What happens to a story, I wonder, when the monster is the one being punished?
It might have stayed like that forever, with the boys locked up and his friend visiting when he could, if not for the fact that birds are experts at fixing injustices like this.
So the birds set up a test for the boy, and for the people who locked him up. Could they show compassion for each other? Could they stop being afraid of each other? Could they forgive what had happened in the past and remember how to care again?
"Jensen," Jared said, when he came to a stop in front of the bars. Jared looked smaller, diminished by the guilt that was sitting obviously and uneasily on his shoulders. "I'm glad you came back. I didn't mean t-"
"There's an army coming," Jensen interrupted him, and tried not to notice the way Jared's face fell. "Gol Raiders. They're going to destroy Kerak."
Jared's lip curled. "You came here to tell me that?"
"If I got you out of here," Jensen said, and suddenly had the full focus of Jared's attention. "Would you be able to stop them?"
"Would you?" Jensen asked again.
"Why would I?" Jared demanded. "An invasion is no more than this city deserves."
"I know you don't owe Tjal anything."
"Then why ask?"
"Because this is my home. And, though you've never been given the chance to see it, it's a good one." Jensen raked a hand through his hair, betraying his own nervousness. "More than that, a lot of good people are going to die if the Gols attack. I don't know what it was like when you were first captured, but the people who live here right now aren't your enemy. Most of them don't even know you're here."
"Then perhaps they should be blamed for being ignorant of their own crimes," Jared snapped.
"Including me?" Jensen asked, and Jared's expression flickered. "I didn't know you were here either, and I live practically on top of you. Should I be killed by the Gols as penance?"
"No," Jared said roughly. "Not you. You're... my friend."
"Those people shouldn't be punished either," Jensen said, ignoring the ridiculous way his heart was fluttering at Jared's admission. He put every ounce of sincerity he possessed into his words. "It's the same as you being locked up for your parents' crimes. Don't you want to be better than the people who imprisoned you?"
"You're trying to manipulate me," Jared accused.
"I'm trying to convince you," Jensen corrected. "There's a difference."
"Looks the same from this side of the bars."
Jensen sighed. "I'm asking for your help as my friend. No one else can do this. Just you."
Jared looked at him for a long moment. "If I refuse," he said slowly. "I assume that I'm to remain here and share in the city's fate?"
Jensen took a deep breath. "No. Even if they destroy every other good thing in my life, they're not going near you. No matter what you decide, I'm going to get you out of here."
Jared's sucked in a sharp breath. "You wouldn't," he said, so softly that Jensen barely heard it.
"What?" he asked, assuming he'd misunderstood.
"You wouldn't." Jared raised his chin, challenge written in every line of his body. "The Jensen I know wouldn't do this."
Jensen flinched. "Well, maybe I'm trying to be a better Jensen than the one you know!"
"How can I believe that? I told you that I wanted to kill those cursed keepers of yours after years of punishment, and you fled in terror!" Jared's voice ricocheted off the walls, full of pain and confusion. "Why would you even consider helping me after that?"
"Because you deserve to be free." Jensen said, with what he thought was admirable steadiness. "And you're my friend, so I trust you."
Jared deflated all at once. "That's not fair," he said, in a small, lost voice.
"I'm not trying to be fair. I'm trying to help. I mean, I'd be lying if I said I'm not hoping you'll help us in return, but I'm not going to stop you if you decide to go." He offered Jared a wan smile. "And if you decide to drown Kerak in snow, at least it'll probably be a faster death than the-"
"Don't." Jared was up against the bars before Jensen had realized he'd moved, only the faintest sliver of space between him and the silver bars. His eyes burned with emotions that Jensen couldn't read. "Just, don't."
Biting his lip, Jensen nodded.
"You're not allowed to die," Jared said, at once a threat and a plea. He took a deep breath. "I'll help you stop the attack."
Jensen beamed at him. "Really?"
Jared nodded. "But after…" His expression wavered for a moment before his jaw firmed. "I'm leaving Tjal. You're coming with me."
Jensen suspected that Jared hadn't intended that to sound like a question.
"Every step of the way," he agreed, and tried not to think too hard about how Jared would react when he learned the truth.
The two of them considered and discarded a number of ideas for how to break Jared out of his prison, before finally settling on a plan that seemed workable. Much as Jensen would have preferred to free Jared right then and there, he knew that they needed to plan more carefully than that. They'd only have one chance at this.
Jensen found himself torn between nervous excitement and dread as he wished Jared goodbye, knowing that - for better or worse - it was the last time he'd do it. His mind buzzed with a dozen things he needed to do before they staged their jailbreak as he made his way back to the rookery. Once there, he gave the ravens a brief rundown of the plan.
"I think it'll work," he told them. "As long as things go right."
Of course, things never seemed to go as Jensen planned.
"Jensen!" Tahmoh's voice echoed up the stairs, and Jensen just barely managed to shove the travel bag he was packing for Jared out of sight before Tahmoh appeared at the top of the stairs.
Something inside Jensen's chest went cold at the sight of him.
"Lord Keeper," he said coolly. "It's rare to get a visit from you."
"We're organizing a caravan to transport the ravens to the southern border city of Tanak," Tahmoh said without preamble.
"We're abandoning Kerak?" Jensen asked, stunned.
"Not permanently," Tahmoh promised, which sounded like a 'yes' to Jensen. "Help from Yous is coming. And the city guardsmen are preparing to defend the city. But we can't risk the Gols getting a chance to harm the sacred ravens. So we're moving them - and you - as a precaution."
The urge to demand what they were planning on doing with the khretha in the basement was hot on his tongue, but Jensen bit back the words.
"Makes sense," he said instead. "When is this happening?"
"First light tomorrow. Our scouts say that the Gols are still two days' journey away from Kerak, so that should give us more than enough of a lead."
"Understood," Jensen said.
Tahmoh peered at him. "Is something wrong? You don't seem yourself."
Jensen scrubbed a hand over his face. "Just nervous," he said, and dimly reflected that he was getting better at lying; that had sounded almost genuine. "You know I've never left Kerak before."
"We'll be back before you know it," Tahmoh promised. Jensen had to wonder which of them he was lying to. "The guardsmen will be here after the evening meal to help you get the sacred ravens prepared for travel."
More than done with this conversation, Jensen simply nodded and mouthed the necessary platitudes to get Tahmoh out of the rookery so he could think.
"They're coming to pack you up in cages this afternoon," he told the ravens, who were crowded together on one of the windowsills for reasons Jensen couldn't even begin to fathom. "And I can't break Jared out if I'm supposed to be taking care of you lot. Any ideas?"
Immediately, the ravens launched themselves out the window and set off in different directions. Jensen watched them go for a moment, hands on his hips.
"Huh," he said thoughtfully. "That'll do it."
Really, Jensen was about ready to start letting them make all the plans; things clearly worked out better that way.
Jensen finished packing the travel bag, bought some important supplies in the rapidly-emptying Market, stowed his purchases in the temple storeroom, and then went to Aldis, the Captain of the Guardsmen, in a panic.
"They're gone!" he gasped, doing his best to sound properly panicked. Judging by the expression on Aldis' face, he did a pretty good job. "The sacred ravens! They've all flown off; I-I think they know the Gols are coming!"
The guardsmen sprang into immediate action, and Jensen felt a little bit guilty about the worry and fear he saw scrawled across their faces. They probably saw this as an omen, a sign that Moya had abandoned them all to their fate. Hopefully, this deception now would avoid making that true in the long run.
Jensen was helpfully unhelpful in the search for the first half hour or so, then, when everyone was too caught up and spread thin to know where he was, he slipped away back to the temple. Most of the remaining acolytes were in prayer - praying for the return of the ravens and the safety of the city - so it wasn't difficult for Jensen to sneak into the storeroom unobserved. Then it was a matter of collecting his supplies and making his way through the familiar tunnels, his heart pounding double time.
"What's going on?" Jared asked, when Jensen burst into the cavern, toting a large saw awkwardly in one hand. "I thought we were waiting until the Gols got closer to the city."
"Change of plan." Jensen threw himself to his knees in front of the bars. "The Lord Keeper is planning on transporting the ravens to Tanak in the morning and me along with them; we can't afford to wait."
"Where are the ravens now?" Jared said, coming up to mirror Jensen's position on the other side of the bars.
"Leading the city guardsmen on a merry chase the last I checked." Jensen brandished the saw with a flourish. "Which should give us the time to use this to get you out before anyone comes back."
Jared was eyeing the saw uncertainly. "Are you sure that's going to do the job?"
"The merchant I bought it from swears it will, which is good enough for me. You want to help? I've got no doubt that the ravens can outwit the guardsmen for literal days if they put their minds to it, but I'd rather not risk it."
That shut Jared up, and between the two of them, they managed to figure out how best to position the sawblade.
It was slow going. The silver bars were thicker than Jensen's wrist, and they needed to remove the bottom third of two of them to have enough space for Jared to squeeze through. Jensen felt every minute stretch out like taffy, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. Every whisper of sound made him fear that someone was coming, that they'd been caught. Moya herself couldn't save them if that happened.
Finally, they finished. The second bar hit the floor with a dull chiming sound that had Jensen wincing, and the next moment Jared was standing in front of him. They were face to face without bars between them for the first time.
Looking up at the cautious hope brightening Jared's face, Jensen wanted nothing more than to pull him down and taste that smile.
He swallowed hard, shoving the impulse aside. "Let's go," he said. He left the saw where it fell; let the guardsmen wonder where it had come from.
Jared nodded and fell wordlessly into step. Jensen saw him shiver when he edged out of the cavern and into the tunnels, but didn't comment.
"Want to do the honours?" he asked instead, gesturing at the stone.
Jared shifted the stone with much more ease than Jensen had ever managed, and didn't stop rolling until the gap was completely closed. A wave of his hand had ice spreading in thick veins over the rock face, sealing it tight.
"That should keep them out of the tunnels," Jared said, as Jensen bent to relight his lantern. He grinned, a surprisingly boyish expression. "How confused do you think they're going to be?"
"I don't think 'confused' is even going to begin to cover it. You ready to go?"
"Yes," Jared said fervently, and gestured for Jensen to lead the way. He fell in step at Jensen's side, almost closely enough for their arms to brush.
Jensen spent the entire trip through the tunnels wondering how cold Jared's hand would be if he took it in his own.
Back in the storeroom, Jensen discarded the lantern and pulled out the pack he'd made for Jared.
"Only one?" Jared asked, when Jensen had been hoping he wouldn't.
"It's everything we need," Jensen evaded. "Come on."
The temple seemed even more deserted than usual. Jensen had to wonder if the acolytes were still praying or if they'd joined the search for the ravens. He hoped that they'd managed to avoid capture without causing too much grief.
They emerged into darkness, night having fallen sometime while they'd been busy sawing through the bars. Jensen estimated that they had only a few hours till dawn.
He was going to be so much trouble when Tahmoh and the guardsmen finally caught up with him.
"This way," Jensen whispered, terrified that someone was going to see them, silhouetted against the fires burning in the temple. He couldn't afford to get caught until Jared was safely away.
He only went a few steps before realizing that Jared wasn't following. Turning back, he found Jared standing stock still on the grass, his head tipped up to the sky. It was hard to tell in the intermittent light from the torches, but Jensen thought he might be smiling.
"Jared?" he whispered.
"I can see the stars," Jared answered, sounding so much like an awestruck child that Jensen had to bite his lip hard to keep a choked sob from escaping. His head swiveled back to the world with obvious reluctance, yet there was nothing reluctant in his tone when he breathed, "Thank you, Jensen."
"You'll get to look at them every night from now on," Jensen promised, hoping it was true. "But we need to go."
Jared stared at him for a long moment, and Jensen tried not to hold his breath.
"Or you could go," he added, in a voice that was smaller than he'd meant it to be. And take me with you, he didn't - couldn't - say. It wouldn't be fair to either of them.
He watched as Jared looked at the sleeping city, mostly dark now and defenseless against the approaching might of the Gols. Or against Jared's wrath.
Jared's breath escaped in one long, slow breath, and he turned his back on the city. "Lead the way."
Jensen nearly collapsed with relief. "Uh," he fumbled. "Right. Come on."
He angled their path so that it would intersect with the caravan trail that crossed Koran Field. If the Gols were coming from the Marral border, then they'd attack from this direction. It was risky to have Jared walk along the caravan trail instead of wading through the knee-deep grass in the field, but Jensen doubted that there'd be many other travelers moving towards the invading army.
The sky had already begun to lighten by the time they reached the caravan route, and Jensen felt his nerves, which had begun to ease the further away they got from the city, creep back. He felt more than saw Jared taking in the wide, well-beaten road.
"That way, I assume?" Jared said, that unexpected sense of humour rearing its head again.
Something in Jensen's face must have betrayed him though, because Jared's shy little smile fell off his face.
"Jensen? What's wrong?"
Shaking his head, Jensen pasted on a smile as he pulled the pack off his back and handed it over. Jared took it automatically, his eyes gleaming brilliantly white in the dim as they scoured Jensen's face.
"According to Tahmoh's reports, they're about two days away," Jensen said, doing his best to sound calm. "I'll run interference long enough to make sure you get away safely."
"What are you talking about?" Jared loomed into Jensen's personal space, and Jensen flinched. "You're coming with me."
Heart in his throat, Jensen took a step back. "I can't."
"But," Jared stared at him. Even in the gloom, Jensen could see the betrayed look on his face. "You promised!"
Jensen's hands fisted at his sides. "I'm the Bird Keeper," he said, hating the wobble in his voice. "This is where I belong. I have to stay."
"No," Jared snarled, and seized Jensen's wrist in an iron grip that burned cold against his skin. "You don't get to do this. I won't let you."
"Jar-ah!" Jensen's breath escaped in a startled exhale as Jared started walking, dragging Jensen behind him. "Jared!" he hissed, afraid to struggle too much when Jared was acting like this. "Jared, stop! I can't!"
"Yes, you can." Jared marched down the caravan trail with single-minded intensity. His grip on Jensen's wrist didn't slacken for a moment. "You're willing to leave when your Lord Keeper sends you away, so don't tell me that you can't leave Kerak. It's a lie."
"That's not…" Jensen stumbled over a rock, and Jared hauled him back on his feet without slowing. "The ravens, Jared!"
Jared snorted. "They'll find you. You could be at the bottom of the ocean and they'd still find you. They'll know you're with me."
And Jensen wanted to keep arguing, but the tense line of Jared's shoulders made it clear that it wasn't going to do much good. The way his pulse was hammering under Jared's icy fingers made it clear that he didn't really want Jared to let go, either.
So he tripped silently down the road in Jared's wake, mind whirling with the implications of the situation he'd put himself in. The cloak and boots that he'd forgotten to take off were far too hot for the weather, to say nothing of the exercise, so it wasn't long before Jensen was sweating liberally. The sky grew steadily brighter, and Jensen couldn't help glancing back over his shoulder at Kerak, watching it disappear behind the rolling hills and wondering if he'd ever see his home again.
Suddenly, Jared stopped, so suddenly that Jensen nearly walked into him.
Jared cut him off with a sharp slash of his arm. "Look," he said, gesturing ahead of them.
At first, Jensen couldn't make sense of what he was seeing. Darkly stained tents spread out like a village along the side of the caravan trail, faint trails of smoke eddying towards the pink sky. A massive herd of horses was corralled next to the tents, more than Jensen had ever seen in his entire life put together.
Jensen's blood went cold.
The Gols were already here.
"Oh, Moya," Jensen breathed. Hearing about the raiders and seeing them for himself were nowhere near the same thing. How could they withstand a force like that? There was a high-pitched ringing in his ears, and Jensen felt, he felt-
"Jensen!" Jared snapped, and Jensen blinked at him, sure that his devastation was written large across his face.
"Oh, Jared, what are we going to do?"
In the ever-brightening light, Jensen could see the grim determination firming the line of Jared's jaw.
"This," Jared said, and let go of Jensen's arm. He stepped forward, planting himself squarely in the middle of the path.
"But there are so many!" Jensen protested. "And you've been trapped for so long. Are you sure you can-"
"Jensen," he said again, but gently this time. "You've had more faith in me than I deserve. Believe in me just a little further."
And then Jared closed his eyes. His breath ghosted out slowly, and he went stone-still.
For long moments, nothing happened. Jensen listened to the wind blowing over the plains, the slow increase of noise coming from the Gol camp that suggested they were waking up, and wondered if he was about to die. He clenched his fists to resist the urge to panic, feeling like he was about to shake apart with nerves.
Then he noticed that he could see his breath.
The temperature dropped sharply, sending Jensen from sweating to shivering in mere moments. Ice began to gather on the grass at his feet, limning everything in white frost. The rising sun was blocked out by sudden, dark clouds.
Jared took a deep, cleansing breath. Then he made a single, sharp gesture and the storm erupted.
Snow exploded through the air, building into a swirling maelstrom faster than Jensen's eyes could follow. It was nothing like the dusting of snow that blanketed Jared's cell. This snow fell fast and fiercely, swallowing up the grass and the Gol camp with ruthless efficiency.
Jensen could hear shouts of alarm from the camp, and he watched as figures began rushing to and fro. The screams of the horses played a sinister counterpart to the wind whipping in his ears.
Somewhere between awestruck and sickened, Jensen turned his eyes away from the havoc of the storm. "Are you-" he started to ask, the wind snatching the words right off his lips before they could reach his ears. Not that it mattered when the rest of the sentence got stuck in his throat as he turned to face Jared full-on.
Jared's eyes were still closed, and he was as unaware of Jensen's scrutiny as he was the terror of the army that he was destroying simply because Jensen had asked him to. Not that it made much difference; Jensen couldn't have kept himself from staring even if Jared had been looking straight back.
How could he have thought that Jared was beautiful before? He'd seen him caged, diminished, a mere shadow of his true self.
Here, in the middle of the howling storm being woven by those graceful hands, Jensen realized that he'd been a fool. This was what Jared was truly like, what he'd always been meant to be.
Jensen watched, enraptured. Jared's pale skin practically glowed with power, and his mouth curled into an expression of pure delight. The wind whipped his hair around his face and across his shoulders in cascading ripples, as wild as the storm itself.
In that moment, Jensen knew that he would move the world itself to save Jared from spending another second in that cell.
Something glinted in Jensen's peripheral vision, a glimmer where there shouldn't have been any such thing. With difficulty, he tore his eyes away from Jared to see what it was.
It was the entire force of the city guardsmen, assembled on the field not two hundred paces behind them, knee deep and shivering in the snow. Jensen was too far away to hear a word they were saying, but he could recognize the fear painted on every face. He wasn't the only one who'd grown up with fearsome stories of the khretha, after all.
"He's helping!" Jensen yelled, but the wind stole the words away.
The storm slackened suddenly, the wind dropping fast enough that it made Jensen's ears ring in the sudden silence.
A sharp glance back at Jared revealed him doubled over with his hands on his knees, panting heavily.
"Jared!" Jensen exclaimed. He hovered, not sure whether or not to touch. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Jared gritted, raising his hands again. His fingers were shaking.
Desperately, Jensen looked back at the Gol camp. It was in shambles, but enough of the men had made it to their horses that they'd be in big trouble if they came this way instead of retreating.
"Stay behind me," Jared ordered, and made to raise the storm again.
Later, Jensen wouldn't be able to recall what it was that made him turn, away from Jared and the Gol army, at just the right moment. All he'd be able to remember was the way the archer's eyes were trained on Jared's back, the way the arrow was a black blot on the white landscape when he let it fly.
"Look out!" Jensen shouted, already lunging.
Jared was slow to turn. His eyes met Jensen's at the same instant that the arrow found its mark in the middle of Jensen's back.
Jensen's breath escaped in a single, punched-out gasp.
It hurt more than he'd have expected. He hadn't known that anything could hurt so much.
The fierce combination of fatigue and elation on Jared's face turned to puzzlement as Jensen's knees buckled, then swiftly to horror.
Jensen coughed out blood when he tried to say Jared's name. Cold in a way that had nothing to do with the snow, Jensen managed a weak smile into Jared's frantic face before the world went black.
Well done, youngling, a chorus of flapping voices said in the darkness, everywhere and nowhere at once. We knew we could count on you.
Jensen wasn't cold.
He was used to being cold, these days. His thicker clothing could only do so much, and recently it had begun to seem that he carried that chill with him everywhere, whether he was with Jared or not. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but he had decided that a little discomfort was a small price to pay for having Jared as a friend.
But he wasn't cold now. Strange.
He was lying on his back, Jensen realized muzzily, cradled against something solid. Steel bands were wrapped around his chest and his shoulders, keeping him still and close. Someone nearby was crying.
Though he felt as weak as a freshly hatched chick, Jensen willed his eyes to open.
His first impression was of light, so dazzling he could scarcely look at it. As his eyes adjusted, Jensen drew in a sharp breath.
It was Jared who was holding onto him, his long hair falling to shield his face and tickling at Jensen's cheek.
For once, though, it wasn't Jared that had captured his attention. Jared had... entombed them in a huge pillar of glistening ice that looked like flames licking up towards the sky. Sunlight refracted off every angle and edge, making the structure sparkle with every colour of the rainbow, constantly shifting. Jensen felt unexpectedly safe, tucked neatly inside the ice's careful embrace and sprawled across Jared's lap.
Somewhere, distantly, Jensen felt a steady shudder in the ice. He wondered if it was his heart, trying to remember how to beat in the face of such awesome wonder.
"Pretty," he managed, which was woefully inadequate. He'd never seen anything so radiant in all his life.
Jared's head jerked up at the sound of Jensen's voice, and Jensen was shocked to see twin trails of tears frozen on Jared's cheeks. More tears glistened in the corners of his eyes, which were glassy with anguish.
"Why're you crying?" Jensen asked him. "Are you okay?"
Jared's hands tightened their already too-tight grip, and Jensen frowned when he felt something long and thin against his side. Laboriously, he rolled his head to the side and caught sight of the shaft of an arrow, the wood stained dark with blood and gore.
The memory of the soldier with his bow hit Jensen like a catapult. "Did he hit you? Oh, Moya, I'm so sorry! I should never have -"
"You died." Jared's voice trembled. As Jensen watched, more tears spilled over and joined the icy mess on Jared's cheeks. "That arrow was meant for me, but you got in the way. You can't do that. I won't allow it."
"I've lived an empty life. I've been caged and ridiculed and hated for more years than your species can fathom, but I would rather spend the rest of my life in that cage than live a life without you in it."
And the only possible response that Jensen could think of for that was to fist a hand in Jared's hair and pull him down into a kiss that said everything his words couldn't.
When Jensen had daydreamed about kissing Jared, he'd wondered how long he'd be able to withstand the temperature. Jared had told him that his body was cold all the way through, and Jensen had been sure that kissing Jared would be like sticking his face in Jared's ice fire.
This was nothing like that. Granted, it wasn't the molten heat he was used to when kissing humans, but it wasn't cold, either. In fact, Jared seemed to be about the same temperature as the air which, come to think of it, should probably have felt colder too.
Not that Jensen cared much about that right now.
They kissed until Jensen was dizzy from lack of breath, the trembling of his fingers no longer simply a reaction to the shock of finally getting to do this. Then Jared tore himself away, chest heaving, and Jensen whimpered at the loss.
"Why aren't you dead?" Jared asked, between panting breaths. His hands felt overwhelmingly large against Jensen's face, his entire body cocooning Jensen's. "I saw the spark leave your eyes."
Jensen had no idea and would have said so, if a voice hadn't chosen that moment to interrupt.
"We saved him."
Startled, Jensen jerked upright, nearly braining the both of them when Jared barely got out of the way in time.
"What?" he demanded, and was surprised to see the ravens standing around them. "When did you get here? And since when can you talk?"
"Actually, the question is 'since when can you hear?'," Benevol said, in what was at once his normal throaty call and perfectly legible speech.
"You saved him?" Jared asked, before Jensen could pursue the issue of talking further. "Why? How?"
Pati's head tilted. "Because he passed the test. He has earned his reward. You both have."
Jensen thought he ought to feel more shocked by this turn of events than he did. "How did you bring me back to life? I mean, you're…"
"They're not just ravens," Jared cut in. "They never have been. Surely you must know that ravens don't live so long, if nothing else."
Why had that never occurred to him? There was something strange about this entire situation.
"So." Jensen's brow furrowed. "You really are the emissaries of Moya?"
Salwar croaked out a laugh. "Humans are a foolish species. Why do you assume that the gods are shaped like you?"
"Moya is a human invention," Loya supplied, while Jensen stared, open-mouthed. "But we still appreciated your prayers, even if they weren't directed quite the right way."
"What did you do to him?" Jared, it seemed, was not to be distracted. "He feels… different."
"A gift to both of you," Onnes said. "Humans are too short-lived. This is better."
"Jensen is one of the undying," Benevol filled in, when it looked like Jared might start flinging ice at the lot of them.
Jared's breath sucked in sharply. Jensen looked up at him. "I'm assuming that's pretty much what it sounds like?"
Jared nodded, looking nearly as shocked by this revelation as he had been by Jensen's revival.
"You're welcome," Salwar said, sounding supremely pleased with himself.
"Wait," Jensen said, remembering suddenly. "What happened to the Gols?"
"Dead or fled," Jared answered. The flicker of a brutal smile crossed his lips. "I doubt they'll be back."
Jensen ran a thumb over Jared's cheek, brushing away the frozen tears. "Thank you for that. And the guardsmen?"
"If you weren't so distracted, you'd have noticed them by now," Pati said.
Jensen blinked, puzzled, before he realized that the thrumming that he'd taken for his own heartbeat was still there. He craned his neck and realized that it was the guardsmen, trying to break through the ice crystal Jared had sealed them inside.
He glanced at Jared. "Should we talk to them?"
Jared's answering expression was bleak. "They killed you."
"Not on purpose." Jensen glanced at the ravens. "And I don't think they'll try again when the sacred ravens are in the way."
"Sneaky," Salwar approved. "I like it."
"We can't stay in here forever," Jensen observed, when Jared looked ready to object. "Let's just get it over with."
Jared's grip tightened. "You're not going with them."
Jensen hesitated. "Jared…"
"Jensen." Jared looked him dead in the eyes, his face implacable. "If you stay, then so do I."
"No!" Jensen struggled to escape Jared's grip, not wanting to have this conversation lying down. Jared didn't yield an inch. "Jared, you can't!"
"This is touching but pointless," Salwar said.
"But… it's because of you I can't go!" Jensen protested, feeling strangely betrayed. "I'm Kerak's Keeper of the Birds! I need to be here!"
"Only for so long as we choose to remain in Tjal," Pati put in, and Jensen froze.
"You… you would abandon Tjal?" he asked, aghast.
"That rather depends on what happens next." Benevol hopped up onto Jensen's chest, his beady eyes calm. "Talk to them. Do your best. We'll see to the rest."
Jensen wasn't really sure what his best was supposed to be, but he vowed to try nonetheless. He glanced up. "Jared?"
Jared's mouth thinned, but he nodded.
And Jensen still didn't quite trust him not to freeze the entire city guard where they stood, but he still let Jared pull him to his feet. The ravens flocked around them, so close that even the most talented archer wouldn't have dared to take a shot.
Thus fortified, Jensen nodded at Jared, who melted the ice with a wave of his hand.
The guardsmen who'd been chipping away at the thick ice jumped back with almost comical fear as the whole thing dissolved abruptly into a very large puddle, revealing Jared, Jensen and all five ravens. Whispers spread immediately through the ranks, and Jensen saw more than a few soldiers fingering their weapons nervously.
Do my best, he reminded himself, and squared his shoulders.
"I'm Jensen, Kerak's Keeper of the Birds," he said, to the assembled crowd of stunned guardsmen. He gestured at Jared. "This is Jared. He's a khretha that has been imprisoned beneath the City Palace since the Last Winter, even though he was too young to take part. He also just destroyed the Gol army to save our city. I hope no one's planning on taking another shot."
Uneasy silence followed Jensen's words.
"Jensen," a voice said, and Jensen turned to find Tahmoh and several of the other keepers amongst the guardsmen. They definitely hadn't been there before Jensen had been shot; someone must have sent word to the city and brought them running. How long had he been dead before the ravens brought him back? How long had Jared been holding him like that?
Jensen's hand found Jared's and held on tight.
"My Lord Keeper," Jensen said, since Jared seemed to be in no hurry to chime in. "I imagine you're not very happy with me right now."
"Happy's not the word I would use, no." Tahmoh's eyes kept flicking towards Jared, uneasiness obvious in his gaze. "Will you step away from it?"
"Him," Jensen corrected sharply. "And no. Not when you're just going to try and lock him up again."
"Jensen," Tahmoh started, in a placating tone of voice that set Jensen's teeth on edge.
He gave Tahmoh a narrow-eyed look. "Have you forgotten my title, Lord Keeper? I am the Keeper of the Birds, like my ancestors before me, and I sit on the Kerak High Council. Is there a reason that you no longer believe me worthy of your respect?"
Tahmoh, to his surprised delight, appeared flustered by that. "Not at all, Bird Keeper, I meant no disrespect. I just fear this… monster has affected you."
"This monster," Jensen said, scathing disdain dripping from every syllable. "Just saved all of our lives. Look at that!" He flung a hand out towards the snow-laden remains of the Gol camp. "He could have destroyed us all, yet he chose to help, despite the way he's been treated at our hands. Does that sound like a monster to you?"
The muttering started up again, louder this time.
"What would you have us do?" Tahmoh asked, after a lengthy silence.
"Saying thank you would be a good start," Jensen snapped, and dimly heard Jared swallow a laugh.
The ravens showed no such restraint, and several guardsmen jumped at their amused crowing.
Indecision twisted Tahmoh's face, and he turned to speak in an undertone to the other keepers who were crowded around him.
Jensen glanced at Jared. "Guess I'm out of the club," he said, hoping his wry tone would cover the faint melancholy he felt at the thought.
Jared just squeezed his hand.
It didn't take long for the keepers to come to a decision. Jensen didn't bother holding his breath; the uncomfortable, self-righteous expressions on all their faces made it clear what the answer would be.
"It's not that we're not grateful," Tahmoh said, in the slow, creeping manner he used when he was searching for the right words. "But you can't ask the people of Kerak to accept a khretha. We've spent too long fearing them." He looked at Jensen with a face that begged his understanding. "You can see that, can't you?"
"Then we'll leave," Jared decided, the first thing he'd said since emerging from the ice. Jensen watched several men flinch away at the sound of his voice. "We'll leave Tjal and settle far from here. You'll never hear from us again."
Tahmoh and the other keepers started whispering again.
"Us?" Jensen asked in an undertone.
Jared's grip on his hand firmed. "Even if I have to knock you out and drag you away."
"Well that's charming."
"There's no need for you to harm our keeper," Loya said, flapping her way up to Jensen's arm. "By turning you away, the kingdom of Tjal has forsaken our protection. Lead and we shall follow."
And it was no more than Jensen had expected, but he couldn't help but flinch.
"Hush," Loya said, nuzzling against the side of his face. "It's not your fault. You'll be much happier where we're going."
There wasn't much Jensen could say to that.
"Well then," he settled on finally. "Shall we?"
In answer, Jared let go of Jensen's hand to slide an arm around his waist and turned them both towards the caravan trail, the ravens still acting a deterrent to any possible attack.
"Wait!" Tahmoh cried, and Jensen turned back, despite Jared's hand urging him to keep walking. "If you go, you're no longer Keeper of the Birds. You must leave the sacred ravens here."
Jensen laughed. "You think it's my choice? If the sacred ravens want to stay, that's up to them."
"Not likely," Benevol muttered.
"And I doubt that trying to keep them here by force is going to work very well."
From the twisted expression on Tahmoh's face, Jensen got the impression that they were willing to try anyway. And with the entire force of the guardsmen with them, someone was bound to get hurt.
He glanced over at Jared. "You got any energy left in you?"
"For this?" Jared said, shaking out his arms. "More than."
Jared's localized snowstorm scattered the guardsmen in minutes and, while he wasn't so naïve to think that they wouldn't be followed, Jensen was pleased to be able to get a good head start.
"So," he said, once it was just them and the ravens in a field of fresh fallen snow. "Where are we going?"
"Anywhere but Tjal," Jared said fervently. "Let the ravens choose."
That sounded like a wise idea to Jensen. "How about it, Onnes? You led me to Jared, after all. Feel up to leading us to a new home as well?"
"It would be my pleasure."
"I can't believe you guys are actually gods," Jensen said, shaking his head at the wonder of it all.
That earned him the same croaking laugh that he'd been hearing all his life, and an amused voice behind it saying, "You humans should be used to getting things only partly right. It seems to be a habit. And speaking of which…"
"Mm?" Jensen said, most of his attention on the way Jared slipped his arm back around Jensen's waist like it belonged there.
Onnes took to wing, his voice echoing in Jensen's ears as he went. "I've been waiting years for the chance to tell you this, Jensen: my name is Honest."