the gents' section of the zenana.

Since there are so few men, she told him, they usually join the women for the meals, but there is a foreign delegation in the palace that to which they had to attend. It explains the barely imperceptible nervousness all over the place – everyone seems to be happy about the change in their daily routine.

So, Jensen's alone – again . His path is crossed by a few ladies and servants, but they usually ignore him.

First, he's chained to the room, then he's left all alone – can't they make their minds up?

Wait, wrong question – Why can't they just let him go?

If Jensen were the Sovereign, he'd hold the reigns of government tightly. There's some good chance, however, that he'll be chief one day – so now he knows what to not do.

Huh . Looks like Jeff was right when he kept on saying watch and learn .

He's clearly in a different part of the palace now. The wall decorations, that changed from murals to hangings, are clearly supposed to impress, and in front of doorways are guards he feels no need to approach.

A young woman's bow startles him out of his thoughts.

“The bath is right here,” she says, apparently mistaking him for someone else. “You're late.”

He walks through the door she indicated – and stops dead, amazed.

It's a big room, lined with colorful mosaics depicting fishes and what he thinks are strange creatures of the sea. There are two man-made ponds, the bigger one filled with steaming hot water – and a dozen men. They're tall and well-built, broad-shouldered and long-haired, and Jensen's immediately backing off. He has no chance against one of them, let alone a dozen.

His back hits a warm, breathing wall.

“Oh, look what we got here!” says a man witha deep voice and a strange accent.

Someone else replies, but Jensen can't understand because of the accent. The only thing he hears clearly is entertainment .

Strong hands wrap themselves around Jensen's biceps, pushing him forward, and he has no choice but to obey.

One of the men, dark hair streaked with silver, gets out of the water. Rivulets run down his muscular body. He's painted with dark signs and symbols.

“You're a shy one?” the stranger says with a hint of amusement. He's taller than Jensen – every man in the room is at least as tall as Jensen and heavily muscled.

“I'm... I'm not...” Jensen doesn't know what he wants to say, he's scared stiff.

The stranger leans closer as if scenting Jensen, who shrinks back – unfortunately against the wall of flesh behind him.

“Virgin,” is the verdict, which makes the other giants holler and catcall.

“No. No, no,” Jensen stammers, starting to sweat. “I'm not... a gent. I don't belong to the zenana.”

The bearded stranger laughs. It's deep and scary.

“Sweet boy, you definitely belong here,” he says, eyes flashing. Then he grins, his teeth white and dangerous, and cups Jensen's genitals through his thin linen breeches.

Jensen yelps, terrified, and tries to escape the confining arms.

The men laugh.

Feisty,” Jensen's adversary notes. “I like that.” Then he announces to his brothers in arms, “He's mine.”

They reply with more hollering and what are probably lewd comments in a foreign language. It gives Jensen a chill. He has to get away.

Unexpectedly, he slumps down bonelessly. He turns away from the giant behind him and grabs a long sword from the bundle of clothes on the floor. He holds the weapon with both hands, taking a defensive stance, keeping the men at distance.

They laugh.

They fucking laugh at him .

The leader grins smugly. “My sweet boy, maybe you think you are a fighter, but you have never wielded a vyking sword.”

That's true – the thing is fucking huge and heavy. Jensen needs both hands and all of his strength to just hold it – there's no way to fight with it.

A moment later, the leader moves quicker than a man of his age and physique should be able to. He pushes the blade aside and backhands Jensen so hard he's tossed against the wall. His head hits so violently, he feels light-headed and weirdly detached. Then he's lifted, thrown over a shoulder and carried away.

Jensen tries to grasp a solid thought, but the little bastards are slippery. All he can think about is the embarrassment of being treated like a prize and how much he hates his life right now.

The next time Jensen opens his eyes, he's on a broad bed. The warrior stands in front of him, his arms crossed before his chest, still dripping water on the floor.

For the first time, Jensen notices – really notices – how stark naked the vyking is. A menacing erection juts out of the dark nest of his pubic hair. Jensen scrambles backwards until he's pressed against the bed's carved headboard.

“Welcome back, sweet one,” the giant says, “Now you will be able to enjoy some true vyking virility.” Two grand strides is all it takes for him to reach the bed.

Jensen's immediately off the pillows and standing on the other side. This is something he's familiar with, It feels like playing with his cousins – if you take into account that he's fighting for his physical integrity, not for the biggest share of Ida's treats.

The stranger rushes around the bed. Jensen jumps over the covers, keeping the piece of furniture between them.

He dares to glance towards the door. It's only a few paces away, but he'd have to come too close to his opponent for his liking.

The other man chuckles. “If you like playing games,” he says, “I know quite a few both of us would enjoy better.”

“Yeah?” Jensen replies. His head still hurts like a bitch. “I doubt that.”

He starts for the door, swerving left at the last moment to run to the window instead – in vain, though. He jumps for it, and a strong hand grips his foot. Unable to break his fall, he hits the floor at full tilt., unable to protect his head in time.

There's no time for hurting. Jensen's attacker is already on him, so he turns onto his back, which brings his throat right into one of the strong hands' grip, the other one holding his left wrist down.

White spots dance in his vision, Jensen tries to loosen the fingers digging into his soft skin, gasping for air. His fingernails scrape fruitlessly over the guy's arm.

Based on the way he's nosing and licking Jensen's face and humping his body, the giant evidently doesn't want him senseless. Still, Jensen's barely hanging on to consciousness.

Then his breeches are being torn and ripped.

Jensen's lifted off the floor and manhandled onto the bed and onto his stomach.

~~~~~~

Jared's livid, his rage fed by the wine he'd consumed earlier and worry.

He rushes through the hallways in long strides. A guard of six tries to keep up with him.

Frightened, the ladies in the zenana scatter in all directions.

“Where did he go?” he roars.

A few fingers point to the visitor's bath, and Jared is off like a storm cloud.

The Whykings are in the hot pool, laughing and chattering in their own language. They rise at Jared's tumultuous entry.

At any other time, Jared would appreciate the view of those muscular bodies, pale skin adorned with black ink. Now, though – Now he's yelling.

“Where's Jensen?”

The Whykings whisper with each other, hopefully discussing Jared's request.

One of them, that Jared remembers as being the second-in-command, replies, “Do you mean the young gent with short hair?”

“Yes! But he's not a zenana male. Where is he now?”

The warrior points to the hallway leading to the guest rooms. “Omundson took him there.”

Omundson ... Jared's mouth goes dry. If Jensen's alone with a Whyking, Jared doesn't want to imagine what may have happened to him.

He storms down the hallway, barging into room after room, but there's no Jensen. The more rooms he finds empty, the more his temper rises. Finally he bursts into the right one.

“Omundson!” he screams, infuriated.

The naked Whyking leader is on the bed. Interrupted by Jared's entrance, he stops doing something that Jared doesn't want to get too close to, and stands.

“Omundson!” Jared repeats. It sounds like a growl this time, because he can see a head with tousled, dark blond hair on the bed, a hand slowly moving – naked thighs.

Omundson draws himself up to his full height. It makes his fat dick prominent.

Jared swallows. Sweet Lady, have mercy on Jensen .

King Jared,” he says, no reverence in his voice. James had told Jared that Whykings only acknowledged self-earned merits – that's why they treated him, a young Sovereign who had inherited his title and position, as nothing more than a spoiled brat.

Jared tries to force his agitation and anger down.

“Omundson,” he says. “There has been a mistake in administration. This is not a gent of the zenana. He's not available.”

The envoy looks calmly at the Sovereign and his guards. He points to Jensen's arms and says, “There was no indication for me to assume otherwise.”

Jared takes a moment to notice that he refers to Jensen's cuffs. What's he supposed to say?

Omundson strides out of the room, his head held high. The guards part for him.

Jared follows him with his eyes, He can't imagine possible repercussions from this incident, but they're irrelevant.

Once the whyking is out of sight, Jared turns to the body on the bed, approaching it cautiously.

IJensen lies on the rumpled sheets. There are angry, dark fingerprints marring the skin around his throat.

“Jensen?” Jared asks

Jensen doesn't respond, looking unfocused over Jared's shoulder and gulping in air greedily.

“Get the doctor!” Jared commands.

~~~~~~

The next morning, Jensen startles awake.

He's not in the zenana room he already knows. This one is much more furnished and richly decorated – it's good enough for a king.

Outside, it's mostly dark, but with pale pink streaks in the night. The Sun God is just beginning a new day's cycle.

Next to Jensen's bed, someone sits in a wingback chair, snoring quietly. To his surprise, Jensen recognizes the Sovereign – Jared.

His mind is still fuzzy, but he tries to recall yesterday night and comes up with pain .

His throat hurts, the skin tender under his fingertips. Someone has rubbed an ointment on his bruises.

Jensen sighs. What has he done that the gods think he needs to be punished? Maybe, though, it's just some very bad luck that brought him here – he doesn't think he's important enough for the gods to get involved in his life.

“Wake up,” Danneel says, “you need to wake up.”

What... Danneel ?

There's a female person huddled against the bed side. The morning light only just illuminates her face, but Jensen can see the brown eyes very clearly. Her face is familiar, yet unknown since it's less chubby – more grown-up – than the last time he saw her.

“Danneel?” he asks unbelieving. He sits up, placing his feet firmly on the ground. Facing her.

He knows he's awake, but is he really? Is this just another cruel dream leading him to believe she's alive?

“Bright sun, is this you? Jensen?”

Yes, it's me. But... you are... I thought you were dead!”

“What's going on?” another voice pipes up sleepily.

Danneel – the woman who maybe really is Danneel – gasps. “Your Majesty.”

Jared rubs his eyes, looking all about five years old. “Danielle, what's going on?”

Turning his head left and right, he looks at the two of them. “Do you know each other?” he asks confused

“Yes, Lord Sovereign,” Danneel replies. “This is Jensen, my fellow. We grew up together.”

Jensen's brain is slowly catching up. “Danny, you mean... you live here? But we thought you dead ! We thought you drowned in the river! In the flood !”

“I did!” she assures him. “At least, I was drowning, but the commander of the guard saved me.”

“Tahmoh?” Jared asks.

“Yes. He didn't let me go, made me his wife.” She turns to her long-time friend. “Jensen, believe me, I was so homesick, but he didn't let me go.”

He sees tears in her eyes and can't help gathering her in his arms, like he did when they were just little sprigs, but she wriggles out of his embrace.

“We don't have time,” she says and turns back to the Sovereign, gripping his hand in a gesture of urgency. “You need to leave, immediately, both of you. They are attempting a coup.”

Jared grows pale. “Who?”

“The steward, Lord Patrick. And those emissaries from the north.”

“James? He'd never... I can't believe he'd...”

“It's true, my lord. His wife, Ruth, overheard them. You know she's loyal to her husband, so when she tells me such incredible news -news that endangers Lord Patrick – it's bound to be true.”

Jared sits down in his wingback chair and breathes out a deep sigh.

Jensen keeps still, doesn't breathe in order to not disturb Jared's thoughts.

Then the Sovereign looks up, determination written in his face.

“We need to talk to Tahmoh,” he says.

Danneel shakes her head. ”I can't. He'll be mad at me.”

“He won't, I promise. He can't be mad at you for saving the Sovereign's life.”

Hesitantly, she nods. “For saving your life.”

~~~~~~

They rush to Tahmoh's rooms as stealthily as possible on paths that are little used this early in the morning.

Something's going on, that's for sure. Jared can sometimes hear the clang of arms and cries of pain, however muffled. His companions can hear it too – Jensen's face is pinched, and Danielle's is too pale.

Tahmoh's buckling on the last part of his armor when they reach his rooms. He turns towards Jared and sinks down on one knee.

“My Lord, it's not safe...” he begins, then notices his wife. “Danielle? What...?”

“It's Lord Patrick, he's rebelling,” Danielle replies breathlessly.

“WHAT! How do you know?”

“Ruth told me. She heard the steward and those morthern emissaries plot against you.”

Tahmoh curses. “I knew it! That fucking bastard really seized the chance.”

Jared grabs Tahmoh's shoulders, forces his focus onto him. “What the fuck's going on?”

The commander's hand lands heavily on Jared's arm. “I suspected James of conspiring against you for a long time. As you’re nearly old enough to end his regency, he never wanted to lose the power he had to you – maybe even planned to be Sovereign one day.”

“But – he can't! He's not blood-related.”

“Ruth was always scared she'd get chased off.“ Danielle pipes up. “If he'd marry the queen, your widow, he'd be Sovereign.”

Jared's head spins. Is this the reason behind James' insistence on Jared marrying so quickly? Sure, the women James had chosen for him were never his type... Could it really be true?

Can we stop yapping and decide what to do?” Jensen's angry. He looks pale, and Jared remembers that he's facing Tahmoh for the first time since he regained his freedom – or something close to freedom, that is.

“The night guard alarmed me of the Northerners going on a rampage.” Tahmoh seems uncomfortable in the forest man's presence, and Jared doesn't feel bad for him at all.

Tahmoh continues, “But if it's really the steward that's behinf the revolt, we can't trust anyone save for the personal guard. You have to get out of here, Jared, you're not safe.”

But this is his home – he's the Sovereign, and this is his home. He can't slip away like a thief in the night when his people need him.

“JARED! You need to go!” Tahmoh snaps at him.

Maybe he's right. Jared's not good at fighting in real combat. He feels overwhelmed at the possibility of actually killing someone.

“Yeah... you're right,” he admits. “But where...”

“On behalf of my father, the chief,” Jensen interposes, “I offer protection to the Sovereign and everyone asking for it. On condition of Danneel coming with us.”

Danielle's – Danneel's face brightens. It's like the morning sun painting light and color onto her cheeks and into her eyes.

“What. NO!” Tahmoh exclaims.

She glaresat him, and he recoils, shrinking and shriveling until all that's left is a broken man.

If you'd asked me to stay with you, when you pulled me out of the water, I'd have considered it, but you ordered me. You kept me like a prisoner, claiming you loved me.”

“But I do! I do love you!” Tahmoh protests desperately.

“No, you don't. Maybe you think so, but that's not love. So now I'll take the kids and leave.”

He looks at her for a moment, looks at Jared. Then he nods.

In the conference room, there's a secret door,” Tahmoh says, turning to Jared. “Patrick knows about it, too, so you'll have to be careful. I'll give you guards to escort you.” And my family goes unsaid.

Jared nods. “I'll be careful,” he says.

“I'll come for you as soon as possible,” Tahmoh replies, and Jared doesn't know who he's addressing.



Chapter 4



They grab Danneel's children out of their beds.

The commander hugs them for the last time, then hands them over before leaving to fight for his Sovereign.

Jensen abhors the man, but he understands a sire's love.

He carries the little boy, and Danneel takes the little girl, still a baby. Jared, sword in hand, leads the way, while two guards provide protection as good as they can.

Jensen doesn't know what a conference room is, but it's important enough to be guarded, and it's right in front of the doors of their destination where they're being attacked. Their protectors are skilled fighters, yet one of their opponents gets too close to Jensen, who is shielding his burden with his body.

Jared strikes down the attacker with a loud. “NO!”

With a look of pure horror, he pulls his blade out of the soldier's side.

The next moment, Jared's down on the stone floor, an arrow protruding out of his shoulder.

Fuck . Where did that come from?

Half a dozen men-at-arms rush down the corridor, one of them is already nocking another arrow.

“Get in!” one of their guards shouts, pointing to the doors. “Get in!”

Jensen pushes the sprig into the guard's arms, says, “Take him! I get the Sovereign!”

The other guard keeps the attackers at bay, as Jensen throws one of Jared's arms over his shoulder, grabbing the sword with his free hand.

“Let go,” Jared moans. “Save yourself.”

“No way, they'll kill you.”

“If it saves your life...”

An arrow bounces off the floor right next to Jensen.

“We can debate later,” he decides. “Now get up!”

Finally, Jared's moving, even if slowly. Clearly, he's suffering from shock, but Jensen doesn't have time to consider his condition.

They make it into the conference room just in time. Jensen slams the door closed and locks it.

When he turns, one of the guards is dead on the floor, the other one is fighting with the vyking warrior he hoped to never meet again. Danneel's huddled in a corner, trying to comfort her crying children.

Jensen carefully lets Jared slip to the ground. Then he charges.

The sword 's longer than he's used to, but not much heavier. It only takes a few thrusts to get a feel for it.

The warrior laughs grimly. “Sweet boy.” he says, easily parrying off a blow. “I will enjoy your sweet taste again soon.”

He lifts his foot and kicks the guard hard enough the stomach in so that he's flung through the air and against the wall.

Now Jensen's facing the huge warrior alone – again. However, it's different from the bathing room – he has a solid weapon that he can handle, and he has to defend more lives than just his own.

The northlander shrugs in Jared's direction. “So the traitor was right. The mighty king walks out on his people as soon as he's getting into shit.”

“The king is young and foolish,” Jensen says, keeps his eyes on his adversary as they slowly circle each other. “You're not,” he continues. “Yet you trust a traitor.”

I do not!” the giant flares up. “His honor is not my honor. I have killed men for outdrinking me, and this boy humiliated me like no other. Did you really think I would take it?”

Jensen's grasp on the sword handle gets tighter in anticipation.

“I will not. I will kill him in the most humiliating way. Maybe I cut his dick off first – looks like he has no balls to use so he does not need it. Then I will have you hanging off my dick and rip you open from the inside.”

“You're like an old dog,” Jensen mocks because an infuriated giant doesn't think clearly. He can see Jared cringe at the Vyking's threats and tug in determination at the arrow in his shoulder. “You're all bark and no teeth.”

“Just you wait–”

The Northlander cries out in pain, goes down on one knee, and Jensen seizes his chance. One fierce thrust, and the blade of his sword pierces the man's leather armor and sinks into his chest almost to the hilt.

“No need to fight fair for a cowardly king.” Jared wheezes, sinking back down on the floor.

The felled warrior's eyes look at Jensen in disbelief, and then Jensen removes the blade – the only thing keeping him upright – and the vyking slumps down into an undignified heap on the ground.

There's never honor in dying , Jensen thinks. A quick gaze to the door shows that it's sturdy enough to withstand the onslaught, so Jensen turns to Jared.

Jared had broken off the arrow's shaft embedded in his shoulder and run the splintered end into the vyking's calf.

Danneel's already there, ripping strips off of her skirt and applying bandages to Jared's shoulder. The arrow tip still is stuck in his flesh, so they need to get to the Trees as quickly as possible.

~~~~~~

Jared's day sucks, and it's not even breakfast time.

Jensen manages to wake the unconscious guard – the one who’d been flung into the wall. His brother-in-arms, though, is dead.

The whyking leader is dead, as well.

Two men in this room are dead because of Jared. Though – if it hadn't been for him, there could have been even more casualties, including innocent children.

It's only cold comfort. If he'd been a better Sovereign, if he had read James' character better – all of this would never have happened.

Beckoning his guardsman – what's his name? over, Jared talks to him very carefully since t he blood loss is making his brain untrustworthy.

“What's your name?” he asks, which surprises everyone – including himself.

“DJ, my lord,” the guardsman replies.

All right.” Jared clears his throat, which makes his shoulder hurt. Everything makes his shoulder hurt. “Look, uh, DJ. Can you get to the zenana without being noticed?”

The guard – DJ, it's DJ – looks to the door and the exterior wall, then back to Jared. DJ nods, “Yes.”

“Good. Go there and find Jim. He knows about another hidden door. Get everyone out. If you see servants, tell them to flee. I don't think they'll be harmed, but the zenana belongs to the royal family, everyone there is in danger.”

He tries to rise, and immediately, Jensen's supporting him.

“We must hurry. James knows about this secret passage here. If some of his men make it out of the palace, they'll head us off.”

“We'll find shelter in the woods,” Jensen says to DJ. “Everyone seeking refuge in the woods will be granted.”

Did Jared ever notice those beautiful little dots on his face?

“Jared?”

“Hmmm...?”

“Come on, we need to go.”

He shuffles to the wooden panels on the room's west wall. With a last parting look at the poor dead guard and DJ, who's climbing out of the window, he presses the right spot of the carving. The panel slides open, and everyone scurries inside.

The torches are still there.

“The torches are still here,” he says.

Jensen only takes a moment to light one up. Since Jared is the only one with a free hand – his other one is gripped firmly in one of Jensen's, his arm held tight around Jensen' neck. Jensen's also carrying little Jonah, while Danneel carries baby Sara and the sword.

What was he thinking?

Anyways, Jared has the torch.

“Lisa and I've been here twice when we were little. It got us into quite some trouble. A couple of years ago, I was here just to see where the passage leads to.”

Jared hopes that Lisa's okay, and Mommy Devine too. Steve and Jim and Tahmoh.

It's slow going, first downstairs – one step after the other after the other after the other – and then at ground level through a tunnel.

The baby's still asleep, but her brother is crying silently. Jared tries to soothe him, babbling under his breath about anything he can think of. That's the only thing he can do, talk to the boy.

It's getting harder. Thinking, that is. Walking too.

Finally, they come to the fork where Jared points out the heavy key hidden in a little hole in the ground.

“We go that way,” he says, “West. The other leads to...” He can't remember – the mountains? ”Not where we want to go.”

Danneel pockets the key. She's pretty tall. She's tall and pretty. And she's Jensen's friend. Jared wants to be Jensen's friend too.

It's not fair. After what he did, Jensen would never want to talk to him.

Wait, he's saving Jared's live. Maybe there's still hope.

That's a nice thought to fall asleep to.

Jared!

Jared startles. “Yeah, what? I'm awake!”

“It won't take much longer, I can see light.” Jensen's voice is nice and deep, he struggles to keep the baby and Jared from falling.

Danneel waits a few feet in front of them, looking pale and worried in the torchlight.

Jared pulls himself together, those people's survival depends on him.

Jensen's right. Just after a few more minutes, the passage is closed off by a gate that Danneel opens with the key.

Before they step through a curtain of vines hiding the tunnel exit, they put out the torch, and suddenly, there's sunlight and fresh air. They're right at the border between a groomed park outside the City wall and the deep, untouched forest.

Strange, Jared doesn't feel the usual vague unease at the sight of those trees. Maybe it's because he has Jensen at his side.

Until he hasn't. Jensen's gone, and Jared needs to prevent falling face first on the leaves on the ground.

Danneel cries, the children cry, Jensen grunts. Then a body falls on top of Jared.

He yelps in pain, rolling the heavy body off of himself – it's one of James' men, ordered to wait for and kill them. Now he's dead, another casualty Jared has to blame himself for.

Jensen's back, hauling Jared onto his feet while never letting go of the boy in his arm.

“You okay?” he asks panting.

Jared nods.

“We need to hurry,” Jensen says, “it's not far.”

Rushing through the underbrush, through brambles and vines, as fast as they can feels like a dream. Jared's mind is detached from his body, floating somewhere high up in the treetops. His feet move of their own volition – left, right – left, right.

However, something wet at his side makes him look. Blood. It's not his shoulder – the dressing's dark with blood – but on his other side, where Jensen walks.

Huh? Did he get hurt there also?

Danneel screams, “Jensen!”, startling Jared.

Jensen's tumbling slowly, lets go of little Jonah, but takes Jared with him. They both land in a heap on the soft forest floor, and Jared can see Jensen growing pale – even paler than before, closing his eyes.

All right, Jared thinks, we can rest now .

He lets the dark spots, that he fought against for the past hundred years, creep on him, wraps himself in a blanket of unconsciousness and knows nothing any more.





Part 2



Chapter 1



He's on a soft bed, can feel warm fur against the naked skin of his back.

The ceiling is green and trembling.

No, the ceiling is made out of leaves that are shaken by a soft breeze.

No, the ceiling is grown out of tree limbs and leaves. There's wood all around him, but it's not carved nor constructed. It looks more like a natural cave – as if Jared's inside a tree.

Where the fuck is Jared?

“You're in the tree village that's apparently called Trees.”

Jared turns his head. “Lisa?”

Hello, Jared, welcome back.” She's smiling, and Jared thinks he never saw that kind of smile on her face – relieved, happy, free.

What happened?” he asks because there's a big black hole where there should be at least a few hours of something.

“The forest people found all of you and brought you here. You've been unconscious for a couple of days because you lost so much blood.”

And...” Danielle. “Danneel? And the kids?”

“They're fine. The little ones get coddled by everyone, but Danielle cries a lot.”

“I'd reckon that.”

Jared prods at his shoulder. It's bandaged with soft linen cloths and padded with … grass? It's still sore, but hurts less than the last time he was conscious.

“What about you?” he asks. “And your mom?”

“We're fine,” Lisa replies smiling,”I think this is the first time she sees so many trees.”

And it's the first time you see trees other than the ones in the zenana garden at all .

“Everybody got out in time, Jared. Most of the ladies decided to go back home, but there are still fifteen here. That's because of you. You got us all out.”

She takes his hand in hers, pale skin against dark one, giant paws dwarfing small fingers.

No, she's not small, not anymore. Jared has always been taller than her, but she grew up a beautiful, strong woman in her own right.

Next to him, someone groans faintly.

Turning his head, Jared sees Jensen lying on a bed made out of furs. He's pale too, but alive.

Jensen . Is alive.

His eyelids are fluttering, then reveal the same shade of green in Jensen's eyes that's surrounding all of them.

He's watching Jared, a little bit unfocused, for a few moments. A slow smile tugs at his lips, and he says, “Home.”

Jensen's eyes close again, and Jared's heart hurts with a sharp stab of guilt.

~~~~~~

The air's crisp, smells like green and blue, Woods and Sky, and Jensen knows he's home.

The rustling of leaves, the twittering of birds and gentle waft of the wind – it's a wonderful dream.

A cruel, cruel dream.

His eyes are open though. He's not dreaming.

He really is home

It's Jeff and Ida's Tree, and gingerly sitting up, he can see someone sitting in the opening, leaning against the entrance and looking out.

Jared .

With a small gasp of pain, Jensen gets up and shuffles closer to him, who turns his head to look him in the eyes.

Jensen marvels at their color – brown, blue, hazel. He feels like the Woods and the sky are looking back at him.

“Jensen!” Jared exclaims. Dimples are showing in his cheeks, and the beaming smile adds the sun to Jensen's line of thinking.

Old Hag , did he hit his head so hard?

“How are you feeling?” Jared continues.

“Good. I'm good.”

Jensen really feels good. There's only a dull pain in his leg and side where the steward's henchman hurt him, the wounds wrapped meticulously. He knows his mother's hand when he sees it.

They smile at each other for a moment longer, then Jared moves over so Jensen can sit down next to him – gingerly, for though his mom may be an excellent healer, his leg still hurts.

He knows the view, dreamed of it during his captivity. However, it's as breathtaking as always.

At the Tree's roots, children are running all over the clearing and chasing squirrels. On the hearths are meals cooking, and there are new huts and lean-tos for the new arrivals.

They're surrounded by a sea of green – at least this is how Jensen pictures the sea – and there's no worse thing looming in their future than to survive winter.

Though the opening faces South, the setting sun is visible. It's painting the Woods, that are already turning into the yellow and red hues of autumn, in a blazing red.

“It's breathtaking,” Jared says awe-struck.

Jensen nods. “It is.”

“Look, Jensen,” Jared says facing him. “I'm so very sorry what happened to you...”

“It wasn't your fault,” Jensen deflects. “You didn't know about it.”

“But that's what I mean! Everything happened behind my back because I couldn't be bothered to skip a hunting trip or a fighting lesson. Fuck, even a carousal was more important than caring for my people.”

“Jared, don't beat yourself up about things you couldn't know – because it was other people's choices, not yours.”

Jensen stands up gingerly. He's missing his family so fucking much, now that he's home- he just needs to see them.

“Can we go down now?” he says.

“But your leg's hurt!” Jared protests.

“Yeah. Well?”

“You can't climb down a tree with a hurt leg!”

Of course I can!” Then Jensen understands what Jared's upset about. He almost laughs out loud. “Jared, I won't climb down the Tree, there are stairs.”

Pointing to the side of the opening, he shows the footsteps the builders grew into the Tree trunk and the web of vines that are supposed to prevent falls.

“See? It's absolutely safe.”

Still, Jared doesn't move.

Jensen sees that he's battling with himself. “What is it, Jared?”

“Uh, I... I'm... I'm scared to go down.”

It's another moment until Jensen understands what Jared's saying.

“You mean... you're scared of the height?”

Jared nods. He looks uncomfortable and highly embarrassed.

Jensen smiles. “That's all right, Jared. All the time people are afraid of heights.”

Reaching out his hand, he says, “Come here. I'll help you.”

Hesitantly, Jared takes his hand, and Jensen's elated about the act of confidence,

“I lead the way, and you just look at your feet. All right?”

Jared nods.

Jensen starts descending, holding Jared's hand in a tight grip

~~~~~~

It's humiliating, that's why Jared's drenched in sweat. It's certainly not because he's scared to death.

Though he is. If it was possible he'd stay up there until the day he'd die.

He's walking cautiously behind Jensen and faithfully doesn't look at the forest floor, but at Jensen's ass. Which is a very pretty one.

It moves slightly wobbly since Jensen's walks with a limp, and it's round and well-shaped, and Jared remembers the feel of it under his hands, against his...

Shame supersedes fear.

He doesn't want to think the way he does, but he does.

He's certainly attracted to Jensen. Unfortunately, he already knows what his object of desire feels like – the muscles shifting under cream-colored skin, the rose-colored lips in the even face.

Those thoughts alone will condemn him to the Dark Cave, his shame will seal his doom.

So, think about other things.

“How do you make the steps into the tree?” he asks, never averting his eyes from Jensen's ass. “Or the cave in the tree? Doesn't look man-made.”

“It's a polypore called Hag's gift. It burrows itself into the bark and grows slowly while the tree grows around it. It's different from other fungi because it doesn't affect sick trees and kill them. Look!”

Jensen points to a giant tree, and Jared realizes for the first time how big those plants are – huge and wide, with certainly enough room inside their trunks to house someone.

What Jensen indicates on its bark is a weird-colored spot, more than a feet wide, that seems to be grown into the wood.

That's a young tree,” Jensen explains, and Jared can't believe that this giant is a young one. “The tree slowly grows around the intruder, creating space for it, and when the cave will be big enough, the builders remove the fungus. What's left is a hole in the tree.”

Jared looks around. There are at least fifteen or twenty giant trees with cave houses, complete with small holes as footsteps and vines as banisters. Still, there are a lot of huts on the ground.

“It's amazing,” Jared admits. “But why do you still use huts if you can live up there?”

Jensen chuckles. “It's easier for families with small kids. Besides, there often is not enough room for more than a few people. And it's safer on the ground during big thunderstorms. So we just stay where we need or like it best.”

There are older men watching the children, young women crafting things Jared can't make out, a hunting party returning with game.

The roles seem not as separated as they are in the City. Women go hunting, men cook food. Everybody looks like they do what they want, not what they're supposed to do. And they look like they belong .

Jared's heart aches with the need to belong, too.

It's impossible though. He has his duty as Sovereign that he was neglecting for far too long. He can't keep on hiding behind his youth and the excuse of politics being recondite and boring.

“Can we go now?” Jensen asks amused.

Jared notices to his surprise that they're already on the ground and still holding hands.

“Oh.... I – uh...” he stammers.

With a slight chuckle, Jensen tugs him along.

Everyone they meet, everyone anywhere near them, waves and hollers greetings, welcoming Jensen back. Considering his hurt leg, he's moving quickly, apparently eager to see his family, but soon both of them are surrounded by the children.

Jensen's laughing, replies to the onslaught of questions and ruffels shocks of shaggy hair, lets go of Jared's hand in order to collect one of the smaller kids in his arms.

Jared's amazed at Jensen's demeanor, radiant with joy and happiness, but suddenly, Jensen shoves the little boy into Jared's arms in order to pick up a girl.

Now what?

Jared smiles crookedly at the little face scrutinizing him. What's he supposed to do ?

“You really a king?” the boy says.

“Yeah...” Jared replies.

“What do you do?”

“I'm... uh... I tell people what to do.” At least, that's what he's supposed to do.

The boy tilts his head. “You don't tell me what to do.”

“No, I'm not your king.”

“Good.”

Then the boy squirms out of Jared's arms and runs off to play, followed by his friends.

They're alone again, childish curiosity satisfied, and Jensen's tugging him further.

There's a well-trodden path between the trees. After only a few minutes, both of them enter another clearing, that's smaller than the other one. In its middle is a sturdy, big house with layers of clay coating its walls.

“This is the common house,” Jensen explains, “it's for tribe meetings and storing stocks, and most of the tribe lives here in winter.“

Inside, Jared's eyes need to become adjusted to the semi-darkness. There are only small, paneless windows that can be plugged easily against cold winds, so the first thing he notices are the voices. The second thing is the smell of wood and hay.

When he can see clearly again, he curiosly looks around.

The house contains one big room with a number of compartments at the long sides and shelves built into the walls. A ladder leads onto the upper floor, which must be directly under the roof and be used for storing, Jared assumes.

Two hearths are on each end, but only one is lit. It's surrounded by at least a dozen men and women, sitting on wooden blocks and furs thrown over haystacks. A couple of dogs, that look more like wolves, are lying at their feet, and even though those animals just twitch theirs ears and open their eyes lazily, Jared doesn't want to get too close to them.

“Mom!” Jensen calls and starts running, hurt leg forgotten.

One of the women – tall with short, blonde hair – jumps up and hurries towards him.

“Willow!”

Two men follow to greet Jensen. The rest of the group hang back, but Jared can see the relief and joy on their faces,

Jensen's family hug and kiss him, they whisper endearments and reassurances, and Jensen's crying with the biggest smile Jared has ever seen.

There's not enough room in Jared's heart for the amount of bad , sad and shame he's feeling. He tries to slink away into the shadows – the darkness where he belongs, but Jensen turns and reaches out with the hand that's not hugging his mother close.

“This is Jared, the city's Sovereign,” he says, and Jared has to approach them because it's too late to let the ground swallow him whole.

Jensen's mom and the shorter one of the two men smile at him through their tears, while the taller man adresses him.

“Sovereign,” he says. “It's an honor.”

He's not bowing, but there's more deference in his demeanor than in some obeisances of the City councils'.

“No, no,” he deflects. “It's my honor, and please, call me Jared. I'm not here as the Sovereign.”

Maybe I'm no Sovereign at all any more.

“Jared, this is Jeff, the tribe's chief and my father,” Jensen introduces. “My mother, Ida, the healer, and Konrad, my sire.”

He grasps Jared's arm to tug him closer.

“Jared saved my life.”

No, I hurt and raped you because of the things I did and those I allowed to happen.

“No, Jensen saved mine,” he says, feeling a blush creep right up to his ears.

Jeff's brown eyes scrutinize him for a moment, then he says, “In any case, we're happy to have you both here alive.”



Chapter 2



Jared's sitting in the sun, bathing in its warmth with his eyes closed. His back's leaned against the common house's wall, and he can hear the low murmur of the voices of the people inside.

Jensen's telling the story of his capture and captivity, how Jared violated him, and Jared can't bear hearing it. So he just sits and waits.

“May I join you?”

“Of course, Mother,” he replies, opening his eyes.

Mommy Devine settles down next to him, folds her hands over her stomach and soaks up the sunshine.

Jared feels the urge to apologize for being a lousy king, but doesn't know how to start a conversation he actually doesn't want to have.

Mother Devine beats him to it.

“Thank you, my lord,” she says. “For saving all our lives.”

Jared's baffled. What ?

“But I didn't do anything!”

“You sent a guard to get us out, so the worst thing that happened was Erica scraping her knee on the narrow stairs in that tunnel.”

She looks at him.

“You cared about us enough to not forget us.”

“How could I forget you! You and Berry, Jim and Steve, you're like my family. And the others... Just because I'm a lousy Sovereign, doesn't mean I want bad things happen to my citizens.”

Her gaze turns scrutiny. Jared feels weirdly stripped down, so he starts fidgeting.

“You're not a lousy Sovereign,” she says eventually. “Young, callow, inexperienced – yes, that you are. But I always saw more in you, always knew your potential was still untapped, and right this moment, I can see you growing.”

This he certainly didn't expect.

“Oh. Wow. I'm... uh... thank you?”

Mommy Devine smiles, her teeth white and bright in her dark face, and Jared realizes it was that smile that made him go on.

All his life, he wanted to see his Mommy smiling at him and feel James being proud of him. Now, his life is completely turned upside down, and he wants more Jensen smiling at him than Mommy.

His heart aches.

He finds himself squeezing against her bosom, his long arms wrapped around her, and listening to the soothing beat of her heart, just like he did when he was little and scared.

That's what he is – scared.

“Oh, my sweet little boy,” she says and strokes his hair.

For a moment, Jared bathes in the feeling of safe, then he hears footsteps approaching and quickly entangles himself from her embrace.

Mommy sighs, then gets up slowly, mumbling something under her breath about her old age, which makes Jared grin. Cupping his cheek with her warm hand, she smiles at him goodbye, then leaves with a little bow to Jeff, who's waiting at a respectful distance.

Jared scrambles to his feet, awaiting anxiously his verdict.

“Chief,” he says, unsure about how to address him.

“Sovereign,” Jeff replies, apparently equally uncertain. “Please call me Jeff. We don't have use for... titles here.”

“As I already said, please call me Jared. I'm not the Sovereign, not here.”

A small smile tugs at Jeff's lips. “Jared,” he says nodding. “On behalf of Jensen's parents and his tribe, I thank you for saving his live and honor. We are deeply in your debt.”

But – that's not right. It was Jared's fault that...

“But it was my fault that he was being held captive and got hurt.”

“We saw the marks on his skin. You saved him from much worse than mere physical pain. I know Jensen, he'd never had survived a violation.”

“A rape,” Jared states matter-of-factly, his body growing goosebumps from cold, even though he's in the sun god's warm light.

“Yes, rape,” Jeff repeats.

There's a significant pause when he looks at him searchingly, then Jeff continues, “I'm sure he doesn't tell the whole story. It's obvious he doesn't want to elaborate on your role, so I have to give you the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I won't allow him to get hurt any more.”

Jared nods. Obviously, Jeff would take on a king and risk a war over his son's wellbeing, which is a comforting thought – Jensen's safe and cared for in his family, and Jared feels a short pang of envy because his family and home are gone.

“Good.”Jeff smiles. It looks genuine. “We've a feast tonight to celebrate the return of our lost children and the arrival of new friends. We'd be honored if you'd join us.”

Jared's head reels. He needs a moment to register what's asked of him.

“Yes, of course,” he hastens to reply. “It's my honor.”

~~~~~~

The fire pit is used when the hunters bring big game, that's shared with everyone, so a big meal with the tribe is quite a common thing. A feast though, that's something completely different.

There are a deer and half a dozen rabbits roasting over the big fire, earthen pots of stew over small cooking fires and flatbread baked in an oven that's dug deep into the ground. There's mead and acorn beer, small sour apples and big sweet ones, roots and nuts.

Jensen feels a bit dizzy because of the mead he already had. Everyone wanted to welcome him home, so he hugged half the tribe and patted the other half's back. Children and youths were openly quizzing him about his absence, while adults were more indirectly nosy. His mother didn't want to let go of him until her need to convince herself about his presence was satisfied, and his sire's relief and elation of having him back after searching a whole city is still obvious.

Danneel and her sprigs are nowhere to be seen. Jensen thinks that it must have been weird for her family to have her back – with offspring! - after mourning her for so long.

Then some of the refugees from the zenana came to thank him, which made him uncomfortable because all he did was to save his own hide. Others just waved at him from the distance with a smile and a bow, like Mother Devine and Lisa. That Jim guy, who tended to him, and a man his age with dark skin like Mother's are playing with some sprigs.

Jensen's thoughts tumble down a path he doesn't want to take – the concept of zenana. It's basically meaning enslaving people in order to seal a treaty or gain influence.

What he understood from Lisa's stories is that the part of the zenana that's available to the royal family and their guests was practically not in use since the Sovereign and his older sons died almost twenty years ago, which means that the women – and Jim and the other guy – have been left alone, bereft of the only thing they're supposed to do. It also explains why there are so few children.

And Jensen was one of them, albeit forced. Thinking about those days, the hopelessness, homesickness, makes his stomach turn. The thoughts about the vyking and his violent hands makes him want to vomit. If Jared had been just a bit delayed...

Jared...

Actually, Jared had tried the same thing – having sex with Jensen against his will. Still, it doesn't feel as bad, maybe because Jared didn't know about Jensen's situation, maybe because of the drugs' influence Jensen has been under, maybe because there are no violent vibes coming off Jared.

Which must be the weirdest thing – Jensen feels safe around Jared.

Now Jensen's alone, sitting at the edge of the clearing, and his head hurts, and he needs to drink more in order to stop thinking.

Absent-mindedly, he's rubbing his thumb over the bracelet thing on the wrist of his other arm. Truth be told, he forgot about them completely due to the past days' excitement. They're certainly a fine piece of craftmanship. If they wouldn't denote his awful experience in the stone city, he could find them beautiful. Now though, he just can't wait for the smith to get it off, but his mom wants him to heal more first.

His leg starts hurting so he shifts until he's lying half on his side, leaning on his elbow. It puts pressure off the wound on his thigh and Jared right into his field of vision.

Jensen didn't notice him sitting down.

Jared's gorgeous. The flames' glow makes his skin look soft and his eyes shining. There's a rosy shimmer on his cheeks, that's put there by the mead's spirits. His long fingers are playing with a blade of grass, and his legs are also long, crossed at the ankles, lean and strong from his naked feet to his round ass.

Jensen feels his face heat up. Hopefully, Jared didn't notice him staring.

“You know,” Jared says. “They say I saved their lives, the ladies.”

“Well... you did.”

“No, I didn't, I put them in danger. I turned a blind eye to James' schemes and never even considered releasing them. It was the way it was – I was too busy being a spoiled brat to think about their situation and do something.”

Jared sighs.

Jensen itches to touch him, even reaches out with his hand, but abandons the movement right away. Even if he wants to console Jared, to stop him beating himself up, he can't count on keeping his own hands in check.

“And then...” Jared continues, “what I did to you. It's unforgivable.” Jared turns onto his side and faces Jensen, who can see all the colors in his eyes now, but drowning in them, he forgets what they're called.

Jensen reaches out now, complying with the itch inside his guts, and cups Jared's cheek. Jared's leaning into the touch, closing his eyes, and Jensen thinks how drunk his... friend must be in order to be so sincere, so open.

“But I already did. I forgave you,” he says.

Jared stares at him, his eyes sparkling in the fires' glow and his mouth open in astonishment.

Jensen sighs and does the only thing he can think of. He's leaning forward, presses his lips against Jared's and tastes mead and meat when he gently licks at them.

If he doesn't say a thing first, doesn't ask – well, let's call it retaliation.

The touch reminds him of Jared's lips and hands on him that night, but it feels nothing like the memory of Omundson's hands. It makes him itchy for different reasons and goes straight to his groins.

After the first moments of surprise, Jared opens up – it's not only kissing back, but it's opening up completely, making his insecurity, his need for forgiveness and his will to atone felt.

It's a heady thought of having a king melt under Jensen's kiss.

When they part to gasp for air, he finds himself straddling Jared, which makes his hurt leg complain.

They're both sporting erections.

“Uh, well,” Jared says, “that was... unexpected.”

“I'm sorry,” Jensen replies, absolutely feeling not sorry.

“No!” Jared asserts quickly. “I mean, I didn't think you'd ever wanted to deal with me after... what I did.”

“I just said, I forgave you, and that's true.” Jensen can't help a slow smile sneaking onto his lips. “I don't know why I feel attracted to you, but I know I want to take a chance with you. We can work this out, Jared, and then we can work together.”

~~~~~~

Life in the forest is completely different from Jared's life in the City. Even if he wasn't the Sovereign, it wouldn't be required of him to eviscerate game. He knew that he was being coddled, but he never saw the need to change the way things where.

During the next days, he's expected to get his hands dirty with any task he can accomplish. He's treated like a tribe member, just like the refugees from the zenana are, and he understands that the survival of the whole tribe depends on every single man and woman. The chores are shared depending on age and health and preferences, and even though it's mostly the women caring for the children and the elderly, there's no shame in a warrior riding a toddler on his knees.

Jared's gone over to wrapping his long hair in a tight bun since it's easier to move between the trees and underbrush. The male forest dwellers usually cut their hair short like Jensen, the women wear their hair in tight braids. Everyone, though, wears practical clothing made of soft leather. There's nothing of the flowing, garish robes worn at the Sovereign's court, and Jared experiences a freedom like never before.

There are discussions with the chief and the tribe's seniors about the further course of action, which depends on the situation in the City. Jeff sends messengers to the Palace to search about it and get in contact with Tahmoh. Jared wants to go himself, but he's overruled when Jensen points out that he still isn't in any shape to ride for hours and then possibly sneak into the City, depending on the circumstances.

Nevertheless, he can't feel bad about his forced stay since it's mostly Jensen showing him the ropes. And watching those nimble fingers working and having them occasionally touch Jared is absolutely rewarding.

They never shared more than a stolen kiss since there's always someone around. Especially Jensen's mother, Ida, seems to be determined to never let them alone. Her green eyes, that are a shade darker than Jensen's, are always watching lovingly. She tends with earnest attention to their wounds and motherhens otherwise.

It's the first time Jared feels a mother's love – which is unfair to Mother Devine. The dark-skinned woman always was like a mother, but Jared took it for granted – just like everything else in his life – and the fair-skinned woman's manner is not so different. Or maybe it feels different because it's Jensen's mom.

And then there are Jensen's fathers.

“Uhm, tell me,” Jared says when they're hidden away in lush, green bracken and hold hands and do nothing more than look at each other. “Is there a difference between a sire and a father?”

“Why, of course, “Jensen replies, letting his thumb run over the knuckles of Jared's hand. “A sire is the man who sires a child, the father raises them. If the child is lucky, the sire is also the father, but there are many reasons for them not to be together.”

“I see. And do you mind me asking about Konrad and Jeff?”

“Of course not. Mom and dad cut the knot when I was, I think, ten summers. She then tied it with Jeff who raised me. So he's my father, and Konrad's my sire.”

“And what does cut the knot mean?”

“When people tie the knot, they commit themselves to each other, living together, caring for each other. However, sometimes they want to go their separate ways later, so they cut the knot. If you go into Ida and Jeff's Tree, you can see it hanging on the wall.”

For a moment, there's a pause. Then Jared begins speaking.

“We don't have the possibility of separation, a marriage is forever. I was expected to marry. Sire many children. Be the Sovereign every day of my life.” He sighs. “I never wanted that, but I see now that you have to fulfil your duties, unless everything turns into dust and lives are lost.”

“Jared,” Jensen says and cups his cheek. “You have to fulfil your duties, that's right, but you don't have to do it alone. It's in my people's best interest to have peace in the city. We don't want war, not in your home, not with you or your people. Jeff will help you.”

Jensen's eyes are serious and green, so green, like the ferns surrounding them. The sunlight's playing with the plants' shadows on his face, making his freckles stand out and almost disappear in a constant movement.

I will help you.”

Jared's astounded by Jensen's will – or maybe it's a character trait – to overlook their shared experiences and start anew. However, Jared noticed a certain general inability to hold grudges among the population and he pondered whether it was because they needed to stick together to survive.

Jared's astounded and a bit embarrassed, and he reacts kind of instinctly by kissing Jensen, opening himself up to the demanding muscle of Jensen's tongue.

The next thing he knows is Jensen straddling him, licking inside him, and Jared licks back greedily, trying to taste as much of Jensen as possible.

And he tastes so good, like sunshine and red berries.

Jared can't get enough. His body's reacting with a will of its own, his hands roaming over smooth skin, his dick hardening in his cloth breeches. Jensen's hand on it is hot and perfect, and Jared's humping into it just the way Jensen's humping his leg.

There's nothing demure or shy in those touches. Jensen knows what he's doing, and he's not ashamed of it.

It's too much and not enough. There's only Jensen, only heat and tongue and fingers, and Jared spills into Jensen's hand with a muffled moan, and Jensen's following with a small huff of extasy.

Jared freezes, the bliss of the moment gone.

He knows that sound. It's the same like the one the man in the forest made – when the gorgeous guy was given head.

The memory is hot as ever, but now it's tainted, because the man's lying in his arms now, and it's Jensen.

~~~~~~

Jensen's run out of reasons to procrastinate talking to Matt.

He finally made a decision – even if it doesn't work out with Jared, he won't tie the knot with Matt.

His lover already supposed as much, and he understands – kind of.

“You choose a stone man over me?” Matt says, his eyes blazing.

“No,” Jensen says. “I mean, yes, but... It's not because he's a citizen, it's because... it's him. I don't even know if he really wants me.”

Matt's waiting with his arms crossed over his chest without saying a word.

“I mean he's kind of... unapproachable since yesterday, and I don't know why. Maybe he changed his mind, I don't know.”

It hurts. Something happened during or after their love making in the ferns, and Jensen doesn't know what. Jared's avoiding him as often as possible. And it hurts deep down in Jensen's chest.

“You see,” he continues, “I just would have stalled you for a long time if it wasn't for him now. I enjoy your company – I always did – but it's not enough to commit myself to you. It wouldn't be fair to you nor me. I see that now.”

Matt sighs. His arms fall down his sides defeatedly, his shoulders slumping.

He says, “I supposed it for some time. When Konrad came back from the city without you, I even assumed you were gone because of me, which I want to apologize for. It's nothing you would ever do, I know that, but... I...”

Jensen's heart clenches painfully. He takes a step toward Matt, wrapping his arms around him.

Matt's body's still as warm and muscular as he remembered, and Jensen body's reacting like it always did. Now though, it doesn't feel right.

“No need to apologize, Matt. It's me who needs to. I should have made up my mind earlier.”

“Yeah, well,” Matt replies, with an attempt at levity, but his voice choked up. “Maybe we can agree upon both of us being insensitive assholes now and then, you more often than I.”



Chapter 3



Jensen's fixing his hunting equipment, when he sees Jeff approaching his mother, down below.

He's sitting at the edge of his Tree's entrance, legs dangling outside in the sun, and whetting the arrows' heads. It's never good to stir the Hag's ire by killing the quarry unnecessarilly slowly or cruelly.

By now, he's pretty used to the metal bracelets on his wrists. They're almost no hindrance anymore, but he'll be glad to get rid of them anyway soon. His mother finally agreed to their removal.

This past few days, Jeff's been easily irritated. He's been under a lot of stress due to the current situation – the refugees go through a lot of the tribe's stock, which needs to be replenished soon, and a war's looming. Jensen hopes whoever wins the civil war – the steward's army, Tahmoh's guards or the vykings – will be halfway decent to talk to.

However, Jeff was worrying so much that he picked a fight with Ida this morning. Jensen doesn't know what it was about, but he could hear them yelling all over the clearing. His mother – quiet woman that she is – still can counter her beknotted head-on.

Now Jeff's approaching her, and Jensen can see them talk. His father apparently appologizes, and his mother accepts. He's resting his head on her shoulder, bowing down to her height, and she runs her hand through his hair.

Jensen's glad about the public display of affection. The tribe needs his leader right now, and showing his commitment and attachment to his family encourages them.

Jared's there too, standing a bit offside at the clearing's edge, Danneel's little boy on his hip.

Jensen can see him watching his parents. Then he looks up at Jensen's Tree and Jensen sitting in his cave. Jared's brow creased in thoughts. Putting down the sprig on the floor to run with his new-found friends, Jared heads to Jensen's Tree.

He was very reluctant to climb the Trees at first, with Jensen holding his hand and encouraging him, but now he uses the stairs on his own, even if he climbs slowly, still concentrating on his feet on every single step. Soon though, he's entering Jensen's cave, and the relief of being off the steps is clearly visible on his face.

For a moment, he stands there and fidgets on his feet.

“Hey,” Jensen says smiling.

“Uh. Hey,” he replies.

After another moment of indecision, Jared sits down next to Jensen, his legs dangling close to his. Apparently, he has no problems sitting at the edge – it's moving from the ground to the Tree caves and vice versa that's difficult.

Sitting in silence, Jensen waits for Jared to get things off his chest.

After a few more moments of fidgeting and looking unhappy, Jared's starts speaking.

“I saw Jeff talking to your mother,” he says. “You saw it too, and I suppose those shows of affection happen all the time here.”

“Occasionnally.”

“Well, they don't in the city. James... the steward... he always was very considerate of the Sovereign and royal family's public image – no public show of emotions, ever, because he thought it a sign of weakness. But what I just saw of Jeff, that was not weakness, quite the opposite. You know, this is the first time I could accept being the Sovereign and still wearing my heart on a sleeve without feeling weak. I don't know whether I actually still am a king, but I could. Also I think I just learned that you can be forgiven when you appologize.”

“Jared...”

“Hear me out, Jensen. I need to get this out, all of it.”

Jensen waits patiently while Jared plucks up courage. It feels like an important moment, and he doesn't want to screw it up.

“This,” Jared finally says with a gesture encompassing the Wood, the tribe and the both of them, “happened because of me, because of my stupidity and lax attitude. It happened because Tahmoh felt the need to show me things outside of James' thinking since I was too much of a coward to do it on my own.”

He takes a deep breath. “On a hunting trip in the forest, I saw a guy, and I kept on swooning over him. Tahmoh decided a romp was the thing I needed to get him out of my system, and he found you because you looked like him. But now I know... it was you. The guy in the woods, that was you. You were captured and violated because I didn't dare to stand up for myself.”

Jensen's taken aback. He certainly never expected Jared to confess something like this.

Does it change his feelings? Probably not. He still thinks Jared can't be held accountable for the guards' captain's actions – maybe just a tiny bit since he was his king, but he doesn't want him to beat himself up over it. It was just the Old Hag's cruel sense of humor.

“That's not true,” he says. Because it isn't. He needs to believe that.

Putting the arrows aside, Jensen turns towards Jared.

Jared looks... devastated, his eyes dull with despair, and Jensen doesn't know what else to say. He needs closure too, needs to leave it behind – needs to stop thinking about the vyking's hands, that made him nauseous, and think more about Jared's hands, that make him feel good.

He knows that Jared – unlike the strange warrior – always will give him a choice.

Still, he doesn't know what to say, so he just pulls his friend into his arms, wrapping him into a tight hug, and feels shards in his heart slide back into their place.

~~~~~~

It's overwhelming.

Being close to Jensen, feeling his strong pulse beat under his skin, is overwhelming. Jared feels like all those emotions inside of him are just too big to contain in his body.

At the same time Jensen's grounding him, keeping him sane.

Slowly, though, the tribe's commotion is being registered, that's reaching their ears from deep down on the ground.

Jared draws back from Jensen's shoulder. Sighing, Jensen lets go of him.

For a moment, they look into each other's eyes, conveying a silent conversation.

Can't we take a breather for once?

Then Jensen, mindful of his still healing wounds, is leaning out of the opening and calls, “Corin, what's the matter?”

The answer is immediate. “It's the stone people, a delegation will be here in less than two spans.”

Jared freezes.

Who's coming? Is it Tahmoh or James? Will it mean civil war? War between the citizens and the forest dwellers?

So many questions.

In his haste to get answers, Jared's leaning forward too, his fear of heights momentarily fogotten. “Who is it?” he calls. “Do you know who it is?”

The man he's addressing gesticulates in the City's direction. “It's the guard, they say,” he replies.

Jared slumps back onto his ass and huffs a relieved sigh. The guard. That's Tahmoh, which means at least no civil war and, maybe, no war at all.

He looks at Jensen who's smiling a bit crookedly and says, “We need to prepare ourselves.”

When they climb down the stairs, Jared's mind is too full to have room for vertigo. In a kind of reflexive move, Jensen took his hand, and now his skin is warm against Jared's own.

The clearing's vibrant with activity, everyone knows what to do.

The children, the refugees from the zenana and the pregnant women are led to a safe place – Jared assumes it's one of the smaller stock houses the tribe maintains in the forest. The other tribespeople – everyone that's fit to bear arms, even women – are painting themselves and each other with pastes in black and brown all over their faces and bodies, then wrap themselves in some kind of coats made of leather and grass. Jared thinks them to be rather impractical in the underbrush, but when the first warrior disappears between the trees, he understands their function. The man blends into the thicket and becomes almost non-visible between the farns and the shadows.

Jensen, too, paints his face – the black paste aound his eyes makes their green color stand out even more, and Jared has to tear his eyes away from them. When he offers him the small jar, Jared shakes his head in the negative.

“I can't,” he explains, “I need to act as the Sovereign. The guard may take it as an act of treason if I was to dress in foreign attire.”

Jensen's mother, Ida, apparently is not only the tribe's healer, but also their priestess. She's blessing every single fighter before they head out to the place where almost the whole tribe will await the City's delegation.

When it's Jensen's turn, she cups his face with her hands, tugging his head down to look straight into his eyes.

“I'm loath to let you go again, Willow,” she says.

“I'll come back, mom,” Jensen replies.

She nods. “May Fate smile upon you. May she be a caring mother and guide you home.”

After kissing her son's forehead, she lets go of him, turns toward Jared and surprises him by grabbing both of his hands.

“May Fate be a caring mother and guide you home,” she says, squeezing his hands, and Jared understands that she actually wants to hug him, but accepts his City upbringing and refrains from it.

It's a good thing then that he never was one to follow traditions to the letter.

Pulling her near, he wraps his long arms around her and murmurs into her ears, “The Nice Lady will watch over us.”

“We believe that Fate is an old, grumpy hag that can't be impressed with nice words. She does what she wants.”

“Then I'll watch over him. He'll come back, I promise.”

She smiles the same smile as Jensen does when she looks into his eyes. “Thank you.”

They entagle, and Jensen tugs at his elbow. “We need to go.”

They walk only for half a span until they reach a trading route that's used by merchants to traverse the forest. Everywhere warriors appear and disappear stealthily between the ferns and brambles, and Jared feels clumsy, even though he wears soft leather shoes now instead of heavy boots.

Jensen however – he looks like a forest god, free and strong. His bare torso's painted with black stripes, and he's wearing the feathered cloak like a royal cape.

At the arranged meeting place, Jeff beckons Jared over to wait next to him. Jensen and his father, Konrad, stand close by, surrounded by the council's men and women. Most of the tribespeople, though, hide in the forest.

They don't need to wait long. Soon, they can hear horses neighing, announcing their visitors' approach.

~~~~~~

Jensen's leg hurts after the walk, but it's not bad enough to stay behind. He feels good enough to fight, and he will fight if the worst comes to the worst.

Jared's pale, but he stands tall, his eyes scanning the road attentively. He stands out against the dark of the Woods due to his bright tunic that fits snugly, hugging his body at the right places.

Next to a young oak tree, Matt's watching Jensen, but turns away as soon as he notices him looking. Jensen feels a pang of sadness over – maybe – losing his friend, though he can do nothing but give him time.

Jeff's nervous behind a facade of coolness, Jensen can tell. He feels tense himself, trusts his father, however, to make the right decisions, to act for the benefit of the tribe.

Jensen's glad that they don't need to wait long.

It's a long row of riders, always two abreast. At the head, it's the commander of the guard, Tahmoh, and – a vyking warrior?

Indeed, half of the riders are vykings, seeming out of place in their strange clothes.

Jensen doesn't know what discomfits him more – the man that's behind his ordeal, or the men that represent his worst experience so far. His grip on his bow tightens, but he only notices when the wood starts creaking.

The horsemen stop at a short distance. The vykings are glaring at the tribesmen, who reciprocate, while the commander looks quite uncomfortable.

Jeff advances two steps.

“Greetings!” he says. “Welcome to the Morgan tribe's ground. I'm Jeffrey, the chief and head of many brave clans and families. I trust you come in peace.”

The grim look on the northman's face creates doubt about his peaceful intentions, but it's Tahmoh who replies.

“Thank you, Chief Jeffrey, for the welcome. I'm Tahmoh, commander of the royal guard and steward for the time being. This is Ty Olsson, commander of the vyking delegation. We have serious matters to discuss.”

With a short nod of his head, he addresses Jared. “My lord Sovereign, I'm glad to see you alive and well.”

Jared nods in reply. Jensen can see a flash of relief on his face. With three words, the commander confirmed that Jared still is the king.

“Well,” Jeff replies, “let's move to our settlement then. We can have a discussion where it's more comfortable than on horseback.”

The tribe escorts the riders on detours to the clearing since they have to use paths that are accessible for horses, but it also makes it harder to find the tribe's dwelling place.

Jensen has to move slowly now due to his bum leg, and Jared keeps pace with him, Jensen's hand on his shoulder – for one thing to lean on him and keep the strain off his leg, for another thing to feel the body heat, that's providing an odd kind of comfort, under the palm of his hand.

When they reach the clearing, everybody's already settled in a circle around the firepit – the guards and vykings, maybe two dozens of each, on one side, the tribe's representatives on the other. It's obvious, though, that each party keeps to themselves.

The tribe's already puffing up, which is a technique to make the number of tribe members look bigger than it actually is – they keep ongoing movement in their ranks, and those out of sight constantly swap their attire. In this way, it's almost impossible for strangers to tell the tribe's actual size.

Jared's beckoned over to Jeff's side, and he tugs Jensen along, so both sit down next to each other.

With a hand gesture, Jeff as the host invites their guests – until they prove themselves as hostile – to talk.

Tahmoh stands gingerly – he's favoring his right side – and greets Jensen's father with the words, “My lord Chief.”

Jeff inclines his head in a complacent nod, which makes Jensen stifle a snicker.

“As you surely know,” the commander continues, “there's been some turmoil going on in our beloved city. After the bemoaned passing of Lord James Patrick, the valiant vyking warrior Ty offered help to sort out succession on behalf of his king.”

The vyking, that Jensen know recognizes as one of the men in the bath, jumps to his feet, apparently fed up with Tahmoh's flowery phrasing.

His voice booms over the clearing.

“Your king killed our leader and fled the city in the most shameful way.” A finger is pointed accusingly towards Jared. “He proofed to be unfit to rule, and since there's no one of the royal family left that's better suited, we claim the throne for our king, Curtis Strongarm.”

Jared's glowering at the stranger, and Jeff holds him back with a hand on his arm before he can reciprocate.

The chief gets up in a fluid movement that Jensen always was jealous of.

“Vyking,” he says, his voice unwavering, but not unkind. “This is our ground. The Sovereign's our guest just like you are. If you want to discuss your request here, stop acting like a bear.”

That's what the warrior looks like – a bear. Jensen snorts, which earns him a nudge by Konrad's knee.

Gritting his teeth, Olsson gives in. “As I said, we claim the throne for our king. We offer, though, the Sovereign the chance to fight for it – a duel, hand-to-hand, to the death.”

He looks straight into Jared's eyes, and Jensen can see that he doesn't believe Jared will accept.

But Jared does.

“I accept,” he says, his voice calm. “A duel to the death.”

What? No !

Jensen's taken by complete surprise. It's Konrad's hand on his that prevents him from being vocal about this duel idea – and Jared accepting it.

Jeff's face betrays no emotions, his voice is bland when he says, “Very well. The duel will take place tomorrow at noon right here. May Sun be witness of a fight worth watching.”

Jensen's numb.

While everybody else is leaving the circle, he's just sitting and remembering how to breathe. The vykings and the guards return to the city in order to come back the next day. It would be impossible for the tribe to accommodate and feed so many men.

Then, when he's alone with Jared, Jensen hisses angrily, “Are you nuts? You must be crazy, you don't stand a chance! Let me fight, you're hurt.”

Slowly, Jared's turning toward him. There's sadness and pain in his dark eyes, but Jensen's too agitated to reign his temper in.

“You're hurt, too,” Jared replies. “At least, I can walk without a limp.”

Jensen jumps to his feet, and of course, his bum leg complains about it.

“I'm... you're...”

He has no words, what's he supposed to say? So he does the next best thing, storms off into the Woods and seeks counsel and comfort under their canopy.

~~~~~~

It's already dark when Jensen returns.

Jared didn't worry about him – after all, he grew up here among the verdure – though he's still glad when his friend enters hesitantly the living tree.

Jensen leans against the wall, shuffling his feet. The light of the little lamp, that's close to the bed Jared's sitting on, doesn't reach his face.

Jared puts the sword down he's whetting, and Jensen starts speaking.

“Danneel's talking with Tahmoh. The other day she said he was a good man who needed to start thinking his actions through. Now shs gives him a piece of her mind.”

There it is, another proof of the forest people's ability to talk about things. Jared always wore his heart on his sleeve, which was quite unconventional at court. At the moment however, Jared would prefer not talking at all.

No such luck.

Jensen looks up, his eyes shadowed, but glinting.

“I don't want you to fight,” he says.

“I don't want to either,” Jared replies, “but there's no going back.”

At the council session that Jensen missed, Tahmoh said that the emissary, Omundson, never wanted to negotiate trade relations. His agenda all along was to seize the throne and conquer the realm, so he hid a small army in the mountains, that invaded the City by Omundson's command.

To fight them off, it took the combined forces of royal guards and army, that have been leaderless after Omundson killed the steward and decided to join their brother-in-arms rather than strange invaders. Still, they couldn't win against those fierce fighters – that's why Tahmoh negotiated an armistice, building his hope on Jared, who's still the Sovereign.

Suddenly, his arms are full of Jensen, pressing his brow against Jared's collarbone.

“I don't have another choice, Willow,” Jared continues, wrapping his arms around the warm body and burying his face in Jensen's soft hair. “I can't give up my people without a fight. If there's still a chance to save them from a reign of strangers, I need to grasp it. Besides, those vykings won't stop – they'll try to conquer your tribe too. And I know that I have a chance – my shoulder is almost healed, and your people gave me weapons. Look!”

Jared can hear a soft sniffle that makes his heart melt, but Jensen's lifting his head.

The forest tribe don't wear body armor, and the few pieces they have don't fit Jared's tall, lanky body, so the only armor he's able to buckle on are thick leather patches, covering his upper arms, and bracers. His torso may be more vulnerable, but his movements will be less restricted.

Then there's a spear made of ash and a beautiful sword, its hilt fitting perfectly into Jared's palm.

“That's dad's sword,” Jensen says.

“Yes. It's the perfect weapon for me. And... Jensen!” Gripping Jensen's shoulders with both hands, he waits until he can see straight into his eyes. “I will give it back to him. I promise!”

Jensen nods.

Then he bows his head, concentrates on fumbling with the bracelets on his forearms that Jared learned to detest – he still thinks they look sexy on Jensen, but they're also a symbol for his oppression.

With a soft click, the metal moves and releases Jensen's wrists.

“Here,” he says, handing Jared the plates. “Charles – the smith – was able to find a hidden clasp. Now they're easy to remove.”

Jared stares down at them, warm from Jensen's heat. The last connection to him is gone.

This is it.

Tomorrow, Jared will fight and win, and return to the City in order to rule and live a life without Jensen. Or he'll die.

More than likely, he'll die.

He drops the plates, doesn't care about them. Grabs Jensen because he's all that matters. Wraps him in a blanket of limbs and body heat.

A little sob escapes Jensen, and then his lips are on Jared's, kissing frantically, claiming him.

Jared can't be mad at the Nice Lady, who decides grumpily people's fates, because he has this, and he'll have it tomorrow when he dies.



Chapter 4



Both of them sleep little that night. They hold each other tight, as if it could prevent drowning, and when they fall asleep, it's fitful.

In the morning, after a small breakfast, Jensen and his sire coach Jared, Konrad contributing his aptitude for swordsmanship. They don't dare to overexert him, though, so there are many breaks for Jared to take a breath.

During one of them, a few former zenana inhabitants approach Jared, talking to him and hugging him. Jensen gives them privacy, so he can't hear what they say, but Mother Devine and Lisa weep openly.

Later, it's the commander going up to Jared, carrying his son on his hip. Again, Jensen doesn't hear what's being said, but the little boy tugs at Jared's hair, and they laugh.

It looks like goodbye.

The whole tribe is grim looking. They know about the fight's importance – it will not only decide the realm's future, but also the tribe's one too.

When the challenger arrives mid-morning, attended by a dozen warriors, the tribe members are not quite hostile towards them, but wary nonetheless.

While Jeff, the councilmen and women, Jared, Tahmoh and Olsson negotiate the duel's terms, the vykings set up a camp at the clearing's edge. It's obvious they're short on experience with horses, which Jensen reminds of stories about vykings and sailing vessels.

When he was just a sprig, he thought men like those in the stories – fierce and wild – couldn't exist, but now he sees them. They do look fierce, talking in that strange language of theirs, but they're just men.

They can be killed.

At noon, the vykings and the Wood dwellers build a circle around the flattest part of the clearing. The ground is earth and grass, trodden down by footsteps, and Ida had every little bit of debris removed so none of the fighters may trip up.

The refugees from the city are among the crowd, Jim, Mother Devine and her daughter, also Danneel and Tahmoh.

Jared enters the circle.

He's tall and pale, and wears too little of armor, his body glistening from oil There's a soft smile on his face when he looks at Jensen and bids farewell from the distance.

Jensen's hurt that he won't get another goodbye after the long one that was the last night, but he's also glad – he surely wouldn't let him go, maybe just throw him over his shoulder and run away with him.

Then Jared lifts his right arm, and Jensen's breath hitches – on his forearm is one of the metal plates that Jensen just got rid of.

There's no time to mull over this, as Ida goes forward to bless the fighters.

Cupping Jared's face with both hands, she says, “May Fate smile upon you. May she be a caring mother,” brushing his brow with her lips. Then she does the same with the vyking.

Jensen can see the pain on her face when she turns, but as the priestess, she has to be neutral – the Old Hag will favor whoever she wants, and Ida can't give preference to anybody.

What's worse is the northlander's reaction – he wipes his brow with his hand and says, “No need for a blessing, woman. Fate has nothing to do with this – it's all about skill and power when I dismember this boy.”

It's Jeff's hand on Jensen's shoulder that stops him from walking right up to the asshole and punching him in the face.

His father then enters the circle and addresses both fighters.

“You will fight with blades to the death. There's one chance for each to ask for mercy, though. If the duel lasts longer than one span, you will be granted a rest and the fight will be resumed in the afternoon. Even though you're dismissive towards Fate, Vyking, she'll choose both of your fates the way she deems appropriate.”

Jeff leaves the circle of onlookers, and the fighters lift their weapons in greeting.

It begins.

“This mercy thing, that was Jared's stipulation, wasn't it?” Jensen asks when Jeff stops next to him.

“Yes, and Olsson called him a wimp for it,” Jeff replies. “Those vykings have a strong code of honor, and they're very skilled in combat. It won't be easy for Jared.”

That's obvious to notice. The foreign warrior is used to the equipment he's wearing – a powerful sword and heavy armor, no shield though. He's a couple of inches shorter than Jared, but heavily muscled, while Jared is lean and agile, but less experienced in sword fight – a boar fighting a deer.

The first few minutes it's just testing the waters – circling each other, thrusting just to see what happens.

The vykings clang their swords against their shields and cheer their comrade on, yelling encouragement at him and obscenities at his adversary. The forest tribe, though, stands silent.

Then Olsson lunges, and Jared dodges the strike easily that opens a flurry of blows.

Apparently, the northlander's trying to tire him out, spewing out insults to unhinge him, and Jensen realizes that he doesn't take the young man seriously.

Jared, on the other hand, is highly focused and doesn't react to the abuse. He ducks under a swing and blocks another one with the vambrace on his left arm that was designed just for this purpose. Jensen's never been so glad about the smith's craftsmanship.

Soon, though, Olsson notices that this strategy doesn't work. It's only making him start sweating in the midday heat. He blinks away the sweat dripping into his eyes.

Maybe that's the Old Hag favoring Jared. Since it's quite hot today, he's less affected by the heat than the vyking. Nevertheless, he's showing small signs of fatigue, and Jensen hopes for the break to begin soon.

Jared strikes the moment his adversary wipes his brow, swirling forward and inflicting a cut on his arm right where two plates of his armor are joined.

The northern warriors make a racket, howling and clanging their weapons, while the tribe only give a short, happy scream.

Jensen knows it's not just a lucky hit. Yet, he keeps on biting his knuckles to keep himself grounded and not storm the battle field.

Jared just proved to be a skilled fighter, but he now has to deflect angry blows that make him stumble backwards. He's bleeding sluggishly from a couple of shallow wounds, nothing but scratches, fortunately.

Of course the turning point happens when Jensen is distracted. He's watching Jeff watching the sun and obviously waiting to be able to announce the break, when a collective gasp turns his focus back onto the arena.

Olsson is lying with his back on the ground. Jared's kneeling on top of him, one foot pinning down his sword arm. The tip of Jared's sword scrapes his neck and draws a few drops of blood.

They're near enough for Jensen to hear Jared say, “Call for mercy, and it will be granted.”

Olsson laughs, short and breathless. “Little boy,” he replies sneeringly. “A true man never begs for mercy. Besides, there's no need for it.”

It's a small knife, maybe a dagger, hidden somewhere inside Olsson's armor. It flashes menacingly in the sunlight and makes Jensen's breath hitch. It feels like eons when it's only less than a moment for the blade to be drawn and then buried to the hilt in Jared's side.

However, instead of dropping to the side and off of Olsson, Jared jerks forward, driving the sword into the vyking's neck and through it. Then he watches his adversary bleed to death.

The crowd goes wild.

Jensen doesn't really notice the northlanders being overpowered by Jeff's best fighters before they can protest violently. Doesn't notice the uproar among the tribe, fighting his way through them.

When he reaches Jared, his mother's already there, trying to staunch the flow of blood. He falls down on his knees and lifts Jared's head carefully.

Jared grabs his wrist with bloodied hands, his eyes mirroring the sky, bright with pain.

“I'd never thought,” he says, breathing laboriously, “I could make it. Always drove my instructor insane with stalling, never charging.”

He groans in pain. “I hope I'll never have to kill someone again.”

He smiles at Jensen, but his eyes grow unfocused before he passes out.

~~~~~~

“He didn't break the rules,” Jeff says. “The duel was to be fought with blades, and he did use a blade. We just assumed it meant sword blades.”

“That's bearshit, and you know it!” Jensen yells. “That backstabbing bastard cheated, and he almost was successful!”

Jeff sighs.

The past few days were demanding, especially for him. Tahmoh sent the vykings home with a message for their chief, telling him in no uncertain terms to leave the Sovereign, the realm and the tribe alone.

The former inhabitants of the zenana prepare to return home, even though there probably is no zenana to return to, and the commander of the guard, now acting as the steward until further notice, wants to talk about replenishing the stock, which Jeff would be very happy about – which Jensen can't waste much thought on.

Like everyone else, he waits for Jared to wake up.

He's running a high fever. Ida tries to cool him down constantly, never leaving his side, but she's exhausted by now. She cries in Konrad's arms and sleeps in Jeff's, running herself ragged, and all Jensen can think is Don't give up.

He feeds Jared herbal brews, wipes him down with cool water, wraps him in blankets when he's shivering. He can't look, though, when his mother changes the dressings. There's so much pus and gore – if he doesn't see it, he can convince himself Jared will make it.

He's mad all the time. He's mad at his mother for not making Jared better; at Jeff for accepting stupid stipulations; at Tahmoh for the whole mess in the first place; at Jared for being sick; at himself for being helpless.

He can't pray to the Old Hag because she does what she wants, so he prays to the Nice Lady, who's actually Fate, too, but maybe he can talk her into helping.

It's been raining since last night which doesn't help his temper either.

So he's sitting next to Ida, snapping at everyone, and curses Jared's sense of responsibility to make an appearance just now.

It's already four days – maybe five, Jensen can't tell – when Ida leaves Jensen's Tree for the night. He hopes it's because she sees recovery where he can't.

Too exhausted, though, to keep his eyes open, he hovers at the brink of consciousness, and just at the moment they blink and close for the last time that night, there's a faint Willow whispered next to him.

He wakes up with a start to a cool finger caressing his cheek. Turning, he sees it's Jared looking at him with clear, if tired, eyes,

His sleep-addled brain needs a moment to understand what's happening.

“Jared,” he breathes.

“Hello, Willow,” Jared replies with a small smile.

“Oh Sun and Sky, you made it!”

Jared just smiles at him. It feels so good to have him back, and he needs to hold him tight so he can't leave ever, thus wraps his arms around the Jared's warm body and buries his face against his chest, mindful of his injury.

“Jensen, are you crying?” Jared sounds confused.

“Of course I am,” Jensen replies. “I thought you'd die.”

“But I didn't. I'm still here.”

Jared kisses him on the crown of his head, then on his mouth when Jensen looks up, his vision blurry through the tears.

~~~~~~

Jared's exhausted, he never felt this tired in all his life.

Jensen's still at his side, feeding him hot broth and keeping him company, sometimes humming under his breath.

He looks so happy. It will break both of their hearts when Jared says what he has to.

Tahmoh's back. He visits his wife and children regularly, and it seems like there's some mending happening in their relationship. He keeps him informed about the goings-on in the City, and not everything's back to normal.

There are still a few rebels that don't give up fighting – though there's no sense in it – and the citizens still mourn the fallen. Also, the vyking chief made public that he felt unjustly treated, so a war is still looming.

The tribe council is worried about this, but they still assure to ally with the Sovereign – which is the most amazing outcome of this mess. He's still the Sovereign, and people trust him.

He has to go back and be king.

When he tells Jensen, he can literally see his heart break.

There's a long pause, no noise besides the birds in the forest and the people down below. Then Jensen stands and leaves the tree cave without a word.

By now, Jared knows that, despite his willingness to talk and forgive, Jensen needs to work some things through on his own. Yet, he feels on edge for the rest of the day. He hoped to at least stay friends with Jensen, hoped for more, but would be content with anything his friend was ready to give.

In the evening, footsteps wake him – since he's still too exhausted to stay awake for the whole day – and it's Jensen standing in the opening.

“Jensen,” Jared says, smiling tiredly.

“I will come with you.”

Now Jared's wide awake. “What? Come again?”

At a slow, measured step, Jensen approaches, lowering himself onto Jared's bed, straddling him.

Jensen's face is so close, Jared can clearly see the light dusting of freckles on his nose and cheeks and the little dimple at the corner of his mouth that appears when he talks.

In a different context, Jared would be turned on like oh my fucking Lady, but right now, he just gives Jensen the undivided attention he demands.

“I choose to come with you,” Jensen says. “I choose you. I know I'll be able to come back home whenever I want because you won't force me to stay.”

“Of course.” Jared's head is bobbing eagerly in agreement. This is much more than he could have expected. “I made that mistake once, and I'll blame myself for it for the rest of my life.”

“You know I don't bear you a grudge.”

That's true, but Jared still feels ashamed of himself.

Taking Jensen's hands into his own, he says, “I swear I'll respect you. I'll treat you the way you deserve, and I'll find a way for us to be officially together. I'm the fucking Sovereign!”

Jensen chuckles. “You know, you just basically made an oath and tied the knot with me.”

“Huh. Now you give me notions,” Jared replies, growing lightheaded with the possibilities suddenly presenting themselves.

They kiss.

Then they kiss some more.

Jensen prostrates next to Jared, snuggling close to him, resting his head on Jared's shoulder.

“Do you know what will happen now?” Jensen asks.

“No. I'd like to, though,” Jared replies. “I'll disband the zenana and find a new life for the ladies and gents. I'll try to secure peace with the vyking chief, but beyond that? I don't know.”

Jensen turns in his arms, braces himself on his elbows. His eyes are the same shade of green as the foliage outside, and Jared thinks that this is his future.

“I'm scared,” Jensen admits. “There's a possible war looming, and it will bring pain and sorrow.”

"I'm scared too, Willow. But our peoples won't fight alone, City and Woods are united, and we have allies. Tahmoh is a brilliant strategist, if our attempts at negotiation fail.”

Jensen's expressive eyes show Jared what he will lose if his hope's shattered – his friend, his supporter, his love.

“Willow,” he says, gathers his lover in his arms, presses his brow against his own collarbone. “You're Willow, because you're willowy – flexible. We all need to be willows, we'll sway in the wind, but we won't break.”

Jared can feel Jensen smile against his skin.

“No,” he says, “we won't break.”





~fin~