A/N: Another contribution to the story game. Big shout-out to lareepqg for helping me find just the right title, because I hated the first one I slapped on this thing!
"Ah, here you are, boy."
Magnus dropped into a chair opposite Gunther, causing the unfortunate piece of furniture to creak alarmingly in protest. The loathsome self-satisfaction in his voice set Gunther instantly on edge – precisely, he supposed, as it was meant to do.
"Father," he said; quietly, cautiously. Despite attempting to project an air of calm, however, his body had gone instantly as tense as a drawn bowstring; and the smug little smirk on Magnus's lips said clearly that he saw it.
Gunther's teeth clenched. He didn't need this right now. Not, of course, that he ever really welcomed a conversation with his father; it had been many a year since he'd been naive enough to expect any good to come from such a thing.
But did it have to be now? Now, when he'd actually been feeling… well… good?
Better than good, in fact… he had been feeling damn near euphoric. Been walking around in a happy daze ever since his encounter with Jane in the meadow, trying to finish wrapping his mind around the fact that –
He had won Jane. He had won JANE.
Could something so magnificent really be true? He would never have believed it even a day ago – sure, he had revealed himself to her, at long last, but he had done it without any real hope in his heart. It had been more a matter of just… bleeding a wound, clearing out an infection, than a real bid at… at courtship. He had been certain she wouldn't choose the vile Algernon, but when it came right down to it he hadn't really expected her to choose him. Why should she, would she, choose him? He still could hardly believe it. And yet… she had! By all that was holy, she HAD!
His ensuing state of happy distraction was what had led him to be sitting here right now, in the same public house where Ivon had assisted him in drinking himself sick not so very long ago.
Ivon had been the catalyst this time too; had taken one look at his face and declared that clearly a celebration was called for – although he hadn't actually bothered to ask what they were celebrating, which was fine with Gunther. Although he wondered, in passing, whether Ivon was simply letting him have his privacy, or had already guessed the reason and hence didn't need to be told.
He'd come to the startling realization of late that Ivon was a lot keener, more observant, and more perceptive than he'd given him credit for.
In any event, they'd fetched up here for lunch and one – Gunther had been very clear on this subject – ONE celebratory tankard of ale. But Ivon had disappeared several moments ago, probably in need of a piss, and now his seat had been taken by Magnus, who still wore the expression of a cat that has gotten into the cream.
He was just debating the pros and cons of simply telling his father to spit it out, whatever it was he'd come here to say, when Magnus, apparently becoming impatient with his son's reticence, leaned forward, planted his elbows on the table, and said, "well boy, if you have anything left to say to the Turnkey girl, you had better find an opportunity soon. I should not expect to see her again – ever – once she is given to that foreign noble." He sat back in his chair, watching Gunther closely, gauging his reaction.
Gunther's hands were quite suddenly clenched, white-knuckled, on the edge of the table. "She is NOT being given to him," he ground out from between gritted teeth.
That appeared to be exactly the reaction Magnus was hoping for – (no one was better than he at finding the soft spots in his son's armor, the better to jab at him) - for he chuckled with satisfaction.
"For her sake you had better hope not," he said, "because I have spent the morning with a merchant from his very kingdom who came into port with the tide, and I have learned something very interesting, and not a little disturbing, about our noble Lord Algernon."
"What?" Gunther demanded, knowing he was playing directly into his father's hands – knowing it, hating it, unable to stop himself. "What have you heard?"
Magnus, for his part, took great care to settle himself more comfortably in his beleaguered chair, then raised a hand in a leisurely way, signaling for ale. Finally, when Gunther was probably a heartbeat away from launching himself across the table at him, he spoke again.
"It seems our fair Lord Algernon has been married before. Not just the once, either, mind, but twice. Is he not just a year or two older than you, boy? That is quite an accomplishment, would you not say? To be married – and widowed – twice over by your age?"
Gunther said nothing. He could say nothing. Utterly blindsided, he felt as if he'd just been horse-kicked in the gut.
Magnus smiled and continued his tale. "Both high-born girls of exceptional beauty, or so the man said. One of them fifteen, the other no more than thirteen. And oh, how he wooed them! So charming! So generous! The first perished only three months after their wedding; fell badly from a horse, or so the story goes. The second survived for almost a year; died in childbirth and the babe with her, or that was the tale that was put out by Algernon and his family, at any rate. Queer thing is, though, no one outside his family saw any evidence of her being pregnant at all!"
Gunther couldn't breathe. Where had all the air gone? How had it become an almost insurmountable task just to pull in a shallow, hitching breath?
"Not that very many people outside his family had contact with her," Magnus continued. "Both brides were immediately isolated from their friends and family, all communication severed until their bodies were returned for burial, much the worse for wear given their short tenure as his wives. Did it never occur to you how odd it is that the firstborn son of a Lord should be so earnestly courting the daughter of a chamberlain? The Turnkey brat would not, under ordinary circumstances, be up to his standards of either birth or beauty. Why, she has all the soft comeliness of a broom that has been stood upright and had its straw set afire!"
At this, Gunther actually growled low in his throat – but Magnus never even noticed. He was still warming to his theme.
"Or did you never wonder why he should travel so far from home to make a match? Should not there be noble families from within his own kingdom queuing up to offer him their daughters, given all his titles and assets?" Magnus fairly chortled with glee. "The fact is, his reputation is so tarnished by his young wives' untimely deaths that in his homeland he cannot find a new wife even among the peasantry!"
Gunther expelled what little air was left in his lungs with a small, sick "huh" sound. His father leaned forward, relishing the moment as he added the final touch to his story. "So here our noble Lord is, in a new, unsullied hunting ground, and mark you, Gunther, he is desperate – because his parents, although they have covered for him in due course, are growing weary of his… ill luck with wives. Or is it his wives' ill luck with him!?" Magnus pounded a fist on the table, loosing a great guffaw at his own jest. "He has been told in no uncertain terms that he will be disinherited if he does not marry again, imminently – and manage to keep this bride alive. At least, until a healthy heir is produced. After that –" he gave a one-shouldered shrug – "who can say? An underdone roast? A tumble down the stairs? A nasty miscarriage?" He dropped Gunther a monstrous wink. "Lucky indeed for the Turnkey bint if she has managed to escape such a betrothal. Eh, boy?"
Gunther didn't answer. His head was spinning. Pieces were falling into place and the picture they painted was horrifying, horrifying. It was hideous beyond belief.
Perilous beyond belief.
Jane had been planning to tell this desperate man – this murderer – that his suit was declined, and to shove off, in no uncertain terms.
She could be doing that right now.
Would she at least do it in relative safety, surrounded by other people, by witnesses?
No, of course not. She had no idea the magnitude of the danger she was in. And while she personally might relish the moment, she was not cruel; no, not his Jane. Never. She wouldn't humiliate him publicly like that. She would take care to have this particular conversation in private. And what if she actually put on that thrice-damned dress as she had hinted she might, to dazzle him all the more before cutting him to pieces with her rejection? If she did that, she probably wouldn't even be armed!
The panic hit him so hard he could almost taste it.
Let her be armed. Oh God, oh please, please GOD let her be armed!
He shoved back from the table with such force that his chair fell over, hitting the floor with an almighty clatter, causing several heads to turn curiously in his direction.
He could not possibly have cared less.
Without a single word to his father, he shouldered his way out of the crowded room.
By the time he hit the fresh air of the tavern's small dooryard, he was flat-out sprinting.
Gunther skidded to a halt in the castle courtyard, slick with sweat, panting for breath, momentarily confused by the swirling maelstrom of activity that had overtaken the space. Men were everywhere; nobles, knights, squires, pages scurrying to and fro. Horses, dogs, beasts of burden. It seemed the whole of the court had turned out – the whole of both courts. Grooms were saddling the nobles' mounts while the nobles themselves talked and laughed. Servants were loading pack animals with supplies.
Then he remembered; the two monarchs and their retinues were riding out for an overnight excursion to the nearby woods. A chance for King Caradoc to show off the prettiness of his countryside, perhaps get in a hunt in while they were at it. A last hurrah before King Robert's party departed in three days' time. Gunther had clean forgotten about it what with the happy delirium that had overtaken him since yesterday. He hadn't been included anyway, having drawn guard duty tonight.
Not that such an assignment was likely by accident. Pains were being taken, he knew, to keep him and Algernon away from each other – usually at his expense.
He'd been glad to miss this little foray, though. Because Jane was staying behind too. So by all means, punish him. Deny him the "pleasure" of this particular outing. It was a thoroughly ridiculous undertaking, anyway. The sheer quantity of provisions that were being readied was nothing short of dizzying. Why, a good-sized patrol could stay out in the field for a fortnight on less! And this was for one night! Pampered soft useless lay-abouts, the lot of them. Well, excepting King Caradoc, of course. One mustn't think that about one's king.
None of that mattered anymore, though. Nothing mattered anymore except finding Jane.
He skirted the crowd, scanning ceaselessly, desperately, for any sign of her; fists clenched, heart galloping in his chest, eyes wild. It was so hard not to simply start shoving people out of the way, as he had when he'd bolted from the public house; his control was hanging by the barest thread and that thread was fraying, fraying.
But he couldn't pick out either one of them in the busy courtyard. No Jane; no Algernon. The panic was threatening to sweep him away.
NO. Damnit, no. You need to think. If they are not here, where would they be? Where would she take him to break the news?
But that was the thing. This was a castle. Castles were full of nooks and crannies. They could be anywhere.
He actually groaned aloud, despair crashing over him. He tipped his head back toward the sky, struggling to control his breathing, and sent a quick, inarticulate prayer heavenward. I have to find her. Please, I HAVE to. Help me find her. Help me help me help me please...
Lowering his eyes again, the first thing he saw was a short exterior staircase leading up to a low parapet. He took the steps two at a time and seconds later was surveying the courtyard again, this time from a slightly elevated vantage point. And there –
That unmistakable, glorious hair. He had never loved it so much as he did in this moment, catching his eye like a beacon-fire lit just especially to draw him to her. It was partially bound, but was already escaping the strip of leather she'd used to tie it back; never able to be tamed for long, that gorgeous, molten mane. And her clothes – she was in ordinary training attire, her sword slung across her back. Thank God. Thank GOD.
Then he registered that Algernon was with her, and that Jane was leading him away from the assembled company; somewhere private, just as he'd surmised, to deliver the news of her denial. Algernon, unaware that he was about to be categorically refused – and no doubt roundly told off for his conduct with Pepper – had one hand pressed lightly, but with unmistakable possessiveness, to the small of Jane's back.
It hit Gunther out of nowhere; damn near bowled him over, with more force and fury than it ever had before. This time, he could not stop it from enveloping him.
This time, he didn't even want to.
The next thing he was aware of, he was being hauled bodily off of Algernon.
It took three men to wrestle him away from the young Lord. For the second time in as many days, Gunther found himself slammed unceremoniously down on his back, staring dazedly up at the deep blue bowl of the sky.
This time he was a lot more winded, though. One of the visiting squires was sitting atop his legs, and a knight he didn't know had pinned his left arm. His right arm was being pressed into the ground by none other than Jester, who was hissing furiously in his ear, "Gunther, what the hell are you doing? Do you want to start a war!?"
He heaved in as deep a breath as he could manage, his wild adrenaline rush evaporating, the red fog which had obscured his vision slowly beginning to clear. The first thing he saw was Algernon, climbing back to his feet; Gunther had knocked him sprawling full-length in the dirt. The young Lord was staring at him with such seething, searing hatred that Gunther's blood ran a little bit cold.
Only a little bit, though.
The truth was, he was too furious himself to be much afraid in this moment. He was glad that Algernon's mask was slipping; wanted to see if fall right off, if possible, here in front of everyone. Now that he knew for sure what Algernon was, he was fairly confident he could take whatever the noble threw at him, and respond in kind. Just so long as Jane was safe. Jane was all that mattered. Jane was...
Glaring daggers at him.
That took him aback, for the space of a few heartbeats... then he understood.
What would his attack on Algernon have looked like from where Jane was standing? The answer was simple. It would have looked like the boorish overprotectiveness of someone who didn't think her capable of handling her own business. Damn it, damn it. He almost groaned.
It was not like that! I have information you do not, information that changes things. You would have done the same in my position, I know it.
But before he could collect himself enough to say anything to her, before he could collect himself enough to say anything at all, several things happened in rapid succession.
Eyes narrowed to slits of sparking rage, hissing like a cat, Algernon unsheathed the dagger at his hip and advanced on Gunther who was still restrained, lying prone on the ground. He raised the small-but-wicked weapon as he did so, clearly preparing to strike.
It took a split second for the reproachful anger on Jane's face to vanish as if it had never existed, replaced by a look of preternaturally calm – almost blank – focus. Moving so fast that Gunther could barely track her, she yanked her Dragon Sword free of its over-the-shoulder scabbard and was around Algernon, squarely in his path with her sword-point leveled at his chest before he'd taken more than two steps.
"You – will – not," she said, her voice carrying like a whip-crack in the sudden shocked silence, frightening in its very flatness, its total lack of inflection. It was not the voice of a sixteen-year-old girl.
It was the hard, authoritative voice of a knight.
Algernon actually dropped the dagger and faltered back a step, eyes going wide for a heartbeat's worth of time; then his face resolved into an absolute rictus of fury and hate – directed not at Gunther, now, but at Jane herself. Only then, belatedly, did Gunther start to actually struggle there on the ground. Seeing this lunatic look at Jane that way chilled him in a way that the same attention, when directed at him, never had.
And then another voice cut through the silence, shaking with anger. "What in God's name is going on here?" King Caradoc demanded.
Algernon drew in breath to speak, but Gunther broke the silence first. He hadn't actually given any thought to how he would phrase it; there hadn't been time. And now that it came to it, there was no pause for eloquence, for careful articulation. The words just tumbled out, almost falling over each other.
"He came here to court Jane because no one in his kingdom will have him! He has been married twice already and they are both dead! He killed them! Two wives DEAD and he came here to find a third!"
Time seemed to spin out and out. Gunther felt Jester release his arm; a lightning-quick glance at his friend showed the sandy-haired boy looking positively stricken. Following Jester's lead, the others who had been restraining him also eased off. Gunther immediately scrambled to his feet, taking in the expressions of those closest to him in the crowd. The blank shock on Jane's face, the perplexity and mounting horror on his king's, and the utter, apoplectic, white-hot rage on Algernon's.
Algernon looked... barely human. In this moment, he far more resembled a trapped animal; hands curled, not into fists exactly, but more into claws; nostrils flared, teeth bared. Gone was any hint of the handsome, charming, self-assured young Lord. Algernon looked alarming.
No... Algernon looked terrifying.
"Is this true?" Caradoc asked.
The disgraced noble's head whipped toward him, then back to face Gunther again with the speed of a striking snake. "Prove it," he snarled. "Prove it, you baseborn, low-bred, worthless bastard! PROVE IT!"
Despite the sting of those words, Gunther said nothing. He felt Algernon was putting on quite enough of a display without his assistance. Caradoc, for his part, turned to his fellow king, who was standing beside him, and repeated his question even more emphatically. "Is - this - TRUE!?"
Really, the expression on King Robert's face was all the corroboration that was needed.
The two kings retired to speak in private. Most of the rest of the party that had assembled in the courtyard left as scheduled for the excursion, but in rather a less boisterous mood than they'd been previously. Algernon, however, was commanded to remain at the castle, as the monarchs would doubtless wish to interview him in due course of their discussion. His movements were not placed under any sort of restriction, and he was even allowed to keep his own household entourage with him, but an older knight of his party was assigned to also stick close by, to... monitor him, as it were.
Gunther felt utterly spent. He walked, on legs that were actually shaking a bit, over to the same staircase he'd so recently gone vaulting up in his frantic search for Jane, and sank down on the bottommost step. It was barely noon and he was exhausted, although he understood in a vague, wordless way that his fatigue was mainly of the emotional sort.
He'd never been so scared in his life. Hadn't realized he even had the capacity for such fathomless depths of terror. The thought of losing Jane, and so soon after he'd lowered his guard enough to admit that he was hers - completely and totally and irrevocably and forever hers - it wrecked him.
It wrecked him.
He honestly wasn't sure he could survive that - not in any meaningful sense, at least.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and let his eyes drift shut, so he felt, rather than saw, the shadow fall across him. Opening them again, he was met with the sight of Jane herself frowning down at him, hands tightly fisted and planted firmly on her slim (but oh so perfect) hips.
That she was still displeased with him was readily apparent, but he was so thoroughly drained that he couldn't think of a single thing to say to defuse the situation. All he could manage was a slightly unsteady, "hey."
Green eyes flashing, Jane exhaled explosively through her nose. How was it, Gunther wondered disconnectedly, that when she was angry, her hair actually seemed to crackle with the intensity of it? It really was like some marvelous living flame; almost sentient, somehow. And too beautiful to look at directly for very long.
Brilliant as the sun.
And she chose ME.
This thought caused his lips to quirk into a smile.
Oh, hell. That may have been a bad idea.
Jane's eyes narrowed to furious slits. "I fail to see what is humorous in this situation, Gunther. He was ready to KILL you!"
And God help him, he couldn't stop himself; it was just so natural to provoke her when her heat was up like this.
"Then it is a very good thing I have you," he fairly drawled.
She opened her mouth – closed it with a snap – opened it again – uttered a single, revolted, "Ugghh!" – threw her hands in the air, spun on her heel, and stalked away.
Gunther settled back more fully against the stone steps. He let his eyes fall closed again, feeling his heartbeat slow, his breathing even out. It had been scary. God YES, it had. But at least it was over now. Algernon was revealed. Unmasked. Maybe Gunther couldn't prove his allegations, but there was something to them, clearly, just judging by the reaction of Algernon's own king. The look on his face...
Algernon was disgraced in a way he was not going to recover from, not in Kippernium at any rate. He'd slink back to his own land with his tail between his legs, and there he might continue to be a complete psychopath for the rest of his days, but that wouldn't be Gunther's problem to solve. The important thing was that he no longer posed a threat to what Gunther held dear. For the very little time that Algernon had left to spend in this kingdom, everyone would be on guard against him.
Oh, who was he kidding? He didn't care maggots for everyone. JANE would be on guard against him. That was what mattered.
She might not be pleased with him at the moment, but she'd come around, and in the meantime, she knew what Algernon was now and wouldn't let him anywhere near her; of this Gunther was certain.
Everything would be all right now.
He gave a sigh of profound relief.