A/N: Well hell. Please before reading further make sure you note the genre and the summary. This little plot bunny came out of nowhere and sank its teeth into me and wouldn't let go, but still, writing this hurt. And if I did my job even remotely well, reading it will too, so be advised. Deep thanks to lareepqg for helping me through some (actually many) rough patches, and to biscuitweevil for graciously allowing me to use one of her gorgeous pieces of art for the cover image.
Oh yes, Gunther loved Jane.
Jester hadn't always believed that to be true. When he and Gunther had been competing for her affections, he hadn't wanted it to be true. He'd wanted desperately to believe that Gunther had no real investment, no stake in the competition other than the sake of competitiveness itself; the single-minded desire to claim a prize. Because that would have meant that if he, Jester, were just persistent enough, eventually Gunther would tire of the game and go away. Well, maybe not go away, per se; Jester had come to accept that Gunther was an integral part of castle life, especially since he'd moved in over the summer of his sixteenth year. But cease. Desist. Find another pretty girl; there were many in town that cast longing eyes in his direction.
But Gunther hadn't desisted, and he certainly hadn't gone away. Gunther had endured, and Gunther had won the maiden fair.
Later, once she'd made her decision with unequivocal finality, Jester had actually found himself hoping, for her sake, that it was true – but for a long time he'd remained not wholly convinced. It just… had been a difficult concept for him to wrap his mind around, the idea of Gunther – sullen, brooding, taciturn Gunther, loving… well, anything.
But yes. Gunther loved Jane.
The signs had been subtle at first, but still there to see if one were looking hard enough, and Jester had been looking very hard indeed. An increasing number of sparring sessions, for instance, that ended up with the two of them in… very close physical proximity to each other. Closer than usual. Closer than necessary. A good deal closer than was proper, he'd thought with a painful lump in his throat, the time they'd ended up on the ground, Jane straddling Gunther, their noses nearly bumping, both of them panting from exertion and… and practically devouring each other with their eyes.
Well, that hadn't exactly been subtle, come to think of it. But there had been plenty of other instances, of both the subtle and the… less-so... varieties. A gradual decrease in their snarling disagreements, and a corresponding increase in good-natured banter and ribbing. Gunther extending a sweaty, bruised hand to help Jane up after knocking her in the dirt… and Jane accepting.
Jane sliding off her horse at the end of a day-patrol, exhausted and stiff from the long ride. She'd had trouble finding her feet and had even stumbled – but Gunther had been there at her elbow, catching her before she (or Jester) had realized she was going to fall.
The two of them arguing, which – if one were to be perfectly honest – wasn't all that unusual, even with the decrease in deliberate baiting. It hadn't been until later reflection that Jester had found it somewhat odd. Jane and Gunther, faces twisted in mutual anger, hissing frustrated words punctuated by sharp, accusatory gestures. Their foreheads nearly touching as they quarreled… but since when had they bothered to whisper their arguments rather than shout them?
Coming across the two of them in the courtyard, Jane demanding that Gunther apologize for some slight or another. Instead of his customary smirk and insult, Gunther had stepped closer, towering over her, searching her face intently for… something – before just as quickly stepping away.
Jane, causing a small stir when she had suddenly begun weaving braids into her wild hair. The subsequent second stir that had been caused by a pair of gorgeous, long, green silk ribbons that had mysteriously appeared wrapped around her door handle shortly thereafter. Silk was an enormously rare and expensive commodity - until that moment, only the royal family had owned any.
Gunther taking it upon himself to try over and over again to repair his relationship with Dragon, a relationship that had sustained considerable damage due to his father's relentless machinations... and eventually succeeding.
Jane crying in the garden, crying in the snow, her hitching breaths puffing whitely in the frosty air. Jester had hurried down the steps to comfort her, only to see Gunther reach her first – quietly wrapping one thick arm around her waist while she wept gracelessly into his shoulder.
The two of them studying in the library one brisk evening. Jane had leaned over Gunther's shoulder to retrieve a book from the table… on the surface, a simple, artless motion. And yet, to Jester, the whole thing had somehow seemed… deliberate. Provocative, even. She had jostled him slightly, her hair covering his face as she pressed into him. Gunther had cursed when he'd lost his page, but Jester had seen how...bemused... he'd appeared after Jane had withdrawn. Discomfited, yes, but not necessarily in an unpleasant way. It had occurred to Jester that reaching around from behind like that, that part of Jane's body that would have been mashed up against Gunther would surely have been her, well… her chest.
Jane supporting Gunther across the grounds after he'd sprained an ankle. He had to weigh twice what she did, and had been leaning heavily on her… but she had borne up under it, even somehow finding the breath – and the right words – to coax a low chuckle out of him, for all that his face had been pale and taut with pain.
The two of them drawing water from the well after a hard spar on a hot day, their padded leather armor soaked with sweat, Gunther's hair pasted to his head with it and even Jane's untamable mass of curls slightly dampened and draggled. Since transforming even the most mundane activities into a competition was standard operating procedure for them, there had been a slight tussle over the dipper, but Jane had gotten hold of it first. She'd raised it toward her lips - and then Gunther had given the bottom of it a hard thwack, sending the water arcing up and out to entirely soak her face, neck, shoulders… Jane had simply stood there, shocked, spluttering, for a space of seconds, and Jester had been sure she was about to completely light into Gunther, just let him have it up one side and down the other. And she might have, too, except then Gunther had closed the very scant distance between them, taken her water-beaded face in both his hands, and brought his lips crashing down on hers with all the fervent desperation of a man who had been dying of thirst… for a very long time.
That hadn't been the worst part, though. The worst part had been Jane immediately surging upward into that kiss, her arms winding around Gunther, pulling him closer, one hand fisting on his shoulder, the other tangling in his hair. Gunther had initiated the kiss, but Jane – Jane ignited it. Soaked with perspiration, soaked with well-water, she'd still transformed it into something that had positively sizzled with heat. Jester had fled to his room, not to emerge for a full day.
The sight of them riding into the courtyard following a three-day patrol; just one of many they'd been sent out on in recent months, nothing particularly notable or unique… except actually, that wasn't true. This time had been different. Undeniably, heart-achingly (for Jester at any rate) different. They'd been tired; they'd been dirty; Jane had had twigs caught in her hair from sleeping on the ground. And yet for all of that… they'd been absolutely glowing. Both of them. Jester couldn't have pointed to any one specific piece of evidence, but he'd known just the same. Something in the way they'd moved around each other now, in the quality of their eye contact, in Jane's small, secret smile.
That was when he had finally capitulated; admitted defeat. That was when he'd become the one to cease and desist. There was no point in pressing his suit any further. He was positive to his very marrow that Jane and Gunther had consummated their relationship whilst out on that patrol - she was his, and he was hers, and that was the shape of the world now.
It had been a very long time before he'd felt up to his usual quips and cavortings.
Gunther loved Jane.
Jester had watched their story unfold after all, catalogued its ups and downs in the corners of his heart, an unwilling historian despite himself. He could say without a doubt, Gunther loved Jane, and while it was deeply painful to him on a personal level, the bard in him could appreciate that their story was beautiful as well. It truly was.
Beautiful right to the end.
The castle had come under attack, and that was not supposed to happen.
Tensions had been mounting for some time with their neighbors to the north. A reckless young monarch had come into power there; someone rash and bent on expansion by any means necessary – and diplomatic avenues had failed. Negotiations were in free-fall, war had become a distinct possibility, and preparations were being made. But this – this had caught them woefully off-guard.
Dragon had brought news of the invading force when they'd been mere hours from the castle. Jester could only surmise that, being aware of Dragon and his ability to scout the land from above, the invaders had been taking cover by day, moving only by night; sneaking closer in fits and starts until finally they were near enough to abandon stealth and just… rush in.
The good news was that in order to make such a strategy work, they must be a relatively small force. The bad news was that the element of surprise was working heavily in their favor, just as had no doubt been intended. The news incited a panic amongst the townfolk, causing what would have already been frantically paced last-minute preparations to devolve into complete and utter chaos.
There hadn't been time to evacuate, and with the enemy so near, it was deemed a bad idea anyway; for all they knew, a part of the force could have broken off to circle around, specifically aiming to cut off retreat. Not that the knights and fighting men of Kippernium would have retreated anyway – they would have stayed to defend until the bitter end, no matter the odds. But it was much more difficult to get any sort of solid, workable defenses into place with panicked civilians running around.
Still, they had done what they could in the time they'd had, and had managed to hold the invaders off for quite a while once they'd finally arrived. It had been mid-afternoon before the walls were breached. And now hand-to-hand combat was ranging all over the grounds.
Everyone who could hold a weapon was aiding in the defense, including Jester.
Well, almost everyone. He couldn't help noticing, with mounting unease, that Jane was nowhere to be seen.
He did come across Gunther, though, early on in the fight, racing across the courtyard, bow slung over his shoulder, sword in hand. Jester hailed him, not at all sure that Gunther would stop, but he did; he skidded to a halt, breathing hard, looking grim.
There was no time for tact, for beating around the bush, so he just spat it out. It wasn't as if Gunther didn't know perfectly well that Jester was still in love with Jane; just about everyone did.
"Where is she?"
"With the prince and princess," Gunther said. "In the tower. Out of harm's way. Unless Cuthbert and Lavinia come under direct threat, she will not be taking an active role in the defense."
The shock Jester felt must surely have shown on his face. He was grateful – incredibly grateful for this news, and yet… if Gunther had just told him that Jane had put on the queen's own frock and gone skipping off to dance the maypole, scattering flower petals and singing tra-la-lolly-day, he could hardly have been more amazed. He knew that Jane had not gone with Dragon, to scout out whether a larger force was following behind this one and to harry them if so, and that was surprising enough. But this –
"She… but… how on earth did you convince her to –"
Gunther raked a hand through his hair. He'd caught his breath by now and was already moving on. "No time, Jester! They are here! For God's sake, find a shield, there are still some left in the armory!"
And then he was gone.
Jester took Gunther's advice, pausing only long enough to send up a brief, inarticulate prayer for the other man's safety.
It would kill Jane if anything were to happen to him.
He caught glimpses of Gunther from time to time over the next couple of hours, but only in passing and only at a distance. There was plenty going on to keep both of them heavily occupied. Things seemed to be going fairly well, though – as well as could be hoped for under the circumstances, at any rate.
The enemy force did indeed appear to be quite modest in size. Well-disciplined and aggressive, but not large. In fact, it was beginning to look as if the defenders were gaining a strong upper hand, and the enemy being beaten back… and that was when the burning arrows started raining down, and things took a drastic turn for the worse.
It was only a brief volley. The invaders couldn't possibly have many archers, as they didn't seem to have many men period; their entire strategy was based on boldness and surprise.
So yes, it was only a single, brief volley, but it certainly wreaked some damage – and one of the structures hit was the tower where the prince and princess had been secreted away.
Jester's breath caught, his heart leaping into his throat.
He was far on the other side of the grounds, but he sprinted in the tower's direction immediately. Unfortunately, the way was not clear; he was slowed by the tangled knots of fighters strewn about the grounds. By the time he got even within hailing distance of the tower, its wooden roof was engulfed in flame, smoke billowing from the windows.
He skidded to a stop, utterly horrified, at a loss for what to do. Jane, oh God, Jane –
Then the door burst open and she was there, shoving Cuthbert and Lavinia through it before her, the three of them emerging in a cloud of smoke, and his legs almost buckled with relief.
It didn't last long, though, because her legs almost buckled too; she fell against the tower wall, coughing so hard she could barely keep her feet.
He started toward her again, but before he could close more than half the distance between them she was rushed by two of the enemy, who were in considerably closer proximity to her than Jester was.
In less than a heartbeat's worth of time, so lightning-fast that even watching left Jester slightly breathless, she leapt away from the wall, inserting herself between the attackers and her royal charges. Her sword was suddenly, astonishingly in her hand; a bright flash of deadly steel where nothing had been before.
There was a resounding clang as her weapon met that of her nearer foe, and then she was whirling, almost dancing her battle, striking high, low, right, left, so fast her opponent could barely block in time, let alone press any sort of offense. It was amazing, nearly incomprehensible; it must be some sort of alchemy, Jester thought, the way she could take something as stark and deadly as mortal combat and transform into art, into beauty.
Her bright hair swirled about her like a banner, a flame.
She slashed at the man's midsection and he jumped back, barely in time. Jane had a few precious seconds to gather herself, but now the other soldier was closing on her. She was about to be engaged in two-on-one combat, fighting purely to keep herself alive, unable to effectively defend the prince and princess. She met Jester's eyes across the space that separated them, zeroing in on him right through the seething fray… and he heard the command in her look; it rang with crystalline clarity, just as though she had spoken directly into his ear.
TAKE THEM. Get them someplace safe.
She twisted her head toward where Cuthbert and Lavinia huddled, his arms wrapped protectively around her, only just having gotten their own coughing under control. Jester saw her lips move as she barked out a command to them, and although he was too far away to catch her words, he knew what she was saying – and then they were running toward him, and Jane was deflecting blows from two sides at once, and he wanted so desperately to cross the distance between them and help her somehow, but he couldn't. He couldn't because he'd just been put in charge of the future of the kingdom, and he had to figure out how to make them safe.
It killed him to take his eyes off Jane even for a second, but Cuthbert and Lavinia had almost reached him and he needed to think of something now, now. His eyes raked his surroundings, mind frantically calculating, and finally settled on the stable.
It was close, the way was clear, it had multiple points of access unlike the tower that so easily could have become a death trap, and ample opportunity for concealment in the hay loft and the stalls.
As soon as the prince and princess skidded to a halt in front of him he rapped out a terse, "this way!" and led them to the haven he'd selected at a fast trot. He watched them through the door, did a quick scan of the area to ensure their passage had gone undetected, and then followed them in.
"Are you armed?" Cuthbert was, with a dagger; Lavinia was not. Jester handed her his dagger, then said, "down here." He led them to the furthest stall, where Jane's warhorse stamped restively and tossed its head at the sight of them. "In you go. Conceal yourselves in the hay behind Ruffian. Keep still, keep quiet. If you hear voices you do not recognize approaching, jump on his back and ride. If they grab for you, use your blades. Get on Ruffian and ride them down, ride to safety. Stay together whatever you do. Do you understand?"
They nodded at him, eyes huge. The animal was nervous but it let them edge past; it knew them well; had gladly accepted treats from both of them on numerous occasions. Jester stayed long enough to watch them burrow into a large pile of hay at the far end of the stall, then ran for the courtyard again, being sure to leave Ruffian's door shut but unlatched as he went. It would open easily if… well, if.
God forbid they would need to make a frantic, fast-paced escape, but provisions must be taken just in case.
Then he was back outside and honestly he wasn't even thinking about Cuthbert and Lavinia anymore. He should have been; their safety was paramount. But he wasn't.
He only had eyes for Jane.
She was still fending off both attackers, but she seemed to be flagging… she'd breathed in smoke, he remembered; she'd been coughing so hard when she'd burst through the tower door, and likely hadn't really had a chance to catch her breath since.
He started toward her, but there was still so much chaos in his path. He kept his eyes trained on her to the best of his ability as he was forced to dodge, or deflect, a pair of men locked in combat, a horse run wild, and a shrieking scullery maid. There was smoke drifting through the courtyard now too, obscuring his vision. It was maddening. He was on the verge of screaming.
But then, from nowhere, Gunther was there, crossing the courtyard at a dead run. Gunther was there, and he had seen the same thing Jester had seen, and he was closing on Jane and her attackers with astonishing speed and purpose, and Jester found himself sagging with relief. Gunther was there and he would never, not EVER, let anything happen to Jane.
Gunther was there, and now everything would be all right.
The young knight sliced through the whirling, shifting havoc that separated him from his wife with single-minded focus, hardly slowing his breakneck pace as he dispatched the enemies in his path with easy, almost thoughtless grace. A sword-thrust to the left, a slash to the right; barely even looking at what he was doing, his attention never wavering from Jane. Anyone who attempted to deter or delay him was cut down with scarcely more thought than he would have expended on swatting a fly.
It was a breathtaking thing to behold… and a terrifying one.
Jane managed to fell one of her adversaries just as Gunther skidded to a halt beside her. The man was, Jester assumed, distracted by Gunther's sudden presence in his peripheral vision, and his split second of inattention cost him his life. A swift thrust to his midsection and he was down. Gunther took care of the other one in the same almost offhand way he had dispatched every other obstacle that had stood between him and Jane. In fact, their movements – Gunther and Jane's, husband and wife's – were nearly synchronized as they eliminated their enemies, so wholly attuned were they to one another.
They had a natural rhythm and Jester was reminded for the thousandth time (hardly less painful than the first) just why Jane had chosen the way she had. They moved like two parts of a whole.
They were two parts of a whole.
After all, Gunther loved Jane.
And oh, with what fierce and blazing devotion did she love him back.
Then he positively engulfed her in his arms.
Jester, who'd been approaching them at a run, stopped in his tracks, feeling that to go any nearer now would be to encroach on an intensely private moment. He was in no immediate danger – the courtyard was suddenly far emptier and easier to navigate in the wake of Gunther's mad dash.
The subsequent events played out in a space of seconds, although they were burned into Jester's consciousness with a horrific clarity that would last a lifetime. He would see this play out in his mind's eye over, and over, and over again; a million times. Two million. Ten.
Behind Jane, the tower door swung open and, in a fresh billow of smoke, another enemy soldier appeared. Jester's jaw unhinged. How had he gotten in there? When had he gotten in there? WHY FOR GOD'S SAKE would he go in there, into a burning structure like that!? None of that was important, though; what mattered was that he was here now, coughing himself, yes, but also a matter of inches from Jane's unprotected back. Gunther, who still had her wrapped in a crushing embrace and was directly facing the base of the tower, saw this new menace and acted quickly. He shifted Jane slightly to the side, stepped forward and, without fanfare, ran the man through.
Jane, meanwhile, once she was assured that her husband had the situation in hand, made a quick scan of the surrounding area; her eyes searching for – and finding – Jester's own. He saw the relief start to bloom in them. All three of them were safe, Cuthbert and Lavinia were safe, all was well –
Jane and Jester saw it at the same time; yet another enemy soldier appeared from around the side of the tower, popping out from behind the wreck of an overturned cart, moving fast. Jester bunched himself to leap forward, but it all happened so quickly. There was nothing he could do, he wasn't close enough and there was no time, no time. He was relegated to the status of a horrified onlooker as Jane's eyes first widened, then narrowed with furious determination.
Gunther was momentarily distracted, still yanking his sword free of the foe he had just dispatched. He was helpless to respond; hadn't even noticed this latest threat.
But Jane had seen, Jane understood, and Jane acted.
It was a series of distinct movements, Jester supposed, but really they all blurred together, she was so fast. Just as this latest enemy raised his weapon to strike at Gunther, Jane wrapped an arm around her husband, yanking him hard against her, throwing him off-balance and then she was turning with him, twisting – wrenching him out of the way of the soldier's intended blow; reversing their positions. As she did so, she raised her other hand, her sword hand, in a swift, sure, beautiful arc, and with what appeared to Jester to be no effort at all, separated the man's head cleanly from his body, sending it spinning to the dirt.
A cry lodged in Jester's throat because the man was inarguably dead, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. Jane had not just pivoted Gunther out of harm's way, she'd placed herself directly in it… hadn't she? And yet… it had all been SO fast and for a single, breathless moment it really did appear that he had misinterpreted what he had seen and that things had turned out alright after all.
Gunther turned, still locked in Jane's one-armed grip, to see the man's body slump onto the churned earth. Even from where he stood paralyzed, Jester could see the relief that washed over Gunther's dirtied face. He grabbed Jane with his free hand, pulling her to him in a quick, rough hug, and placed a tender kiss in the crown of her hair. His mouth was moving, a whispered "I love you" or maybe "oh, thank God" and then he released her, turning his attention back to the action before him.
Yes, it really did seem, for that brief space of heartbeats, that everything was alright. But of course, it was not. Nothing was right.
Jester started to move forward again, slowly now, dazedly, as if in a trance. He was still some distance away, though; far enough to notice certain details that Gunther, right beside Jane, as yet had not.
Such as the fact that the beheaded corpse's sword, which had not been bloodied before, was bloodied now.
Such as the fact that a large, dark stain was blooming very rapidly over Jane's chest and side.
Such as her fingers relaxing, letting her own sword fall at her feet.
She would never do that, not when there was still active combat going on around her, never, never, oh God, oh Jane –
And Jester knew now, of course, beyond a shadow of doubt that things were wrong, and not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong – but Gunther still had no idea.
Not an inkling, not a clue.
He was half turned away from her, presumably sweeping the area, seeking assurance that they wouldn't be surprised a third time, when Jane took a single, faltering step toward him and raised her hand – Jester could tell just by watching her that this simple gesture had suddenly become an almost insurmountably difficult task – to catch at his arm. It was a light touch, barely there, but it succeeded in recapturing her husband's attention.
Gunther spun back quickly, but not quickly enough; Jane was already falling. Her legs gave out and she spilled to her knees, then crumpled to her side on the ground, her remarkable flame-colored hair trailing her down, fanning out around her and settling over her face.
It all happened in a split second.
It took forever.
It was the worst, most horrendous thing Jester had ever seen – would ever see – in his life.
And yet, it seemed to him that even in this, even in this, there was to be found a certain sense of grace – economy of movement – almost beauty.
She was Jane, after all. She was his Jane.
Oh God, Jane. No. Jane, no.
He realized distantly that he'd stopped in his tracks again. He was rooted to the ground, held fast in dismay. He wanted to go to her. He needed to go to her. He could not go to her.
He couldn't move.
But Gunther was there. The one she had chosen. Was there.
He flung himself to the ground beside her, hitting his knees with enough force to jar his sword from his hand. Jester could see the sheer, blank, all-encompassing panic on his face; nothing else existed within Gunther in that moment. There was not room for anything else.
"JANE!" His voice was wild with it, with the bright, hot, huge panic that was consuming him, that was swallowing him whole. They were the same words that were running incessantly through Jester's own head but Gunther was screaming them, shrieking them, his voice breaking with them.
"JANE JANE NO GOD NO JANE NO –!"
Jester watched him try to swallow back his hysteria, try to recover some shred of composure, of logic, of rational thought. Watched him shift Jane onto her back, his movements jerky, brusque, rough – he was being so rough with her all of a sudden and that was appallingly out of character but Jester didn't think he could help it, didn't think he was even aware of it. Half of Gunther's mind, he thought, was gone. Maybe irretrievably.
And maybe more than half.
Gunther swept the hair out of her face, and Jester immediately wished that he hadn't… oh God no, put it back, put it back. Anything to end the horror of what he was looking at now, because her face… there was a wide, crimson ribbon of blood issuing from the corner of her mouth, staining and smearing her cheek where it had started to puddle under her before Gunther had turned her, and… and… she hadn't taken any injuries to her face, Jester was positive of that much at least, which meant that this… this was coming from… inside of her.
A part of him had known already, but that was when it really slammed home. That was when he truly understood that there was no hope.
That was when he knew with absolute certainty that he was watching Jane die.
Gunther screamed again. There weren't even words in this cry. It was raw, inarticulate, primal. He rocked back for a second as though the sight of that blood had struck him a physical blow; then he grabbed her face and swiped almost savagely at the red that stained her skin, as if by rubbing away the blood he could somehow remove the cause of it too.
He could not, of course. Jester understood it. After a frantic few seconds Gunther seemed to understand it too. He pulled in a heaving breath and then he was ripping, ripping at the blood-soaked fabric where she'd taken her wound; was ripping it apart to get at what lay beneath it, to see the damage, to try and somehow repair the damage - and he should not have been able to do that, no one should have been able to do that, to tear apart thick, padded leather armor as if it were cotton. No one should have been able to do that, but apparently no one had bothered to inform Gunther, for he was doing it; out of his mind and fueled by pure rampaging adrenaline, Jester would hardly have been surprised if Gunther'd been able to rip through stone in that moment.
Then he was peeling the leather back, and Jester couldn't see clearly what was revealed, but whatever it was spurred Gunther's frenzy to fresh new heights. For just a second he clenched both his hands - now coated scarlet with Jane's blood - in the hair at his temples. Then, with another wordless cry, he was leaning close over her again; one hand clamping down hard on the wound in an attempt to staunch the blood flow, the other grasping her chin and tilting her face toward his and he was shouting, shouting at her, "NO JANE, NO, do you hear me, you CANNOT DO THIS, NO! JANE PLEASE NO!"
Jester could have told him it wouldn't make a difference. None of it would. Not the desperate pressure he was exerting, not the yelling. There was nothing that would change the outcome, not when blood was seeping out of her mouth.
Jester could have told him, but Jester was frozen. All he could do was watch.
He'd honestly thought that Jane was already gone, but as it turned out, he'd underestimated her. He should have known better than to do that, truly; she was the most astonishingly strong-willed person he'd ever met, after all. He didn't think he could have held on for this long, but he was Jester and she was Jane. His utterly remarkable Jane.
And she was still fighting.
Her eyes, which had been closed since she fell, drifted open and, after a few rapid blinks while she struggled for focus, fixed on Gunther's face. Then she raised her nearer hand and tried to bring it to his cheek, but she couldn't do it. Jester watched her face spasm with pain and her hand fall back… but Gunther, understanding her intent, caught it out of the air and lifted it to his face for her, pressing and holding it there.
She was pulling for breath, but having little more success with that. She coughed weakly, fresh blood bubbling from between her lips. Gunther groaned in anguish.
She was suffocating, drowning in her own blood. She couldn't have much more time.
Gunther seemed to realize this too – to intuit it on some deep level even if he would never acknowledge or accept it at the surface of his mind – for, appearing almost to be in a trance himself now, he took his other hand from her wound and cupped the side of her face, mirroring the way her hand was pressed to his. His fingers gently stroked the sweat-dampened hair at her temple, deepening the red of it with her own blood.
Her face was grimy; smudged with soot from the fire as well as with her blood; but even from where he stood, Jester could see clean, silvery tracks cutting from the corners of her eyes.
She was crying. Dear God, she was crying.
A hitching, shuddering gasp rocked Jester's entire body then, and he realized that he was crying too.
Gunther was speaking again, his voice pitched lower now, but no less frantic. "Jane, Jane, no, you cannot, you must not, you are not allowed to do this! Jane do not do this, do you hear me, do not! Jane! Stay with me – stay with me – stay with – stay – God Jane, please! Jane, PLEASE!"
It felt like Jester's heart was trying to wring itself inside out.
Her brow furrowed, a tiny crease appearing in the center of her forehead, and her lips moved; Jester didn't think she was actually speaking, didn't think she was capable of speaking, not anymore… but she was mouthing something to Gunther and he seemed to understand. A great heaving, wracking sob took him, convulsing his whole body.
Because oh, Gunther loved Jane.
This was their farewell. Jester shouldn't be watching this, this wasn't meant for him. But he couldn't, couldn't, could not look away.
A shudder ripped through her then; it was fast, brutal, and had an air of grim finality about it. When it passed Jester could see that her eyes, though still open, were losing their focus; starting to glaze over. If he could see it from where he stood, Gunther most assuredly could see it even more clearly. A heartbeat later he was lost to panic once more, utterly possessed by it, screaming her name, just her name this time, over and over and over again.
Jester heard a sound beside him and glanced over to see Smithy skidding to a halt, sword in hand, breathing hard; his face ashen, utterly aghast. It made sense, Jester supposed. Gunther's wild cries would draw however many of their compatriots were in earshot. The blond man appeared to process what he was seeing for a second or two, then made to start forward again. Jester reached out and grabbed his arm.
"Do not. Let him –" Jester's throat closed up. Let him say goodbye. That was what he'd intended to say. But he couldn't. The words were stuck, trapped inside him. "Smithy, do not."
"But is she really –" There was a desperate, almost pleading disbelief in Smithy's usually steady voice.
"Yes," Jester croaked.
"Is there nothing –"
"Are you sure!?"
"I saw it happen." Dark stain spreading. Jane falling. Bright hair following her down. A suddenly, savagely doused flame. "I am sure."
"But if –"
"Smithy." His friend turned to actually look at him for the first time. "Do you think I would just be standing here if there were anything – anything – that could be done? Give them space. Let him say goodbye." He expelled the last word; it came out as half a gasp, and half a sob.
Smithy turned his gaze back toward Gunther and Jane. When he spoke again, his voice was completely flat.
"This is going to kill him."
Jester's attention was recalled to the nightmare tableau playing out a few paces away when Gunther abruptly stopped screaming. He understood instantly that it had happened. It was over.
Jane was gone.
Nothing would ever, ever, be the same again. He would never be the same again. Even if he lived to be a hundred, he would never again be… whole.
He staggered where he stood, barely keeping his feet. Smithy reached out to steady him.
Gunther was sobbing in great, wordless gusts. He still held Jane's bloodied hand, hard, against his stubbled cheek. Jester had thought, watching Jane fall, that there could be no more horrible sight in all the world. Now he thought he might have been mistaken. Gunther was… Gunther was…
He was so far beyond destroyed that Jester didn't even have a word for what Gunther was. And clever words were his livelihood. Although he wondered if that were actually true anymore. After all, everything had changed now… and he sensed that it would be a very long time before he'd again be capable of gamboling about for the entertainment of others. Years, perhaps.
Or maybe never. That struck him as a distinct possibility. Those days could be well and truly done.
There was no more laughter in him, no more joy. How could there be, given what he'd just seen? What he was still seeing? Gunther's whole body was being rocked by the force of his sorrow. And still he kept Jane's hand pressed to his face. His other hand was still stroking the blood-streaked curls back from her forehead; gently, steadily, an almost absent, commonplace gesture in a situation where nothing was status quo. It was a bizarre, practically surreal juxtaposition when set against the chaotic, gale-force grief that was convulsing all the rest of him.
Finally he managed to drag in a shallow, hitching breath. He took Jane's hand from his cheek – it left a shocking crimson palmprint there – and pressed it briefly to his lips. Then he laid it, with great care, down on the ground beside her.
Jester took a step forward, to what purpose he wasn't sure – but stopped himself. Jane's still face was turned to the sky, her eyes – those gorgeous, brilliant-green eyes – still open, gazing blankly upward. Seeing nothing. She was no longer there. He could barely process what he was looking at because sweet merciful God, that was Jane but at the same time it wasn't. It wasn't.
Gunther, his face partially obscured by the dark curtain of his hair, leaned forward, his one hand still resting in Jane's tangled, sooty tresses. Jester wasn't even sure what he was doing at first, Gunther was moving so slowly and carefully – a stark contrast to the rampaging emotions of just a moment ago – but then it became clear that Gunther was kissing Jane's eyes closed. Shutting them with the tender touch of his lips, leaving her in darkness.
He pulled back then and for a moment he just knelt there, and his eyes looked nearly as glazed and vacant as Jane's had been. He was staring past her, over her, to some indeterminate point in the middle distance, but Jester didn't think he was actually seeing anything. Gunther swallowed hard; raised a shaking, bloodstained hand and ran it through his hair.
His voice, when he spoke, was very nearly normal. It was almost steady, and conversational in tone.
"Can I wake up now?" he asked, speaking to no one… to himself… to God? "I am ready. I am past ready. I… I need to wake up now." His head fell forward, bowed beneath the weight of unbearable grief. His voice dropped to a raw, supplicating whisper. "Please?"
Jester hadn't thought anything could have gutted him further than he already was in that moment, but that please did the job. What little breath was left in him was expelled in a sick sort of reverse-gasp. He spent the next several seconds trying to refill his depleted lungs with very limited success, as Gunther kneeled, preternaturally still, beside his dead wife.
Like the eye of a storm, the silence only lasted a moment. Then Gunther screamed; a single, wordless, soul-shredding sound of agony beyond endurance, of utter, abject, almost incomprehensible despair. He threw himself forward and Jester tried to make sense of what Gunther did next – tried, but could not. He didn't understand because Gunther was burying his face in Jane's stomach as he continued to scream, the sounds muffled now, one hand plunging again into the riot of her hair and the other… the other splayed out beside his own head, across the flat span of her lower abdomen… only it wasn't entirely flat, now that Jester looked closer; no, not completely, there was a very slight…
Comprehension hit him, slammed him, rocked him to his very foundation as Smithy, beside him, said in a voice that sounded ill with horror, "wha... no... is – she – Jester, is she –?!"
It was suddenly all so clear. The reason she'd agreed to stay out of the thick of the fighting, as wildly out of character as that had seemed; he'd wondered how Gunther had accomplished such a coup, oh God, oh God, oh God oh GOD…
Without understanding how he'd gotten down there, he quite suddenly realized that he was on his knees.
He wondered dazedly how much more he could take before his mind just broke… snapped right in two the way Gunther's apparently had.
"Was," he gasped out, correcting the tense. "I think… she was."
The maelstrom of emotion that had Gunther locked in its grip shifted again; a heartbeat later he shot back onto his heels and now he was screaming at Jane, his hands first clenching, hard, in his hair and then - then he was grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her, his face and voice contorted by fury, by helpless, all-consuming rage.
"WHY!? WHY? Jane, damn you TELL ME WHY! Why would you DO THAT, what in the BLOODY HELL WERE YOU THINKING TO – Jane! JANE! It was meant to be me, GODDAMNIT JANE IT WAS MEANT TO BE ME! How could you – HOW COULD YOU – do this to – Jane, how!?"
He virtually yanked her into his arms then, wrapping them around her body, pulling her up into a sitting position and then hard against him, her head falling to his shoulder. He braced his back against the tower wall and shifted her, grabbing her to him even harder, and then harder still, crushing her, his arms wrapped around her like a vice. Jester had a moment of panic, thinking he is cutting off her air, there is no way she can breathe with him holding her like that – and then he remembered.
The remembering would have driven him to his knees… but he was already there.
Well. Thank God for small favors.
He made an awful, strangled little sound that was partly bitter, terrible laugh but mostly sob.
Gunther had dropped his head forward, burying his face in Jane's hair. He had her crossways in his lap now, one arm around her waist, his other hand moving to hold her head in place against his shoulder. He was actually rocking back and forth with her. Jester could still hear his muffled gasps of "Why… Jane, WHY!?"
This was horrible past description. Would it never end?
As it turned out, not for a good while yet.
He would not relinquish her for over an hour and a half.
The tide had largely turned by then. The invaders had been beaten back, chased outside the castle grounds, although there was still sporadic fighting going on in the town and fields. Scattered pockets of combat, the fiercest of which centered around the opposing force's leadership, which had entrenched itself not far from the castle walls.
Their friends had slowly found them, in effect creating a circle of stunned, incredulous grief around where Gunther still sat with Jane in his arms. He'd eventually fallen silent, and ceased rocking her body in that heartbreaking way, but had not otherwise moved, had not put her down, and did not appear to have any intention of doing so.
Jester hadn't moved either, not really. Not in any significant way. He'd shifted position so that he was sitting rather than kneeling, but had not attempted to regain his feet. He didn't think his legs would support him, and he couldn't think of where he'd go, what he'd do, anyway.
What was left?
So he'd stayed there, at the periphery of Gunther's grief, because he couldn't bear to leave her either. They had that much in common, the two of them. He may not be the one she had chosen. He may not be the one who had her locked in his arms. All the same, he couldn't tear himself away.
Sir Theodore was currently crouched beside Gunther, one hand clasped on his shoulder, talking quietly to him, getting no response whatsoever. Jane's lifelong mentor looked as if he'd aged ten years just in the time since he'd arrived on the scene. He was haggard, barely holding himself together, but still attempting to talk Gunther back into some semblance of reason, still trying to help him regain even the barest shred of self-governance in the face of…
Jester shook his head. He didn't think it was going to happen. Gunther would never recover from this, there was no coming back. Not really.
Smithy and Sir Ivon were speaking quietly a few paces away, and Jester had a feeling they were discussing prying Jane out of Gunther's arms by force. He hoped to God it wouldn't come to that. That would not go well.
That would be horrifying. Horrifying.
In the end, thankfully, it wasn't necessary. Milton arrived, one of the castle's errand boys having been dispatched to find him, and Gunther finally, finally surrendered Jane... into the arms of her ashen father.
Why did he relent to his father-in-law when he would not to anyone else? Jester wasn't sure if it was something that Milton said? He could see him murmuring to Gunther, but couldn't make out the words. Or was it some recognition on Gunther's part that, having had first claim on Jane, perhaps Milton had the final claim as well? Whatever the reason, Gunther took a gasping, shuddering breath and loosened his hold on her.
Sir Theodore helped to bundle Jane into her father's arms. Gunther sat passive, head bowed, during this process, but when Milton actually started to lift her away he lurched forward, appearing to be seized by a momentary panic, rasping out something that might have been, "wait" – or might not have been a word at all. Surging up onto his knees, he reached out a hand – looking for all the world, in that instant, like a drowning man whose last lifeline was being pulled away – and caught at Jane's face, tipping it back toward him. Then he was sealing his lips to hers in a lingering kiss, a last act of farewell; unwilling, unable to let her go until he had claimed her terminal breath for his own.
Jester's chest burned as he watched. His pain was surely only a hundredth, a thousandth of Gunther's... but he understood the act. He understood the need. Because he loved her too.
Only then did Gunther truly relinquish her, collapsing back against the tower wall, raising both hands to cover his face in the universal gesture that meant broken by despair.
Milton was by no means a large or strapping man, and Jester wasn't even sure at first that he'd be equal to the task of carrying Jane… but he was. Jane was his daughter, after all; his only child, and he would not fail her in this final act of paternal duty.
Jester watched, his soul bare and bleeding, as Milton bore her away. He watched her out of sight, and he felt like he was screaming the whole while, but he wasn't. Or at least, his body wasn't.
Only his heart.
Sir Theodore was still talking to Gunther, talking, talking, still receiving no acknowledgement or response. Sir Ivon had just started to approach them, angling, Jester thought, to hunker down on Gunther's other side, But just at that moment a clamor arose; men shouting and running toward the castle gates. Sir Theodore was on his feet instantly, calling up to someone on the wall, who could see what was happening; demanding a report.
The answer, when it came, was grim. The invaders had rallied for a desperate, last-ditch run on the gates. And yes, their numbers were depleted, but so were those of the defenders. It looked like it could be a very close thing indeed. Anyone still on their feet and able to wield a sword was needed. Now. Right now.
Sir Ivon shot Gunther a pained, troubled look - it was obvious he wanted to be with his protege in this moment – should be with him in this moment – but defending the castle came first. It was awful. Awful that he had to make this choice, to abandon Gunther in his time of need. Jester felt a searing hatred for the invaders bloom inside of him. It was staggering. He'd never hated anyone or anything before. Not even Gunther, for winning Jane.
It was awful, but it was inescapable. Ivon changed course, heading for the gates. Smithy loped after him.
Sir Theodore hesitated a moment longer. He went to one knee in front of Gunther and leaned in, gripping both of the younger knight's shoulders now, hard. Jester still couldn't make out his words, but the intensity in his tone was unmistakable. He gave Gunther a quick but forceful little shake, trying to jar some sort of reaction out of him.
It had very limited effect. Gunther did drop his hands into his lap, but that was the extent of what Sir Theodore's cajoling accomplished. Gunther's head was tipped back against the stone wall now, his eyes staring unseeingly at the sky. It didn't appear, in any meaningful way, that he was really even there.
The older knight made a sound that was halfway between a groan and a growl. He released Gunther's shoulders, but only to reach up both-handed and grasp the sides of his head instead. For just an instant he pressed their foreheads together; a brief but wrenching little gesture of solidarity, of empathy, of almost fatherly love. Then he was on his feet and following the others, drawing his sword and heading for the gates.
There was a moment of stillness; then, with an effort, Jester roused himself. The call had gone out that every able-bodied man available was needed for the defense. He was able-bodied. He was gutted, he was empty… but he was able-bodied. He released a long, unsteady breath and staggered gracelessly, woodenly, to his feet.
His natural, unthinking ease of movement was entirely gone. He wouldn't last five minutes in combat, not like this.
Maybe, he reflected, that wasn't such a bad thing.
He stooped to pick up his weapon, straightened again... and then froze.
Because Gunther was on his feet too.
Jester was stunned into immobility. When had – how had – Jester hadn't seen him move, hadn't heard him move. He had just been slumped against the base of the tower in what Jester would have sworn was a state of profound catatonia.
This was uncanny, this was… frightening.
Jester didn't know what to say or do. He was deeply unnerved. Gunther was staring fixedly at his hands, which were crusted maroon with dried blood. Jane's blood. Then, just as Jester drew in breath to say… he hadn't a clue what, really... the dark-haired knight turned very slowly to look at the headless corpse of the man who had struck Jane down.
"She could not even let me have that," he said softly. "Could not even let me kill him for her." His mouth twisted into a horrific little mockery of a smile. "Of course not. Not Jane. No, Jane would avenge herself." He turned again and looked directly at Jester for the first time, and Jester actually took a step back. His face. This was by far the clearest view that Jester had had of it since Gunther had first dropped to his knees beside Jane, and dear God, it was… painted with blood, nearly bathed in it. His hair was stiff with it. And his eyes…
Gunther's grey eyes were blazing with a cold, furious fire that was unlike anything Jester had ever seen before. He would not, until this moment, have believed it possible for human eyes to look like that.
"But there are others," Gunther said softly, almost gently - and they were the most chilling, the most frightening, the most abjectly terrifying words Jester had ever heard anyone speak.
Gunther stooped and retrieved his sword; walked over and wiped it clean on the body of Jane's killer. Jester watched him, awash in horror, before swallowing hard and finding his voice.
Those slate-colored eyes flashed back to his. "Do something for me, Jester." It was a request, but at the same time, it wasn't. "Find Jane. Stay with her. Milton will need to be with Adeline, and –" he broke off momentarily, glanced around, located Jane's sword, and picked it up too. "I do not want her to be alone. That is not right." His voice was flat, detached, entirely matter-of-fact. His next words were all the more stunning because of it. "She should be with someone who loves her."
Jester's breath caught. There. It was out. At long last, it was out. Gunther had said it, had thrown it out into the world. The enormous, unspoken truth that had existed between them for years, understood by both, acknowledged by neither.
His throat worked, but he couldn't make any words come. Gunther started to turn away. Jester finally managed a strangled, "wait!"
Gunther stopped, but did not turn back. Jester could only see him in profile now… which honestly was a relief. It was a kinder, a less disturbing, view. Because Gunther looked nothing short of deranged.
"She would… want… you," he choked out. "You know she would."
Gunther seemed to be staring down at Jane's sword. He flexed his grip on it, then on his own. Jester saw that horrible, grim spectre of a smile distort his lips again. It made his blood run cold.
"I will find her," Gunther said, "soon enough."
That was his final word on the subject. He wiped Jane's blade clean as he had done with his own and then he was moving, making for the castle gates with deadly deliberation. Jester, staring after him, did not like the odds of anyone or anything that might try to stand in his path.
After remaining rooted in place a moment longer, Jester turned his own steps in the direction that he'd seen Milton take, with Jane.
"I am so sorry, Jane."
His voice was little more than a raspy croak, jagged with exhaustion. This was not the first time he'd said it, nor the fiftieth. He'd been sitting with her for what felt like a very long time.
Hours upon hours, it had to be… long enough for his body to go numb. But it felt longer still; days… months… eons… it felt as if ages of the world had gone creeping past as he'd been sitting this vigil.
There had been others here too, of course, not least Jane's parents. But Adeline had become so overwrought, so entirely hysterical after washing Jane's body and realizing her daughter's… condition... that she'd had to be helped back to her chambers, and Milton had gone with her.
Pepper, who had assisted Adeline in tending to Jane, was lost in a deep, stunned grief of her own, but had not been surprised by Jane's – it hurt almost unbearably even to think the word – pregnancy. Apparently Jane's best female friend had been privy to information that even her own parents had not. As far as Jester could figure, the only ones in the know had been Gunther, Pepper and Dragon… And Jane, of course. He wondered, torturously, when she had planned to announce it. How she had planned to announce it. Whatever the method, it would have been soon; it would have had to be soon. She couldn't have concealed it much longer.
The entire castle would have been… alight with joy…
He dropped his face into his hands and stifled a sob.
Other people came and went, but there was still much to be done elsewhere, and so for long stretches of time, including at present, he was left alone with her. Jester understood this, and felt no bitterness on account of it. What truly astounded him was that Gunther had anticipated it, and taken measures to ensure that Jane would not be abandoned. In the midst of his raging maelstrom of grief and fury, Gunther had had the foresight to make damn sure that someone would stay beside her.
But perhaps it was not so surprising. Gunther loved Jane.
Had loved Jane.
To the very end.
"I am sorry. He should… be the one with you, Jane. I..."
Swallowing hard, Jester picked up her cold, slim, pliant hand. It was clean again, without so much as a trace of the blood that had stained it. Pepper, or maybe Adeline, had even scrubbed it out from under her nails with a brush. Jester couldn't actually remember the last time he'd seen her hands this pristine. Or the rest of her either, for that matter. Lying here so still and pale, with even her hair washed, scented, and tamed into a simple arrangement of braids and loose curls, she could almost have been the proper lady her mother had at one time so longed for her to become.
Almost. But after Adeline had been overcome and was escorted away, Pepper had quietly vetoed the older woman's choice of clothing for Jane and, instead of the dress and slippers Adeline had selected, she'd arrayed the redhead in her armor.
Jester was deeply, almost desperately grateful for it. Jane deserved to be Jane, even now. Jane deserved…
"Better," Jester gasped out. He was tracing the smattering of freckles on her hand and wrist with his fingertip, although it was difficult to do. They were wavering, blurring, doubling up in front of his eyes. "You deserved so much better, Jane, God, oh my God –"
He paused for a moment, struggling with his tears. In the end, he just let them spill free.
"Gunther will be here soon," he managed at length, when he could speak again. "He… they… brought him home a little while ago. Sir Ivon and Sir Theodore have been with him. And… once they have washed and dressed him, they will bring him here. He belongs here, with you. He…"
Jester ran his free hand, shakily, through his hair. "He ended it, Jane. He… ended them. You would be proud of him, I think. Angry... too... probably... but proud. He routed what was left of them, almost by himself. Once they were beaten back from the gates, he led a run on their last…" he paused, groping for the right word. He was no knight, no tactician. "Their last position? Where their commanders were. Jane, he… he took them ALL down."
As difficult as it was to believe, that was what he'd been told, and not just by one person but several. "They are calling him an avenging angel, Jane. No shield, no attempt at defense, just his sword and yours, dealing death double-handed. He took hit after hit but he just... would not... stop. Not until their last man fell. He… this is how legends are –" he broke off abruptly. Under the circumstances, he could not bring himself to say the word born.
"People will sing songs about this, ballads," he said eventually. "But not me. I think I… am done with all that. After this, after today, I…" he gulped in a breath. "Dragon is leaving, Jane."
Dragon had returned around the time that night had begun to fall, and upon discovering what had transpired in his absence, his bellowed grief had shaken the castle walls in a way that the invading force could only have dreamed of achieving. That had been the only time Jester had left Jane's side; Pepper had still been there, then - Rake too. They had promised not to leave the room until he returned.
That was how Jester had learned that Dragon had indeed been aware of Jane's impending motherhood, and that was why she'd not accompanied him as he had beleaguered the invading forces from the air. He'd believed she'd be far safer at home. He was, of course, destroyed.
"He says there is nothing left for him here. He will stay to see you and Gunther… at rest, and maybe even a little longer to ensure the kingdom is safe. But then he, he... and I think...I think I will go with him, if he will have me. If not...I shall go on my own. I cannot imagine remaining so close to you but not being able to see you. To watch you. To be there as you laugh and love and cry and become everything you were always meant to be."
Setting her hand gently down, he crossed his arms on the edge of her mattress and laid his head down beside her. He spent a little while drowsing; it was the darkest watches of the night. He was brought fully around once more when the door opened to admit Smithy and a young knight Jester didn't know, bearing Gunther's lifeless form between them. The castle's two senior knights entered with them, Sir Theodore now looking as if he'd aged twenty years in a day. Ivon too.
Gently, they settled Gunther beside Jane and left without a word, Smithy briefly clasping Jester's shoulder before following the others out. Jester stood up, a bit unsteady on his feet after sitting for so long. It was time for him to go, too. Jane didn't need him anymore. She had her husband back now. And they were entitled to some privacy on their last night in their marital chamber.
Jester's long watch had ended.
He stood there for a moment looking down at Jane and Gunther; they were pale and still, yes, but the dim and guttering torchlight lent their skin a slightly golden hue, and cast dancing, flickering shadows over their faces so that – incongruously formal attire aside – they could nearly have passed for being asleep.
He watched them for a moment, his eyes aching with unshed tears, throat aching with unvoiced cries, heart aching with a weight that he would carry for the rest of his life. Then he bent and pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead, whispering, before he straightened up again, "I wrote you something. One last thing." He drew out a tiny scrap of parchment; he'd stopped in his own room on the way back from his conference with Dragon, just long enough to jot down the final message, the final truth, that he wanted to impart to Jane. He wanted her to understand that he didn't doubt anymore. No, not even a little bit.
He knew; everyone knew. It would become a tale of Kippernium that would be passed down for a thousand years and more, because it had quite literally changed the fate of the kingdom.
He pressed it into her hand, the one that lay nearest her husband; curled her fingers gently around it. Then, with great care, he closed Gunther's hand around hers before crossing to the door. There were only three short words scrawled on that parchment, but they encompassed the entire truth of this sad state of affairs; the entire truth of how his friends had lived, how they'd died.
"Gunther loved Jane."