Warnings:Violence, minor character death
Summary: With his father slain by a ruthless enemy, Prince Jensen of Glenhaven must fight to take back his family's kingdom and to win the heart of his best friend, Jared.
A/N: Written for spn_reversebang based on the fabulous artwork of gassadaa. I was so thrilled to get her prompt, and then she made it EVEN BETTER by coming up with two more gorgeous pieces and dividers too! Please be sure to visit her ART POST and leave her lots of love! Thank you to tebtosca for the beta, advice and encouragement, and to transfixeddream for keeping me on track even when I was distracted by real life woes.
In the dim light of a bloody harvest moon, Prince Jensen of Glenhaven knelt motionless on the ground, the grass of the field scorched by fiery arrows and torn by frantic horses’ hooves. The cries of the dying still rang in his head, though the last of those poor souls had long ago departed, the wounded carried away to be tended to by the healers. In the morning, his men would gather the dead and burn them, but for now they lay like marionettes with their strings cut, their limbs strewn at impossible angles.
The battle had been short but bloody. The mercenaries that the bastard Frederic de Lehne had hired from the north were skilled fighters and Jensen had lost many men, but he was grimly satisfied to note that Frederic had lost even more; Jensen’s men - his father’s men - had been vicious and merciless in their determination to regain the castle taken by Frederic through trickery and dishonor. Frederic still held the throne, but as far as Jensen was concerned that situation was only temporary.
“Jensen, you need to rest.”
Misha. His oldest friend looked haggard and worn, a jagged cut on his arm gleaming wetly in the moonlight.
Jensen spoke as though he hadn’t heard. “How is he?”
“Does he live?”
Misha paused, and Jensen knew he was choosing his words carefully. “For the moment, he lives.”
Jensen’s eyes closed in thanks, and he finally stood painfully and walked away from the battlefield without a backward glance.
A week ago...
“Hey, old man, don’t tell me you’re stopping at one tankard.” A slap to his shoulder had an exhausted Jensen bolting to attention on the wooden bench he occupied and shooting a glare at Misha. The sound of raucous laughter from the back of the tavern battled with a laughable performance by the innkeeper’s daughter on the lute, and he only barely managed to conceal a wince. Maybe he did need more ale, to help him relax after the three days’ hard ride from their home in the Kingdom of Glenhaven to carry a message from their king.
The long days of riding seemed to have done little to sap Misha’s energy, however, nor their friend Jared’s, for that matter, as the two of them rough-housed and jested across the table from Jensen, drawing a reluctant smile to his face as he watched their familiar antics. His gaze lingered a little longer, as always, on Jared. At one point Jared looked back, his eyes growing darker for a moment before his attention was claimed by Misha once more.
Jared always looked back, and Jensen wished not for the first time that one of them would actually gather the courage to do more than look. Jensen pushed the thought aside and took a large gulp from his tankard.
Misha finally left off harassing Jared in favor of sending a flirtatious smile to the serving girl, who simply raised a disbelieving eyebrow and wandered off to the next table. Jared’s laughter almost shook the rafters, until it was abruptly cut off as Misha shoved him off the bench.
As Jared scrambled to his feet and dusted off the seat of his trousers, the door of the tavern flew open with a crack, bouncing off the wall with the force as a bedraggled peasant stumbled into the tavern. The room went silent as everyone turned to stare at the peasant, who looked around frantically before homing in on Jensen and his friends. He rushed over and fell to his knees, his eyes searching the faces of Jared, Jensen and Misha frantically.
“What is it, man?” Jared asked, all traces of humor gone and his normally booming voice gentled to soothe the frantic man, as he would a skittish mare.
“It’s G-g-glenhaven,” the peasant stuttered, then covered his face with his hands.
“What of it?” Jensen asked sharply, a deep feeling of foreboding building in his chest.
“It’s been taken. The King has been slain, the Queen taken prisoner.”
“Who dares?” thundered Misha, his face drawn with anger and fear.
“Sir Frederic,” moaned the peasant, his head dropping to his hands. “The King’s cousin.”
Jared, Jensen and Misha were silent for a moment as they absorbed the impact of Frederic’s betrayal. Finally, Misha stood solemnly and raised his cup in a formal toast. The sober tone was so unusual for his friend that it took a moment for Jensen to focus on what Misha was saying.
“The King is dead. Long live the King.”
At Misha’s words, Jensen paled. In his shock and grief at hearing of the King’s death he hadn’t even considered the ramifications.
“No,” he whispered.
“Yes,” Jared said, drawing Jensen’s gaze away from Misha. Tears glittered in his eyes but did not fall. “He may have seized the throne through his treachery but Frederic is no king.” Jared abruptly rose from his chair and then sank to one knee before Jensen. A flash of comprehension crossed Misha’s face and then he too knelt before Jensen.
“Your Majesty,” Jared intoned solemnly.
“Jared, don’t -” Jensen interrupted desperately.
“Your Majesty,” Jared spoke louder, overriding Jensen’s protest. “I pledge to you that I will be faithful in service, that I will never cause you harm, and that my sword shall serve you until my death...” Dimly Jensen heard Misha repeating the oath behind Jared and for a moment he became lost in a flash of memory.
The crash of wooden swords filled the air as two young boys wielded their weapons with much enthusiasm but hardly any skill between them. Jared, tall for his age and as thin as a beanpole, with his slanted, changeable eyes and deep dimples that appeared with the slightest provocation. Jensen, with fair, freckled skin and mossy green eyes. Watching off to the side stood Misha, blue-eyed, dark-haired and astonishingly quick-witted. Thick as thieves and as close as brothers, the three were rarely apart.
“One more time, Jensen, and this time watch your opponent’s eyes and not his hands,” rumbled the patiently amused voice of Sir Jeffrey, the swordmaster. Jensen smiled apologetically and took his mark again, determined to show Sir Jeffrey the correct form this time. At Sir Jeffrey’s signal the boys were in motion, still awkward but with a definite improvement in form. Jensen managed to parry one of Jared’s thrusts, and slid his own blunt wooden sword up to butt against Jared’s chest. Jared stilled, all fight gone, and grinned in good-natured congratulations.
“Well done, Jensen,” came a new voice, and Jensen looked over to see his father watching them proudly. Jensen ran over and threw his spindly arms around his father’s waist.
“Did you see, Papa?” he demanded excitedly, “Did you see me best Jared?”
“I did,” said Jensen’s father. “You did very well. And so did you, young Jared. You almost had Jensen beat for a moment there. You’ll be a fine warrior someday.” He smiled gently and Jared ducked his head, flushing a bit at the praise. Misha rolled his eyes and Jensen’s father winked at him. “Now why don’t you run around back to the kitchens and ask Cook for some tarts for you and your friends.” The three boys cheered and ran off laughing, scaring the chickens in the lane as they passed. The villagers ignored them, used to the boys roaming free all over the castle keep like heathens, secure in their innocent certainty that nothing bad could ever happen to them.
They had been friends all their lives, but gazing at the men on their knees in front of him, Jensen realized how far away the innocent days of their youth were now. No longer were they boys running wild through the village; they were men, about to go to war, and they expected Jensen to be the one to lead them.
“I need some air.” Jensen stood abruptly and strode out the tavern, not missing the worried looks that Jared and Misha exchanged as he passed.
Once he got outside he realized he had nowhere to go. He stood in the courtyard, breathing heavily as he tried to get his emotions under control. He braced his hand on the hitching post in front of him and stared out into the night. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there when a hand touched him on the shoulder. Somehow he just knew it was Jared. Jared, who always seemed to understand what he was feeling.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Jensen said, not turning around. “My father. I just saw him a few days ago; he was strong and happy and alive. How can this be real, Jared?”
“Your Maj-” as Jensen’s back tensed, Jared relented. “Jensen. I know how much you loved your father. He was a good man, and a good king.”
“I just can’t believe he’s gone.” The warmth of Jared’s hand returned, and Jensen felt himself leaning into it, craving the comfort that Jared offered.
“Jensen, you know I loved your father, too,” Jared murmured earnestly. “I swear I will help you to avenge him. Misha, too. We will help you to free your mother and regain your family’s rightful kingdom. You will be king.”
“I’m not ready, Jared!” Jensen shouted, then lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “I’m not ready to be king. I thought I’d have years and years before I took the throne. My father was a great king. I can’t be the man he is - was.”
“You’ll be your own man, Jensen. Your father taught you what you need to know to be a good king. But first we must regain the castle.”
Jensen took a deep breath and held it for a moment. He released it slowly and then gave a final, determined nod of his head.
“Just - do not call me king, Jared. I am not king until we have taken back the castle. First we must go to war.”
The ride back to the kingdom was tense and silent, in sharp contrast to the ride out. Jensen had only taken a small contingent of ten men with them on the journey, as it was expected to be a simple delivery of a message to a remote duchy. Thinking back on it now, Jensen realized that both the message and the small number of men had been Frederic’s idea. Frederic, who had been his father’s cousin and his trusted advisor for decades. Jensen wondered just how long he’d been plotting to take the throne. It couldn’t have been a sudden whim; the planning involved would have taken time.
They stopped a day’s ride from the castle. With only ten soldiers in addition to the three of them, their options were limited. As they had gotten closer to the castle they had been able to learn more about the coup. It seemed Frederick had hired an army of mercenaries, promising them untold riches and power if they helped him to take over the castle. After ensuring that Jensen was away from the kingdom, Frederic had let the mercenaries into the castle in the dead of night and before the king’s men could be alerted they had killed the castle guard and captured the King and Queen. Frederic had personally slit the King’s throat. On hearing this piece of news Jensen, Jared and Misha had looked at each other grimly. No words were exchanged but each of them knew that Frederic had signed his own death warrant.
They sent a pair of their guardsmen to scout for a patrol of the King’s men.Though the castle guard had been slain by the mercenaries, there would be soldiers outside the castle that kept the peace throughout the kingdom. Jensen’s father had been a beloved king; there was no doubt that the soldiers would fight to retake the castle once Jensen was there to lead them. While they waited for word from their soldiers, Jensen, Jared and Misha went down to the lake to bathe.
At the water’s edge they removed their shirts and briskly washed themselves. Ordinarily there would be laughter and rough-housing but not today. Misha finished quickly and made his way back to camp, leaving Jensen and Jared to finish alone.
Even as heavy as his mood was, Jensen still found it hard to look away from the rugged planes of Jared’s body as he stood letting the air dry him enough to put his shirt back on. A stray drop of moisture slid slowly down his left pectoral and Jensen had to bite his lip against the urge to lap it up. He finally raised his eyes and found Jared staring back at him, his eyes dark with unnamed emotion.
This wasn’t the first time the two of them had shared a charged moment. Over the years there had been countless times when their glances would linger longer than mere friendship would dictate, or when a touch would become slightly more than innocent. But neither of them had ever initiated more, whether out of fear of rejection or of destroying their friendship, Jensen did not know.
But now, on the verge of war, Jensen couldn’t think of one good reason not to act, to feel Jared’s skin just once. He knew from the look in his friend’s eyes that Jared wouldn’t push him away.
His hand lifted slowly, intending to trace the path of that stray droplet. Suddenly Jared’s eyes widened and he tackled Jensen to the ground.
While Jensen had often dreamed of Jared covering him with his bare-chested body, this had never been quite how he’d pictured it. He struggled to push himself up but Jared kept him pinned down.
“Be still!” Jared whispered harshly.
“Wha-” Jensen’s query was abruptly cut off by Jared’s large hand covering his mouth. Jared bent low and whispered into Jensen’s ear, causing him to shiver.
“Mercenaries riding on the trail. They haven’t seen seen us, and they won’t if you just. Stay. Still.”
Jensen’s struggles stopped completely and Jared’s grip on his mouth loosened and finally dropped away when he was satisfied that Jensen wasn’t going to give away their position.
Jensen knew the moment Jared had deemed the threat to have passed, because he could feel the tension leave Jared’s body as he settled more comfortably into the vee between Jensen’s legs.
“Now, then, where were we?”Jared flashed his white, slightly uneven teeth in a wicked smile as he braced himself on straight arms over Jensen’s head, causing his pelvis to press into Jensen’s. Jensen could feel them both growing hard in their trousers and he raised his hand to touch Jared the way he’d wanted for so long.
Raising one hand to Jared’s shoulder, he smoothed it down the flat plane of Jared’s pectoral, the way he’d intended before Jared had hurled him unceremoniously to the ground. His fingers grazed the hard point of Jared’s nipple as they passed, and Jared hissed out a breath, causing Jensen to smirk.
“Think that’s funny, do you?” Jared mock-growled, and ducked his head nip at Jensen’s bottom lip. Now it was Jensen’s turn to hiss, and he could feel Jared’s body shake with silent laughter. They sobered slowly as Jared finally settled his lips firmly over Jensen’s, his tongue peeking forward to play at the seam of Jensen’s lips until they opened with a sigh and they tasted each other for the first time.
They spent long minutes exploring each other, mapping the new territory of each others’ mouths. Jensen’s hands slid around to Jared’s back, and with his fingertips he traced the long deep groove of Jared’s spine, loving the feel of the long firm muscles that ran parallel to it. The light touch teased a shiver out of Jared, and Jensen smiled inwardly to discover that Jared was ticklish there. Though he’d known Jared most of his life, there were still many things Jensen had to learn about him; he found that thought unbearably exciting.
Finally, needing more, Jensen’s hands came up to either side of Jared’s neck to position his head as he fought to gain control of the kiss. Jared willingly let him, and Jensen rolled them over until he was lying across the broad expanse of Jared’s chest. He deepened the kiss, his tongue delving into Jared’s mouth. His hands gripped Jared’s biceps to steady himself as he ground down into the cradle of Jared’s hips, feeling Jared’s cock pushing against the hardness of his own.
Jensen tore his lips away from Jared’s and looked down into that familiar face, wanting to savor the look of arousal that he’d put there. Jared met his eyes directly, and Jensen was relieved to see that he wasn’t in this alone, that Jared was with him all the way. Sensing his thoughts as he always seemed to, Jared smiled reassuringly and pulled him back down into the kiss.
Jared’s hands clamped around Jensen’s hips and pulled him down tightly, thrusting his hips up at the same time and Jensen knew they could both reach completion this way, as quickly as untried boys. He ground down into Jared as the kiss became almost violent in its intensity. After having repressed his need for Jared for so many years, Jensen felt almost as though, now that he was finally touching him, he couldn’t get close enough.
Jared appeared to feel the same as he moaned and ground back up against Jensen’s driving thrusts. He felt Jared’s motions stutter and then freeze as Jared reached his peak, pulling his mouth away and rearing his head back into the grass as he arched up. The motion ground him tighter against Jensen and that was enough to bring Jensen to his own completion, gritting his teeth against a shout. He collapsed in a boneless heap on Jared’s chest, Jared’s arms coming up around him to pull him close as they recovered their breath
“Why did we never do this before?” Jared wondered.
“I don’t know,”Jensen replied, smiling, “I think we were both too afraid. But no more. I don’t want to go back to simply being friends.”
“No going back,” Jared agreed, stroking his hand down Jensen’s back. They lay there for long minutes, enjoying the peace while they could; they knew it wouldn’t last long.
Eventually they made their way back to camp. Misha took one look at them, muttered “About damn time,” and turned back to preparing their meal.
The next day the men Jensen had sent out returned, bringing with them only ten more men but with the assurance that within the next few days there would arrive at least another hundred from the patrols scattered throughout the kingdom, men who were eager to fight to avenge their king and the men killed by Frederic’s mercenaries, and to free their queen.
They had thought to wait for the arrival of all of the promised men before engaging Frederic’s mercenaries, but the choice was taken from them when a patrol of Frederic’s men set upon them as they travelled nearer to the castle.
The first taste of battle was a shock to Jensen. There were only a small number of mercenaries, no more than twenty-five, but it seemed to Jensen like there were more. While he had trained as a warrior for most of his life, he had never had the occasion to experience true battle; they were at peace with the neighboring kingdoms and any small skirmishes with renegade mercenaries were easily quashed by the king’s patrols.
Now the frantic action and shouts of the men had Jensen’s heart beating from a mixture of trepidation and rage.
“Stay behind me,” Jared muttered to Jensen as the mercenaries they battled came ever closer to where Jared, Jensen and Misha waited at the ready.
Jensen looked at him in disbelief. “I don’t need you to protect me, Jared,” he said, “I’m not a weakling; I can look after myself.”
Urging his horse forward, he threw himself into the fray, ignoring Jared’s shout and slashing at the mercenary in front of him. He easily parried a thrust from the man, following through with a solid blow of his own that knocked the man from his horse. He was dimly surprised at how easily he’d bested the man, but had no time to take satisfaction before he was set upon by a second. This one put up more of a fight than the first, but Jensen still took him down within a few minutes. It’s possible he became slightly overconfident after that because the third did not go down easily. Jensen found himself using every bit of skill he’d learned just to block the man’s attack, and finally a stray blow to his head knocked him from his horse and everything went black.
When Jensen awoke he was being jostled so much he thought he might vomit. Or die. Preferably die.
“Damn you, Jensen!” Jared was mumbling, and Jensen opened his eyes only to be assaulted by a stabbing pain in his head. The movement he felt was Jared walking as he carried - carried Jensen off the battlefield and Jensen burned with humiliation. Some would-be king he was. He was surrounded by his men, Misha close to his side with a concerned look on his face.
“Put me down, Jared,” Jensen hissed. “The King cannot be carried off the battlefield like a child! There’s a battle going on!”
“The battle is over; the mercenaries are all dead. And you keep reminding me you are not the king yet,” Jared replied stonily, and Jensen could see that his face was white with rage. “Since you won’t let your guard actually guard you, Sire, you will have to deal with the consequences.”
Jensen wanted to argue more, but the pressure in his head was becoming almost unbearable and he decided he could always yell at Jared later. He grimly allowed Jared to carry him away from the heat of the battle and set him on the ground .
Jared flopped down beside him, breathing heavily. Without the constant jostling of being carried, Jensen’s headache abated enough that he could form a coherent thought again.
“Jared,” he tried, but was cut off by a sudden torrent of words from Jared, as if a dam had burst.
“Jensen, you are going to be a king. I know that you are used to doing as you please, but being king means you have a responsibility to lead the people. If you die, what becomes of them? The kingdom will remain in Frederic’s hands. It is your duty to stay alive to rule the kingdom, and it is my duty to protect you.”
“Jared, I’m a trained warrior,” Jensen protested. “I’ve been training as long as you have. I can take care of myself, you know this.”
“You are indeed well-trained; Sir Jeffrey would have accepted no less.” He lifted his hand to Jensen’s cheek, holding Jensen’s gaze with his own. “I am not asking you not to fight, Jensen; I know you not a man to let others to fight your battles without doing your part. I am simply saying use caution, and let me and the other men protect you when we can.”
Jensen begrudgingly acknowledged the wisdom in Jared’s words. He leaned forward and pressed a brief kiss to Jared’s lips. “Very well; I believe I can do that.”
Jensen’s promise was put to the test three days later, when Jensen’s hastily-gathered army advanced on the castle at dusk, the armor-clad soldiers engaging the bulk of Frederic’s mercenaries who defended their hold on the castle from outside its walls. Unlike the small skirmish of days before, this was a full-fledged battle, and the difference was immediately apparent as Jensen saw man after man cut down before him.
The fighting was fast and furious, but despite the frenzied action Jensen was mindful of his promise not to put himself at needless risk. He allowed the other men to go in first, to take the brunt of the attack by the mercenaries. He was grimly satisfied that he was able to get a few blows in himself, though, as the occasional enemy fighter slipped through his men’s guard. Jared stayed close to his side, and though Jensen could not afford to lose his focus on the enemy, a small corner of his mind was conscious of the speed and grace Jared showed on the battlefield. Sir Jeffrey would be proud.
Now Jensen’s full attention was taken by the mercenary who appeared in front of him. Jared and Misha were both occupied fighting, and Jensen knew he’d have to fight the man himself, and damn the risk. This one was larger than the others he’d fought so far, his armor spattered with the blood of the men he’d fought and likely killed. He wore no helmet, and Jensen could see from the crazed look in his eye that he was out for Jensen’s blood.
Jensen took a deep breath and readied his sword to engage his enemy. The man charged straight at him, swinging his broadsword and Jensen was able to block it with his shield, the shock reverberating up his arm. He brought his own sword around and it connected with the mercenary’s arm, the blade denting the armor there but not penetrating it. The mercenary loosed a flurry of blows that took all Jensen’s skill to deflect. Only one scored a hit, slipping between the joints of the armor on his left arm and leaving the burning sting of a shallow cut.
The other man suddenly dove off his horse, knocking Jensen from his own and he was stunned for a moment but was able to roll aside just as the man’s fist came crashing toward his face, the knuckles just barely grazing Jensen’s cheek as he moved. He came up with the sword he’d dropped in the fall from his horse, and brought it around quickly to connect with the man’s side. The mercenary grunted heavily and Jensen knew his blade had done some damage, even with the man’s armor.
Jensen pressed his advantage, scrambling to his feet and swinging his sword again and again. The mercenary was moving slower now, and Jensen was able to land some solid blows. Finally he sliced his blade in from the side, aiming for the same spot he’d hit before. This time the blade penetrated farther, cutting through flesh and the man’s face contorted with pain before he dropped to the ground, his blood shining wetly in the fading light.
Jensen stood panting for a moment, watching to ensure the mercenary did not rise to attack again. Suddenly he heard Jared bellow his name and looked around quickly to see another enemy soldier behind him, sword raised and Jared leaping from his horse to tackle the man to the ground. Jensen waited but neither man moved. Heart in his throat he rushed forward and rolled Jared off the other man, panicked to see a large smear of blood between them.
“Jared, wake up, come on, man, open your eyes,” Jensen said running his hands over what he could reach of Jared’s body. His hand came away wet and he looked closer at Jared’s side, horrified to see blood dripping from between the plates of armor. The mercenary’s sword must have slipped through the small opening as Jared tackled him.
“Jensen, let me take him.” Jensen hadn’t even noticed Misha approaching.
“I’m not leaving him!” Jensen raged, and Misha gripped his shoulders, shaking him slightly.
“You must, Jensen. Your place is here. I will take Jared to the healer and see if there is anything to be done for him.” Misha’s words were matter-of-fact but Jensen could see the fear in his eyes and his gut tightened. He knew Misha was right; his place was leading the men, but they didn’t even know if Jared would survive the night. He gripped Jared’s hand and squeezed tightly, then stood in a rush.
“Take him. I mean to end this tonight. And Misha, tell the healer that if Jared dies he will answer to me.”
Misha smiled approvingly. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Jensen ran over to his horse which thankfully hadn’t strayed too far. He mounted quickly and charged back into the fray with a Berserker’s rage. His frenzy seemed to incite his men to fight even harder, and the intensity of the battle increased until it was a blur of movement and sounds of the clashing of steel and the screams of injured men and horses alike.
The battle was brutal but short, and despite their skill the mercenaries were defeated by Jensen’s men. The men gave a triumphant cheer when the last mercenary was dispatched and they prepared to at last enter the now-undefended castle gates.
Jensen took the lead as the gates swung open, but before he could pass through, a voice from high atop the castle walls rang out.
“Jensen, stop!” It was his mother, her voice shaking and scared.
Jensen motioned for his soldiers to halt, and they waited for her to continue. Instead of the Queen’s voice, however, Frederic’s voice came next.
“Congratulations on a battle well fought, Prince Jensen,” he said mockingly. “It’s a shame you took out so many of my soldiers, but on the bright side, now I won’t have to pay them.”
“It’s over, Frederic, we’ve won.” Jensen growled.
“You always were a little shortsighted, weren’t you, boy?” Frederic laughed. “You do realize I still have your mother, don’t you?” The Queen cried out and Jensen knew that Frederic had hurt her just to get to him. His fist clenched. “You may have won the battle, but as long as I have her, I’ve won this war, boy.”
Jensen cursed. He wanted to rush in and kill Frederic more than anything but he couldn’t put his mother at risk. Frederic had him by the balls and he knew it. Jensen motioned at his men and they silently turned around to leave. The humiliation of retreating with his tail tucked between his legs burned, and Jensen’s jaw clenched with impotent rage.
“Ta ta, now!” was Frederic’s last mocking farewell.
Jensen’s men headed off to camp to await their next orders, but Jensen rode through the battlefield, grimly surveying the damage done that night. Bodies lay all around him, men from both sides killed in battle. When he reached the spot where Jared had fallen, he dismounted his horse and knelt in the grass, defeated.
Pushing aside the flap that covered the entrance of the healer’s tent, Jensen paused a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light. There were several pallets on the ground, each occupied by a wounded soldier. The coppery scent of blood stung his nose, and cries of pain filled his ears. These were Jensen’s men, injured trying to save his kingdom, and for a moment the guilt was almost crushing. It was pushed aside when his gaze fixed on a mop of brown hair that he instantly recognized as Jared’s.
Jared looked smaller unconscious, as if his usual vitality took up more space than his body and when it was gone he was somehow diminished. His lashes cast dark half-circles on his cheeks and Jensen was alarmed by his friend’s pallor.
Jensen tore his gaze away from Jared to focus on the small, exhausted-looking healer.
“Sire, Sir Jared took a sword in his side.”
Jensen struggled to keep his face impassive.
The healer continued, “Fortunately, his rib deflected the blade and kept the damage to a minimum. I’ve cauterized the wound. If the fever doesn’t set in, he may yet live.”
“My thanks,” Jensen forced out. The healer nodded and moved away to continue treating the injured men. Jensen slowly approached Jared’s pallet and knelt down beside him. He placed a trembling hand on Jared’s chest, gaining comfort from the regular rise and fall of Jared’s chest.
“Jared?” he murmured quietly. At first there was no response and then Jared’s eyelids fluttered. Jensen leaned forward in anticipation but Jared’s eyes didn’t open. He sank back on his heels in disappointment.
He sat there for several hours, just staring at Jared and willing him to wake. He vaguely noticed Misha appearing a few times to check on Jared, his face drawn with worry. When it became clear that Jared wasn’t going to wake anytime soon, but that he didn’t seem to be getting any worse, Jensen and Misha began to talk strategy - something they should have done before rushing into battle.
“We can’t go rushing in there again, Misha. At the first sign of our soldiers Frederic will make good on his threat to kill my mother. We’re just lucky he hasn’t already.”
“We need to be a little more subtle. Think, Jensen, who knows the castle better than we do? How many times did we sneak outside the castle walls when we were growing up?”
Jensen remembered the three of them running around the castle keep like hellions, disobeying his mother’s edict to stay near the castle. There was a hole in the castle wall that faced the forest, one nobody would know about unless they were looking for it. The boys had gone outside the walls countless times without having ever been caught.
“Misha, you’re a genius.”
“I do try, my lord,” Misha returned dryly. “We’ll go in through the wall. Most of the mercenaries were dispatched in the battle; we just need to get to Frederic and finish this.”
They worked out the details of their plan, and Jensen was confident they could see it done this time. In the early hours of the morning Misha clasped a comforting hand to Jensen’s shoulder and then went off to catch a few hours of sleep.
Jensen must have finally dozed off himself, sitting there on the ground beside Jared, because he awoke to Jared’s hand brushing against his knee.
“Jared?” He took hold of Jared’s hand, breathing a sigh of relief at the strength of the grip that returned his. Jared’s eyes fluttered open, finally fixing on Jensen’s face.
“What happened?” he croaked out.
“You nearly got yourself killed, that’s what happened,” said Jensen, his stomach tightening in remembrance.
Jared’s face lit with recognition. “That bastard was about to stab you in the back!” He struggled to rise and pain flashed across his face. Jensen pushed him back down gently.
“Easy, Jared, I’m safe. You saved me. You were foolish, but you saved me.”
“We have talked about this, Jensen. You are the king, whether you accept the title or not. It is my duty to protect you.”
Jensen felt a hollow feeling in his chest. Duty. He swallowed his disappointment.
“Jared, I would not have you die to save me.”
“Don’t you see, Jensen?” Jared said, his hand gripping Jensen’s tightly, “I can’t let you get hurt. I won’t. Jensen...” Jensen leaned towards him, intent on hearing the remainder of that sentence. When nothing came, he squeezed Jared’s hand.
Jared’s eyes fixed on his, unwavering. “I love you, Jensen. I always have, I think.”
“You fool,” Jensen laughed harshly, “I love you, too, and I will always want to protect you, as well. So where does that leave us?”
“I suppose we can always let Misha protect both of us,” Jared smiled, and Jensen laughed softly and leaned down to press a kiss to his lips.
“Tomorrow we take back the castle, Jared. We’ve defeated the majority of the mercenaries, we just need to get inside the castle to get to my mother.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“Jared, you’re wounded!” Jensen snapped. “That sword could have killed you. The healer stopped the bleeding but - “
“But nothing,” Jared insisted. “I won’t want to try wrestling anyone for awhile, but I will hold together. I am coming to help free your mother and take back your castle, Jensen. I will see this through to the finish.”
Jensen had known Jared for more most of his life, and he knew when Jared got that look in his eyes that there was no moving him.
“Stubborn bastard,” he chided softly.
Jared simply closed his eyes and smiled, knowing he’d already won the argument.
In the darkest hours of the next night, Jared, Jensen and Misha led a small group of men through the hole in the castle wall, staying to the shadows to avoid detection by the few mercenaries left to guard the castle. Jensen was savagely glad they had killed most of the mercenaries in the battle; there would be less to contend with now as they tried to get to Frederic.
They slipped into the keep and through the door in the back that led to the kitchens, knowing only the baker would be there at this time, getting a head start on the day’s bread.
The baker let out a gasp of surprise as the men passed by the kitchens, but when he recognized Jensen’s face, his face sagged in relief and he pressed a finger to his lips to indicate that he would keep silent. Jensen nodded approvingly at him and smiled briefly.
They went through the door into the castle proper and were both relieved and disgusted to find a few of the remaining mercenaries passed out at the tables in the great hall, drunk on Jensen’s father’s best wine. Jensen sneered and continued past, moving silently up the stairs towards the Queen’s bedchamber.
Jensen pushed open the door, and stopped short when he saw the light of a candle was burning, and Frederic stood there holding the Queen around the waist, a dagger pressed to her throat. Jensen was enraged, all the more so to see Frederic wearing the King’s crown as if it was his by right.
“I knew you’d come, you foolish boy,” Frederic sneered. “You think you’re so clever but you’re not the silent hunter you think you are.”
Jensen winced at the thought that they’d betrayed themselves by being too loud in their approach. He stepped forward.
“Jensen!” cried his mother, and Jensen froze as he saw a drop of blood appear on her neck as Frederic pressed the dagger closer.
“Give it up,” said Frederic. “If you come even one step closer I will kill her. Take your men and leave the castle, and perhaps I’ll spare her. I had planned to make her my queen. She will look lovely, gracing my bed.” He tilted his head closer to the Queen and closed his eyes as he inhaled deeply. Jensen burned with rage at the violation, but he could not approach further for fear of Frederick following through with his threat to kill Jensen’s mother.
“I could have killed you, you know,” Frederic said conversationally. “It would have been so easy to have let my men into the castle while you were still here and let them slit your ignorant throat, the way I slit your father’s.”
“Why didn’t you?” Jensen growled.
“Killing your father was necessary in order to take the throne. Not to mention...personally satisfying. The throne should have been mine. My father should have been born first, not your grandfather!” Jensen realized Frederic’s hatred of Jensen’s father had been burning for years in Frederic’s crazed mind. Jensen’s hands clenched with rage, and Frederic smirked before continuing, “But with your mother as my queen, and your loyal support, the people will accept me as their rightful king soon enough.”
“You really are mad, aren’t you?” Jensen scoffed. “Do you really think I will be loyal to you? You killed my father!”
“And I can still kill your mother,” Frederic snapped, his hand tightening cruelly on her wrist, causing her to cry out in pain. “So I would suggest that you rethink your position, Prince Jensen.”
Jensen let out a curse. “Very well. I will leave the castle.”
“Now, that doesn’t sound very convincing, does it, Sweetness?” Frederic crooned mockingly to the Queen. He flicked a glance at Jensen. “I’m afraid I will need you to kneel and give me your oath of fealty, Prince Jensen. I know your father raised you never to go back on an oath.”
Nearly shaking with frustrated rage, Jensen approached Frederic and his mother. He slowly went down on one knee. Frederic removed the dagger from the Queen’s throat but kept his grip on her wrist.
“I’m waiting,” Frederic said in a bored tone.
Jensen took a moment to get his voice under control and then started “I, Prince Jensen of Glenh-” he was cut off as his mother seemed to stumble, knocking Frederic off balance and breaking his grip on her wrist. Jensen exploded to his feet and punched Frederic in the mouth, knocking him on his bottom on the stone floor.
Frederic made to get up, gripping the knife tightly in one hand.
“Jensen!” came a shout and Jensen knew it was Jared. He spared a brief glance toward the doorway in time to see Jared toss a sword his way. He prayed he wouldn’t fumble it and somehow managed to catch it without dropping it.
Gripping the sword with both hands, Jensen swung his body about and with full strength brought the sword against Frederick’s neck, taking his head cleanly from his shoulders.
As it fell to the ground, the King’s crown rolled to a stop in front of Jared’s foot.
He bent down and picked it up, rubbing it against his trouser leg to clean it. He glanced at the Queen and she gave a tremulous smile and nodded her approval. Approaching Jensen, Jared went down on one knee and offered the crown up to him with a solemn “My king.”
Jensen took the crown and settled it atop his head, then pulled Jared up by the hand.
“You don’t kneel to me, Jared. You saved my life, and you helped save this kingdom. I’d much rather you stand by my side.”
Jared gave a slow smile and looked deeply into Jensen’s eyes, silently communicating a commitment far beyond that of a vassal to his lord.