A/N: Yet another story game contribution. I seem to be more or less sticking to Gunther now! This is part one of two, of the journey to find and hopefully recover Lavinia. It was all supposed to be one chapter, but it was getting VERY long.
She's still so pale.
Not like when he first found her, in the last dying light of the day, lying crumpled on the ground – an image that he knows will haunt him forever, for the rest of his life.
Not as terrible as that. But she's still so pale. Too pale. And she's moving with such care, not her normal, natural, unthinking grace. He can't see the many bruises that lie beneath her clothing, but he knows they're there.
He would give anything to take them away from her, to shoulder that burden in her stead.
It should have been me, I should have gone with Jester, if I had gone with Jester –
He forces himself to abandon that line of thought, not because he doesn't deserve these bitter self-recriminations; he most assuredly does – but because losing himself in them does nothing to help Jane.
And she is going to need his help, a great deal.
He cannot afford to fail her again.
He shakes his head in an attempt to clear it and forces his feet to get moving once more. He's just been to his quarters to grab the essential gear necessary for this little tracking expedition, then to the kitchens to load up on provender for the journey. And now he's crossing the courtyard toward where Jane waits, with Dragon.
She's on her knees, leaning hard against her friend's enormous head, almost embracing him, in a way. Her cheek is pressed to his and she's speaking to him quietly, steadily, although Gunther can't make out what she is saying. Her Dragon Sword is back in its accustomed place, secured across her back, reachable over her shoulder, and her own small pack lies on the dusty ground beside her.
Dragon is statue-still. Gunther has never seen him this eerily motionless before and he intuits that Dragon, just like him, is holding himself together by a thread, for Jane's sake; that he is teetering on the razor-thin edge of being this bleeding close to flying completely off the handle.
She turns her face up to him as he approaches. There's a tightness behind her eyes that he knows is pain – pain that she is fighting to hold in check – refusing to submit to it or even consciously acknowledge it. She can will herself to power through it, at least for the moment, but she can't will it away.
And neither can he.
I am going to kill him.
Looking down at her from his higher vantage point, he can see where the bruising begins, at her throat, just under her collar. If Algernon, or one of his men, had held her by the throat hard enough to leave those marks, it must have also been hard enough to restrict her breathing.
They choked her and then they held her head underwater.
The world starts to tilt, just ever so slightly, from the force of his barely-suppressed rage. He balls his hands into fists and pushes the anger back a bit. It doesn't go away – he hasn't the ability to banish it altogether, and wouldn't do that even if he could; he's going to want to access the raw power of it at some point in the near future.
When they catch up to the bastard who did this to her.
But he needs to shelve it for now. So, with great effort, he does.
Even without the anger, though, he is still so deeply disquieted by the sight of her like this.
This is wrong.
She shouldn't even be out of bed, not for days yet; let alone preparing for a harrowing journey on dragonback that is almost guaranteed to end in combat. How can he let her do this?
Shrugging his own pack from his shoulder, he sinks to one knee beside her. Dragon fixes him with a large, golden eye, but says nothing.
"Jane." He's groping for words, for the right way to phrase it. He needn't have bothered; she understands exactly what he wants to say. Of course she does.
"Do not ask me to stay, Gunther. Please. Do not drive that… that wedge between us. I have to do this. I am going to do this. Dragon would not carry you without me anyway, so just… please can we just…" she trails off, frowning, clearly at a loss for how to finish her thought. And that is not like her; Jane usually has no difficulty whatsoever in articulating herself to him, especially when he's saying or doing something she disapproves of.
It's just one more bit of wrongness and God this hurts, this entire situation just… hurts.
But there's no point in wasting his energy – or hers, hers is especially precious right now – by engaging in an argument he cannot win. For better or worse, her mind is made up.
He drops his eyes to the packed dirt between them, rakes a hand anxiously through his hair, gives a shuddery sigh, and then looks up again, locking gazes with her.
"Will you be all right?" he asks with quiet desperation.
It's a stupid question; pointless and unanswerable in any meaningful way. He knows all this. He asks it anyway, he can't stop himself.
He is not at all reassured by her response.
She gulps in a deep breath that seems… well, positively stricken, somehow… and an involuntary shudder rips its way through her, the whole slim length of her body. She raises her right hand (her left arm, her damaged arm, is restrained in a sling) and presses it to his face. There is something in her eyes that he can't identify but does not like as she says quietly, "I have you."
"Will you at least –"
But she shakes her head and whatever deep flash of emotion he'd seen flit past behind her eyes a second ago is shuddered, unreachable.
"No more talk," she says. "We have to go. We have to find her, Gunther. Now."
He opens his mouth to protest further, then shuts it again. She's right. She usually is, after all. Although it's not impossible that Algernon would have holed up nearby, it is unlikely. In all probability Lavinia is actively being spirited away, further every moment. They have the advantage of being able to cover distance quickly thanks to Dragon, but even so, time is of the essence. He stands and then offers her his hand, pulling her up after. She gasps and bites down, hard, on her lip, swaying slightly on her feet before steadying herself between him and Dragon's shoulder.
His stomach flips over. Wrong this is so wrong –
"I am all right... enough."
"Just promise you will tell me if you need to stop."
"Stop?" She looks at him as if he's just uttered a word in a foreign language. "We stop when we find her, Gunther."
God, she's amazing, this woman of his. And right now it's tearing him apart. Impulsively he reaches up and catches her face between his hands, cradling it, framing it. He skates his thumb gently across her lips again, just as he did while she'd been lying unconscious on the ground. He drops his forehead against hers, their hair mingling, their breath mingling.
"I love you." His voice is a raw, hoarse whisper.
She lets her eyes fall shut, with that little crease between them again; hooks her good arm around his neck and pulls his head down until it's resting on her shoulder. He wraps his arms around her and yanks her against him, maybe even a little harder than he should, given her condition.
He can't help it. He can't help it. He holds her so tightly it's like he's trying to meld the two of them together, into a single being. He holds her like he's never going to let her go.
But of course, in the end, he has to.
She's the one who breaks the embrace; he stoops to gather their belongings from the ground, shouldering both her pack and his own.
Dragon unfolds his wings, stretches them, swings his head around and gives Jane a gentle bump; almost a nuzzle. "Ready?" he asks her quietly.
Her gaze leaves Gunther's to meet Dragon's. She lays her hand on his snout, swallows hard, and nods. Then she does one more thing that unsettles Gunther deeply. She turns in a full circle, slowly, eyes raking their surroundings, seeming to drink them in as if she wants to commit every detail of the castle courtyard, every door and window and shadow and stone, the gate, the parapets, the keep, her tower, all of it, to memory.
As if she never expects to see this place again.
A band of ice settles around his heart.
Wrong this IS WRONG –
But before he can say anything further, before he can even begin to think what to say or how to phrase it, she's mounting up and gesturing for him to do the same.
It's time to fly.
That's the first thing he registers about flying, beyond the initial weightless upsurge of liftoff, which has him feeling like he just left his stomach lying on the hard-packed earth of the courtyard far below.
It's cold. And they're going much too fast. It's cold. And they're gaining altitude at a ridiculous, dizzying, frankly terrifying rate. It's cold. And there is nothing, NOTHING between him and the ground except for one hundred, three hundred, five hundred feet of empty space. It's cold. And all he has to hold onto is Jane.
His arms were wrapped, at her instruction, tightly about her waist already... but now he clamps down like a vice, holding on so tightly that he's half afraid he's crushing the breath out of her. Her hair is blowing wildly around his face, snapping about him in the wind, and he finds that he's grateful – deeply grateful, almost pathetically grateful – to it for veiling his view of their surroundings. Or to be more precise, their total lack of surroundings other than the almost incomprehensibly vast amounts of frigid, empty air on every side of them. Not to mention below...
Oh dear sweet God in heaven, was that a cloud that just went by!?
Jane's hair, glorious as it is, is quite suddenly not nearly enough of a visual screen. He's still getting glimpses and he finds that he would strongly prefer, just at present, to see absolutely nothing – nothing at all.
He promptly buries his face in her neck, eyes slammed shut for good measure.
Ah yes, that's better... still cold, but much better.
He feels her stir against him, leaning back more fully, pressing into him. "Are you all right?" she asks.
He raises his face, just an inch or two, so his words won't be muffled by her skin. "Yes...?" he manages.
His voice is not a full octave higher-pitched than usual.
And it certainly doesn't crack on that single, short word.
She lets her head fall back against his shoulder, which forces him to raise his own. Prying his eyes open goes against his better judgment, but he does it anyway... and is actually glad for it.
Her face is upturned, and smooth – in this moment, at least – of any creases or furrows of grief or pain. Her eyes are closed to the wind and her lips are actually quirked into a tiny smile.
He honestly cannot remember the last time he saw her smile.
Despite the purpose of this flight, the hurt and fear and the stress they're both currently under, this brief moment of peace is a beautiful thing.
"I have wondered what it would be like, to fly with you," she says. Her voice is quiet, but he can hear her perfectly; the wind whips her words directly into his ears.
And suddenly, the whole... flight thing... seems a lot less scary...
If no less bone-rattlingly cold.
The rain that fell overnight could end up posing a real problem.
Gunther is aware, tension mounting within him, that it will have erased most of the signs of Algernon's passing.
The rain is also what delayed the return of the king's hunting party, forcing him, Jane and Dragon to set out without any backup on the ground – although he's quite sure that Caradoc will send out search parties of his own just as soon as he gets home. Sooner, if he learns the news before he reaches the castle. Gunther had sent messengers out last night, shortly after stumbling into the keep and surrendering Jane, however unwillingly, into the care of others. Giving her away like that had been one of the most painful things he's ever done.
His arms, which have relaxed somewhat over the past several minutes of flying, tighten around her again at the memory.
"Gunther?" she asks. "Still all right?"
"Yes," he says, and his voice is almost steady now. "As long as I have you."
She goes very still in his arms. Another quick glance at her face reveals that all traces of that little smile have been erased.
Feeling deeply disquieted, Gunther drops his face into her hair again.
They start out traveling toward Algernon's point of origin, his home kingdom, with Dragon and Jane – and Gunther too, once he's collected himself somewhat – scanning the ground for any sign of his passing. According to Jester, the crazed lord had had at the very least four other men with him – although Smithy had discovered one of those men dead during the frantic search for Jane. This means they're looking for a party of five people minimum, including Algernon himself and the princess – possibly even more, if the noble had had additional men concealed nearby during his attack on Jane.
And if they'd struck off through the woods, again as Jester had thought, then maybe, just maybe, if luck is on the side of the pursuers rather than the pursued, there will be some evidence of their passage.
The thing is, Jester was so muddled. Gunther is not at all certain that his observations or deductions can be trusted.
Still, it's all they have to go on. And so they carry on.
What they DON'T expect to see, and yet what they are undeniably confronted with some time later, is a large and clearly deliberate marker that has been left, it seems, specifically to attract the attention of an airborne pursuit.
In the middle of a small clearing, there is a patch of newly burnt ground perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. And in the middle of that –
Jane strains forward to the point where Gunther gives a panicked yelp, afraid that she'll pitch right off. "I am fine," she reassures him absently, "I do this all the time." Then, in a much more intense tone, she says to Dragon, "do you see –"
"Yes," he replies tautly. "On my way down, Jane."
Thus begins Gunther's first descent on dragon-back which is, if anything, more terrifying even than lift-off.
Five minutes later he's hunkered down in the middle of the burned area, feeling equal measures of relief at being back on solid ground, and mounting unease at what he's seeing.
It's an arrow, lying on the ground and pointing due north. A circle of small stones has been arranged around it, a clear indication that the arrow did not simply fall here, but was placed quite purposefully, intended to be found and interpreted. And caught beneath one of the stones –
Gunther pulls it free, examines it for a moment, then hands it up to Jane, who is standing opposite him. "Is this –"
"Yes." Her voice is very small, very tight. Constricted. "A piece of Lavinia's dress."
He gets to his feet. "Jane, I –"
"We have to go." But she doesn't move. She just keeps staring at the scrap of fabric in her hand.
"He will not actually hurt her. She is too val–"
She finally raises her eyes to his, and they are burning. He remembers, when she was unconscious, thinking that she needed to blaze again - but he he hadn't meant like this. Not like this.
"We have to go. Gunther, NOW."
"I know. And we will. But we also have to think objectively. Why would he do this? Why would he want to be followed? That makes no sense. This is most likely a trap, or a misdirection, pointing us the wrong w–"
"No." She shakes her head emphatically. "It is not misdirection. He wants to be found."
"Why!?" he demands. "Why would he want that, Jane?"
She opens her mouth, on the verge of speech, then pauses – takes a deep breath, runs a hand through her wind-tangled hair, and says, "I suppose we will find that out when we catch him. We follow the arrow north. Now come on, mount up." And she turns away.
She'd been about to say something else, Gunther is sure of it – but had clamped down on herself and changed course. Why?
Wrong, his subconscious whispers again. This is wrong.
Something is going on that he can't quantify... but he doesn't like it one bit.
They have come across three more identical markers by the time the day has started to fade toward evening. They have to land at each, losing valuable time, because although the burned patches are clearly visible from the air (exactly as intended), the arrows, of course, are not.
As the hours pass, Jane becomes more and more withdrawn. She speaks less frequently, and when she does, it's in monosyllables more often than not. She certainly hasn't smiled again. If anything, her eyes are becoming increasingly unfocused as the day slowly dies. He can't see her face while they're airborne, but every time they stop her expression is a little emptier, a little more glazed. And that furrow of pain on her forehead, right between her brows, that's back too. Back and deepening all the time.
It's like a small but exquisitely honed dagger, digging and twisting in his gut.
The final time they stop that day, he actually has to take her by her uninjured shoulder and give her a little shake to bring her out of the... the... trance or whatever state it is that she's gone into.
"Jane?" His voice is taut with worry. "Where are you? Come back."
She blinks; takes in a little double-hitching breath as her eyes focus on him. And then something happens that ratchets his anxiety level straight up to the near side of panic. Her eyes actually start to roll back and her knees unhinge, beginning to spill her toward the ground.
Thank God he's so close to her; it allows him to grab her and arrest her fall. He instinctively tries to catch her under her arms, but her sling hinders him. He ends up wrapping one arm around her and pulling her against him instead. She cries out into his shoulder as her own shoulder is jarred; her voice is muffled, but the pain in it is perfectly clear.
He eases them both down onto their knees, starting to shake with reaction. A second later Dragon is right there too, having seen the whole thing.
"Jane." She's kneeling in front of him, head bowed, hand clenched hard in the fabric of his sleeve. He reaches out and clasps her chin, raising it, compelling her to meet his gaze. "What just happened!?"
Confusion is writ large in her green eyes, with an undercurrent of dismay. "I – I do not..." she trails off.
"All right," he says grimly, "that is enough for one day. We stay here tonight."
That brings her out of her daze in a right hurry.
"What!? No! No, there is another hour of daylight left, at least! We cannot waste it! We keep looking until it is too dark to see - we could still find her today!"
"No. You are exhausted. You are hurt. We make camp here, right here."
"You do not get to make that call!" Anger is seeping into her tone. "I am fine, whatever it was is over now, and I say we carry on. Right, Dragon?" She looks to her large green friend for support.
Gunther turns his attention to Dragon as well. "You saw what just happened, did you not!?"
"I did." Dragon's voice is uncharacteristically quiet; subdued.
"So do we risk it happening again –" Gunther jabs a finger skyward – "up there!?"
Dragon pauses for only a second. Then, "No. No, that is not a risk I am willing to take."
Jane stares from Gunther to Dragon and back again, then shoots to her feet. Gunther rockets up right after her, ready to catch her again if need be – and he is sure that he sees her sway, just for a second or two. But then she shoves him backward, hard, and while he struggles to regain his balance, she stumbles several feet away and collapses to her knees again, folding herself over until her forehead is practically on the ground. It's a posture of the most abject grief Gunther has ever seen.
He's fairly sure his heart is trying to rip itself in two.
"Jane." He drops down beside her.
"Do – not – touch – me," she gasps out, face still nearly pressed to the charred earth. Gunther pays no attention at all. He pulls her into his arms, undeterred by the way she stiffens against him and tries to wrench away... and all of her resistance evaporates within seconds anyhow.
Then she is sobbing into his chest; great heaving, gusty sobs that threaten to shake her apart.
He ends up in an awkward half-sitting, half-kneeling position with Jane wrapped in his embrace, his chin resting on top of her head as she cries herself out.
Six short, simple words are beating behind his temples, beating in time with his heart, over, and over, and over again.
I am going to kill him.
I am going to kill him.
I am going to kill him.
I am going to kill him.
I am going to kill him.