He can still hear her screams.
She'd been so strong. So stoic. And it had shattered him into a million pieces, watching her walk away from him; he'd thought he'd been destroyed in that moment, but he hadn't – not yet.
He hadn't even known yet what destroyed was.
The already unbearable situation had become more hellish still when Algernon had wound one hand in Jane's hair and run the other all over her body; Gunther had never, not once ever, felt so helpless in his entire life.
And yet it had still somehow gotten worse. Events had spun completely out of control and… and… and dear sweet merciful God, the sight of her holding a dagger to her own heart – pressing it into her breast hard enough to make herself bleed – that sight is going to haunt his nightmares.
But even that was not the thing that had wrecked him.
The thing that had wrecked him was when his fierce, brave, beautiful Jane had finally lost her composure – had panicked and started screaming. Screaming for him.
And there had been nothing – nothing – that he could do about it.
Powerless to intervene. Powerless to save her.
He will hear those cries in his dreams, in his waking hours, for the rest of his days.
In his arms, Lavinia gasps and wriggles. He realizes that he's holding her too tightly – unconsciously transferring the desperate fierceness with which he wishes he were holding Jane to the princess's much smaller form.
He makes himself ease off a bit.
This causes Lavinia to gasp again and throw her weight against him, nearly knocking him backward right off of Dragon.
He can't win.
He readjusts her against him, trying to find the right balance between holding her too hard and not hard enough; between hurting her and leaving her feeling unsupported.
"It is all right," he soothes the young princess. "I have you. It is going to be all right."
Empty words. He can barely force them out. He does, though, because Lavinia needs to hear them. She's hurt and traumatized and exhausted and ten years old. So he says what he knows she needs to hear.
But it's not all right. Nothing's all right. This whole situation is the perfect antithesis of all right, and nothing's ever going to be all right again.
Not for him.
Not for Jane.
What is he doing to her now!?
He keeps circling back to this, over and over and over again; his mind worrying at this simple-yet-agonizing question with unflagging tenacity.
He can't help himself. He can't stop himself. And yet, the thing is…
He already knows the answer.
Can you hear her screams, boy?
No. No, he cannot. He can't hear her screams because he left her there.
But that doesn't mean she isn't screaming.
Maybe Algernon will at least be… gentler… with her in the absence of an audience, without Gunther there to torment by extension. Maybe…
No. He wants to lie to himself, but he can't. He knows better. Algernon will be brutal.
So then the question becomes, how much will Jane be able to withstand? Will he be able to help her put herself back together again in the aftermath? Will there be enough of her left?
Will she even survive until he can make it back to her?
He groans aloud in abject despair.
He's trying – trying hard – to hold himself together for Lavinia's sake… but the sound is wrenched out of him despite his best efforts.
The princess twists around to look at him, her dark hair whipping across her pale and tear-streaked face.
"It is all right," he says automatically, speaking soothing lies through lips that have gone numb.
He wishes he could will his mind numb too… but his mind has a will, and an agenda, of its own. It keeps presenting him with graphic, tortured images of just exactly what Algernon could be doing to Jane now… and now… and now.
And she will struggle for as long as she can, fight until her strength gives out, which will make it even –
A single, heaving sob takes him, sudden and vicious. Lavinia looks back at him again, eyes wide, an expression of desperate supplication on her face. She's wordlessly begging for reassurance, and he opens his mouth to give it, but nothing comes.
He's all out of white lies. He's dredged dry.
"Sorry," he gasps out. It's all he can say, the only word he has left.
He's sorry for failing to comfort Lavinia; sorrier for failing Jane.
He left her there! That's the crux of it, what it all comes down to in the end. Yes he and Jane are in service to the realm, and that makes Lavinia the priority. Her recovery is paramount, worth any extreme measures necessary, any sacrifice demanded. Jane had understood that fact, and rationally he does too… but oh God, in his heart! The reason doesn't matter, the justification doesn't matter, the fact that she'd ordered him away in no uncertain terms does – not – matter. He left her there in the grip of a monster in human form, who will lay her bare in every sense, and kill her when he's done.
It is the gravest sin of his life, and he will never recover from it, and he will never forgive himself. Not if he lives to be a hundred. A thousand. Not if he outlives Dragon.
He's sorry for everything, everything.
Is she screaming now?
Yes. Yes, he's pretty sure that she is.
That's when the sky opens up and the rain starts to fall.
Where are the ground parties? Where are they!?
Surely Caradoc would have sent riders out by now. He must have. Where could they be? Is he going to have to backtrack all the way to the castle in order to hand Lavinia off?
No, please God say no. No no no.
He feels every minute, every mile, that passes, separating him further from Jane, like a fresh wound; an ever-mounting agony.
They have to turn back. They have to turn BACK!
Not turning back is going to break him.
More. Break him more.
The weather's not helping matters. Visibility is dismal. Gunther thinks frantically that it's entirely possible they've already passed right over search parties and simply never saw them.
The rain has caused other delays as well. Shortly after the deluge had started in earnest, he'd asked Dragon to land so he could transfer his cloak to the princess, who was wearing only the same lightweight garments she'd had on for her ill-fated training session by the lake. Consequently they'd lost even more time, and he's now drenched to the skin, shivering.
Lavinia is snug, though – as much as possible under the circumstances at any rate – wrapped twice over in the large, heavy garment – and that's what matters.
But she needs to get home, and he needs to get back. Where in the sarding hell are the –
And then he sees them a short ways off.
"I know," comes the succinct reply. "Hold her tight."
As Gunther strengthens his grip on Lavinia yet again, Dragon banks steeply, making for the party of men below.
They land fairly hard, a short distance away from the half-dozen mounted men. He is off Dragon and moving almost instantly, running with the young princess bundled in his arms, closing the distance between himself and the group as Sir Ivon, who is in the lead, swings down from his horse. "Well done, lad," Ivon booms, as Gunther skids to a halt in front of him. Where did you find the wee –"
"Take her," Gunther cuts him off, hoisting Lavinia unceremoniously into the surprised older man's arms. He is aware on a distant and unimportant level that his mentor would be well within his rights to assign him a month's worth of stable duty for his brusque tone. He could not possibly care less.
It doesn't matter. Nothing matters but Jane.
He'd set aside his knightly ambitions and consign himself to being a stable boy for the rest of his life if doing so could somehow magically cause her to appear before him, safe and whole.
There's nothing he wouldn't do, wouldn't pay, wouldn't give. Anything, anything.
But that's not going to happen, so he has to get back.
He starts to turn away, to retreat toward Dragon. But Ivon, who has set Lavinia gently on her feet, places an arresting hand on his shoulder.
When Gunther spins back toward him, he is virtually snarling.
Ivon's eyes go wide at the expression on his squire's face, but only for a second. Then Gunther sees the understanding slam into place. "Jane," the older man breathes, stricken.
Gunther opens his mouth to respond, but another sob surprises him instead, staggering in its intensity. For a space of seconds, Ivon is quite literally supporting him.
"Ach, no! Gunther, does she live?"
"I do not know," he whispers bleakly, struggling mightily to hold further sobs at bay. "She was alive when we left, but… Algernon, he… demanded a trade for Lavinia, and Jane… Jane, she…"
"Of course," Ivon says, sounding sick. "Of course she did." Moving suddenly with great speed and efficiency, he pulls off his cloak, throws it around Gunther's rain-drenched shoulders, and actually gives him a little shove back toward Dragon. "Go, lad. Go and get her back."
Gunther, feeling weary to the core of his being, mounts up again. He just barely hears his mentor's final words as Dragon launches himself into the weeping sky.
"Godspeed, the both of you – bring our Jane home."
He's exhausted. They had handed Lavinia over around dusk, and now have been flying in the dark for hours. Gunther can only hope that Dragon's internal compass is strong, because he himself has no idea what direction they're headed in. So far as he can tell, they could be going anywhere. Rain is still falling in driving sheets. He tries to remember what it feels like to not be sopping wet, or freezing cold, or utterly emotionally devastated.
But he can't. He really can't.
Can you hear her screams now, boy?
That he can do.
Gunther! Gunther! No! Get – off me! GUNTHER!
Her frantic cries as Algernon had dragged her backward, away from Dragon, away from him, are echoing over and over in his mind; an endless excruciating loop.
No! NO! GUNTHER –!
He can't make it stop.
But for the sake of his sanity, he has to. He has to.
Think of her. Think of Jane. Not Algernon. Just Jane. Think of… of…
He sees her above him, twelve years old, sweaty and bruised, breathing hard, extending a hand to help him up after knocking him in the dirt during staves practice.
Sees her outlined against the sky, lying flat on her stomach and looking worriedly down at him after he'd fallen into a pit trap during a long-ago hunt.
Sees her coated in grey dust, absolutely covered in it to the point where even her astonishing hair had been dulled by it, muted – from helping to shift the rubble off him when that blasted wall had come down.
He sees her vaulting over a precipice to obtain the necessary ingredient for Dragon's medicine when he'd been so sick. Gunther's heart had been in his throat; he'd been so scared in that moment, had begged her to reconsider, had tried to reason with her, to talk her out of it. But that was Jane – her friend had been in need, and she'll do anything for the people she loves.
Even sacrifice herself to a monster.
Another sob tries to rip its way free.
No. Do not think about that.
He can't let himself venture into that territory. He can't. If he keeps thinking about what Algernon could be doing to Jane, his Jane, right now –
Pinned, struggling, panicked eyes going impossibly wide and then slamming shut in agonized denial as –
He'll go mad. And he won't be of any use to Jane if he's a gibbering lunatic by the time he arrives. So think of… of…
He sees her cavorting in the snow with Dragon, the winter of her thirteenth year; her hair a shockingly bright splash of color – a crimson exclamation point – against all that white.
Sees her picnicking with Lavinia in the garden.
Sees her scolding Cuthbert for some childish prank or other; she's about the only person anywhere in the castle environs who has the gumption to actually do that.
Sees her asleep in the library, arms crossed on the heavy wooden table that dominates the center of the room, head cushioned atop them. Study materials piled haphazardly to both sides of her.
He sees her faltering on one of Sir Theodore's more punishing marches. She'd been limping, struggling not to fall behind, face screwed up in an unvoiced complaint. But it wasn't until they had stopped that he had seen the bloody tatters of her sock; the raw, blistered skin beneath. He'd winced at the sight; hissed in a sharp little breath between his teeth. Her eyes had flown up to meet his, startled and instantly defensive. Her pinched expression had faded to puzzlement, though, as he'd eased himself down beside her. Without a word he had stripped off his own sock and handed it over. She'd frowned, but hadn't argued, pulling it on. It had been comically large on her, rising almost to her knee.
He'd turned his face away to hide his sudden smile. He'd just bought himself a crop of blisters fit to match Jane's own, but had found he hadn't really minded. Strange but true.
It had already started then. Me. Loving her. How did I not understand?
He sees her helping Pepper carry platters to the garden table. Helping Rake harvest vegetables. Helping Smithy in the forge. She gives so generously of herself, his Jane, and asks so little in return.
And he's failed her, oh dear God he's failed her cataclysmically, she'd been screaming for him and he'd, he'd –
He can't. He can't go there.
The rain is driving against him, his hair plastered to his head, the cloak Sir Ivon gave him already soaked through. Dragon is lurching beneath him as he fights the wind. At least the two of them are of the same mind. There will be no waiting out this storm. Come hell or high water, they keep going.
He shivers miserably, tightens his grip with both hands and thighs, and casts his mind back again.
He sees her letting Lavinia weave colorful ribbons into her hair, her face a picture of severely tried patience; brow furrowed, teeth gritted. Yet she'd suffered the indignity (and attendant hair-pulling) with quiet stoicism for the sake of the princess. He'd teased her about it quite mercilessly afterward – despite being, privately, rather… well, charmed.
He sees her twelve feet in the air... no... it had to have been closer to fifteen, wedged into the narrow, arching space of one of the castle's buttresses. Inside the arch. Way up at the top. Back braced against one side of it, feet against the other. Some deep pulse of instinct had made him look up and there she'd been, staring cooly down at him, scaring him right out of his skin – she had to have taken five years off his life! After he'd completed the requisite triple-take, he'd demanded, in a voice that had not been the least bit breathy or high-pitched, just what in the holy hell she was doing up there... only to be summarily informed (as if it were the most normal thing in the world) that she was avoiding her mother – and then ordered to move right along lest he call attention to her.
He sees her on the night of Lavinia's birthday ball, walking into the festivities in that jaw-dropping, utterly astounding green gown. The most breathtakingly, almost impossibly beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Amazing. Flawless. She'd set his head to spinning and it hasn't stopped since.
But that dress had also set all this in motion. Everything, everything that's happened since – that's happening now – (Gunther! Gunther! NO!) – has snowballed from that night, that gown.
"Can we go any faster!?" he shouts desperately… but he doesn't think that Dragon can hear him over the storm.
Either that, or he chooses not to dignify such a query with an answer.
Gunther utters a strangled groan and attempts to clear his mind again.
Jane… he sees… he sees… Jane… focus!
He sees Jane the first time he'd noticed her wearing his gifts. She hadn't known yet, of course, who the giver had been, and so she'd looked away self-consciously, a faint, pretty blush tinting her cheeks, when she'd seen him staring. He hadn't been able to help it, though – the staring. She'd been glorious, and his gifts had both fit, and complimented, her perfectly.
He sees her atop him in that clearing near the castle when… when everything between them had finally come out. He sprawled flat on his back in fragrant, crushed grass and Jane, dear God, Jane straddling him – after she'd literally tackled him, dragged him to the ground, refusing to let him get his armor in place, engage his escape mechanisms, retreat.
He'd been desperate to retreat, but no; with characteristic tenacity, she had bullied him into finally, verbally, admitting his feelings – resorting, at one especially memorable point, to actually smacking him about the face and head with his own tortured, despairing love letter.
No one but his Jane.
He sees her staring down at him in that moment, intently, searchingly, her hair tumbling forward over her shoulders, the ghost of a smile playing about her lips, quirking the corners of her mouth upward. Recalls the warm, solid weight of her settled on his waist, and thank God – thank GOD – she'd straddled his waist and not his hips, because something had happened lower down on his frame that would have been… not good, had she noticed.
Beyond not good.
Beyond bad, even.
Completely and wholly and utterly and abjectly mortifying.
But thanks be to all that is holy, she hadn't noticed.
Jane… his Jane… is there anything left of her now? It's been hours… hours… more than enough time for Algernon to have fundamentally destroyed her. His chipper little cloud of silver linings… will he ever see that girl again? Or has she been erased? Brutally, horrifically erased?
Jane, I am coming. Please, God, hold on. Do not let him erase what makes you you. Please, Jane, do not.
But she has no choice in the matter, does she? No, none at all. No one can come unchanged through the… the things he must be doing to her right –
Can you hear her screams NOW, boy?
He wants to scream too. He's fighting it, though, because if he starts, he doesn't think he'll stop.
He'll just scream until his voice gives out. Scream until he dies.
But that would not be productive, so –
Look back. Look back. Look back and see…
He sees her standing over him, hands planted on her hips, frowning down at him after he'd attacked Algernon on the morning the hunting party had left; eyes throwing off sparks, her astounding corona of hair virtually snapping with her ire, a living flame. She'd thrown him into shadow, she'd blocked out the sun… but no matter, she had shone with her own brilliance. Jane is his sun.
He sees her as she'd been just last night – it already feels like a lifetime ago – as they'd lain beside each other and she'd turned her head to face him, her eyes brimming over with tears and starlight. He sees her – and now it seems like he really does see her, this memory taking on a vibrancy, an immediacy, that the previous ones had lacked – reaching up to catch his face and pull him to her, even as fresh tears had streaked down to lose themselves in the tumult of her hair.
And he can actually feel it, he can, this is amazing… can feel her fingers tangled in his hair, can feel her lips moving against his, opening to him, inviting him in, and he's falling… falling into the kiss, falling into her, falling…
Oh holy hell, he's falling!
Literally. Through the air.
He can't scream. He can't even breathe. The air is pressed from his lungs by the wild velocity of his fall. He can do nothing but plummet helplessly toward the ground. He is fleetingly grateful that in the bitter dark and pouring rain, he can't see the earth rushing up to meet him. He'll be alive in one instant and dead in the next, and he hopes he won't even know –
Then a huge shape goes hurtling past him, arrowing downward even faster than he's falling – and a second later Dragon has him clasped in his claws and they're spiraling the rest of the way down together.
When Dragon sets him on the ground, his legs buckle. He hits his hands and knees hard, gasping and shaking – though not from the cold and wet anymore. Or not exclusively from those things, at any rate.
Shock is now a factor too. A strong factor.
He collapses to his side on the saturated ground, then rolls onto his back, panting, letting the rain splash his face and revive him somewhat.
"You fell off, shortlife," Dragon says, sounding as shaken and out of breath as Gunther himself. His voice is flat with… disbelief? Disgust? Or just shock like Gunther's own? "You fell off."
"Suh… sorry," Gunther gasps. "I think…" he recalls the timbre of the memory – the kiss – suddenly changing. Acquiring a submersive depth of realism that none of his other recollections had possessed. Now he understands why. He'd transitioned, right in the middle, from reminiscence to dream.
"I think I fuh… fell asleep."
There is silence for several moments as Gunther struggles to get his breathing and heart rate back under control and Dragon, presumably, does likewise.
Then, "for whatever reason, shortlife," Dragon says, "Jane holds you in high regard. So I would appreciate it if you would please try a little harder to not make a pancake out of yourself." He pauses for a moment, then adds, "I think she is going to need us both."
Gunther takes a few more shuddering breaths, then pushes himself into a sitting position. "Understood. And agreed." He runs a shaking hand through his sopping hair, reasserting some semblance of control. "All… right," he says, unfolding himself back to his feet. Both his voice and his legs are nearly steady again. Nearly. "All right… I... I am… we can go."
"Go?" Dragon sounds incredulous. "Now? I think not. No, we are staying right here for at least an hour or two. I am not risking a reoccurrence of that. There is no guarantee I could catch you again, shortlife."
"What?" Gunther is momentarily stunned. "No. That will not happen again. I am more awake right now, after that, than I have ever been in my life! I am WIDE AWAKE, Dragon, and we have to go – now!"
"You are wide awake until you are not any longer. I will not chance it. You are exhausted and frankly, so am I. Get some rest. We will press on in a couple of hours."
Gunther's fists clench as he begins to realize that Dragon is actually being serious. How can he be advocating a two-hour delay!? No – NO. That is completely unacceptable.
"We do not have time for your games, Dragon. Jane needs us NOW!"
"Games? You think this is a game to me!?" Quite suddenly they are virtually eyeball to eyeball, Dragon hissing in angry frustration.
Desperation seizes Gunther. "Please, Dragon, we have to go on. She cannot… I cannot… she needs us."
"What she needs is for you to arrive in one piece. No. No. I think we are done for a bit."
"We are NOT DONE!" He's edging toward hysteria. "Do you have any idea what she – what Algernon – do you understand what he WANTED her for!? We have to go NOW RIGHT SARDING NOW!"
But Dragon's tone brooks no argument. "Not at a very real risk of death. We rest now, both of us. The sooner you shake the rocks out of your little head, the sooner we can be on our way." Dragon snaps out one wing in a shower of wind and rain. "Now do yourself a favor and get under."
Gunther just stands there, gaping, in horror. He can't accept this, he can't.
Not even consciously aware of what he's doing, he raises both hands to clench in his hair, causing a cascade of freezing water to run down his neck. He turns in a full circle, staring sightlessly into the raging storm.
"Which direction were we travelling?" He asks hoarsely. "Point the way. I am going on, with or without you."
Dragon regards him for a moment from a narrowed golden eye.
"Well, shortlife, if you insist," he says at length, "you are welcome to stumble aimlessly around in the dark… but I will not make any promises as to whether I will be in a mood to pick you up again come morning."
The flat finality of this pronouncement is what does Gunther in. It's as if all the bone-deep fatigue he's been so doggedly fighting off catches up with him in this one moment. His legs unhinge all over again, spilling him abruptly back to his knees. "Dragon –" his voice is ragged, close to breaking. "If we get there too late, if I lose her, I… it will kill me, it –" he breaks off, wrestling with a whole torrent of sobs that suddenly threaten to overcome him.
His eyes fly back up to meet Dragon's gaze. It's the first time on this entire journey, he thinks, that Jane's reptilian friend has referred to him by name. Dragon's voice is uncharacteristically quiet as he says, "do you really think it would go any differently for me?"
Gunther stares at him in mute misery. When Dragon extends his wing again, he crawls under.
"Gunther. Gunther. Come on, shortlife. Wakey, wakey."
The voice seems to be coming down a long and echoing corridor. It's faint and tinny, a voice from another world, a different plane of existence.
He wishes it would stop, fade away again, and leave him in peace.
He's so tired. His whole body aches. And there is nothing he wants to do less in this moment than drag himself back into the reality from whence that voice is calling. Because things are wrong there. Some fundamental things are very, very wrong, and he doesn't want to face that right now, isn't even sure that he can.
He tries to curl in on himself even further, but something is shaking him now, relentlessly, and –
"Gunther. It has been three hours, the rain is dying down, and we have to go. We have to go get Jane."
The name penetrates his sleep-fogged state in a way that nothing else has, or could.
His eyes fly open.
A second later he's forcing himself into a sitting position, shaking his head in an attempt to clear it of the vestiges of heavy, clinging, enveloping sleep. He's still deeply groggy; damp and shivering; feels almost feverish. But he's back. Back in the here-and-now, back in command of his faculties, and spiraling right back up again toward the state of near panic that has been his status-quo since the moment that Jane had murmured the words, "things are going to get very difficult now."
He knows where he is. He knows, with an almost unendurable pain in his heart, where she is - and he knows that they have to go. He and Dragon have to go. Right the hell now.
He staggers to his feet; overbalances; falls against Dragon's large, solid side.
"Woah. Steady there, shortlife." Dragon brings his head close, studying Gunther intently. "Take a minute. Clear out the cobwebs. Breathe. Are you really safe to ride?"
"Yes," he croaks. But he does as he's told; braces his hands on his knees and takes several deep, galvanizing breaths. When he straightens up again, the world is no longer spinning. Glancing about, he sees that Dragon is right; the rain has lessened considerably, falling off into little more than a steady drizzle. Dawn is lightening the horizon, as well. They can see again, at least for the time being – although the heavy clouds seem to suggest that the respite may be of a temporary nature. Which is all the more reason why it's –
"Time to go," he says, shoving his damp, though no longer soaked, hair out of his face. He mounts up.
They waste no more time or effort on speech. Dragon vaults them skyward with renewed energy and speed. Gunther, pressed almost flat along Dragon's neck, closes his eyes as the world drops away beneath him and hopes against hope, against all knowledge and reason, that by some miracle he'll be able to save the woman he loves.
Even though every shred of logic he possesses is telling him that the damage has been done by now. And done, and done...