She wakes up in freefall, a split second before hitting the floor.
That's not where her mind is, though; no, her mind is miles away, trapped deep underground, at the mercy of a monster, a monster in the dark, and –
He's here, he's right here, he has hold of her and he'll never let her go; she's bound and helpless and he's dragged her under the very earth itself and she can feel his breath on her, his tongue, his hands –
She impacts the flagstone floor both awkwardly and hard; her breath whooshes out of her and a sharp pain slices through one wrist, which is twisted beneath her, caught in the bedclothes. Except it's not caught in the bedclothes, not really, it's –
It's caught in the sling, the sling and her clothes, they're pinning her arms to her body because they've been pulled and torn and twisted, shoved up, yanked down, ripped open, and his hands are on her bare skin now, his teeth are on her skin and he's going to, he's going to –
"No!" The cry is wrenched out of her, hoarse and desperate, frantic. She has to get away. She has to get away. She twists and thrashes, consumed by her panic. It's stark; it's huge; it's enveloping her whole.
She manages to fight her way into a sitting position, still cocooned in her tangled, sweat-dampened blanket. A few harrowing seconds later, she wrests her arms free. She starts to come back into herself, to get a handle on the situation; where she is, what's happened. It was a dream, that's all, just a dream, it –
No. It's real. He's here, right here, he's laughing at her in the dark –
She can almost hear it, almost sense his fingers reaching out to brush her cheek with that hideous, nauseating possessiveness. She flinches backward, rapping her head sharply against the stone wall. Another cry is jerked out of her, inarticulate this time.
Kicking free of the blanket, she pulls her knees up to her chest; drags in a shallow, hitching breath. Becomes aware, in a distant, disconnected way, that she's whispering something over and over again, just a single word.
"Stop. Stop. Stop, stop…"
She has to get control of herself, has to, it was just a dream, she's all right, she's safe in her –
Cave, she's back in that cave and she's not safe, she is NOT SAFE, she's lost in the dark and Gunther will never find her here and she'll never win free, she's buried alive, oh God, she can feel the weight of the mountain pressing her down and the monster is close so close so close so –
Biting down savagely on her lip in an attempt to ground herself, she reaches out with a shaking hand, finds the edge of her mattress, and gropes beneath her pillow for the dagger Gunther gave her, the night they'd danced on the grass. She's taken to sleeping with it lately, a small but powerful talisman against the dark, the dreams.
Her shaking fingers close around the hilt and she pulls it off the bed, clasps it in both hands and drops her forehead to her knees. She's safe, she's safe, she's safe. She's wedged in the little space between the side of her bed and the curved wall of her tower room. Her doors are locked, she always locks them now; no one can get in –
Except that's not true. The monster can get in; the monster is already in, because the monster lives in her mind now. The fire in her grate has burned down to embers and it's so dark she wouldn't be able to make out anything at all even if her eyes weren't scrunched shut and her face buried in her knees. And so he could be anywhere, he could be crouching beneath the window or creeping toward her across the floor or slithering out from under her bed –
A sob forces its way free; a poor, choked little thing. Entirely wretched. Her hands tighten, white-knuckled, around the dagger's hilt.
Get a hold of yourself. Get a hold of yourself.
Her breaths are piling up.
She needs Gunther, needs his voice in her head to talk her through, just like when she really was underground, when she really had been in the clutches of…
Her whole body shudders; she doesn't even want to think the name.
A long, pale, clammy finger steals out from beneath her bed to stroke down the side of her arm –
With another strangled cry, Jane wedges herself even tighter into the corner before she realizes it's her hair she's feeling, her own unruly hair tickling her skin.
Chewing her lip until she tastes blood.
It's no good. He's not here.
Paralyzed by the dark, paralyzed by her own mind, she balls herself up tighter and cries.
The better part of an hour goes by before she can manage to pry herself out of the corner and crawl back into bed. It's the cold, ultimately, that drives her to action. She's shaking now, her whole body; deep, sustained, teeth-rattling shivers wracking her from head to toe.
One of her blankets, the one that was tangled about her when she fell, still lies wadded up on the floor. The other, although it at least remained on the bed, is in little better state, and she lacks the coordination to do a really thorough job of straightening it.
Fumbling with half-frozen fingers, she manages to wind it around herself in a way that affords at least some degree of warmth; then curls up again, arms wrapped about herself too for good measure. She lies there, wide-eyed, staring into the darkness for a long time as the shivers finally, slowly, begin to subside.
It's not until the first faint, grey light of pre-dawn creeps in through her window shutters that she manages to sink back into a thin, troubled, and entirely unrestful sort of sleep.
"More tea, Jane?"
Her whole body jerks at the sound of Pepper's voice by her elbow. Dear God, had she actually dozed off right at the table!? The fact that she very nearly ends up with her chin planted in her bowl of porridge says that yes, as a matter of fact she had.
She blinks and shakes her tousled hair out of her face. It's unusually messy this morning, even by normal standards; she really ought to throw it into a braid or a bun. If only she could summon the energy to lift her arms.
"No… I… am… thank you, Pepper, I… am fine," she manages.
Pepper gives her a long, steady look of deep skepticism. Jane, finding herself entirely unequal to holding her friend's gaze, drops her own eyes back to her breakfast.
She isn't hungry.
She needs to eat. She knows this. Gunther is supposed to give her some archery pointers this morning. She and Dragon are patrolling later on. Her body needs fuel. She takes an unenthusiastic bite of porridge; forces herself to swallow it down. It's sweetened with honey and is actually quite good, as is everything Pepper prepares… but it isn't what she wants. She wants sl–
NO. She actually gives a little shudder, unable to entirely suppress it. She doesn't want sleep either. Sleep brings dreams. Dreams bring –
She realizes she's worrying her lip again; makes herself stop. Sighs and rubs fretfully at her eyes. Truth be told, there's only one thing she actually wants at the moment, and that's –
"Morning, frog rider."
She manages a smile, small but genuine, as he drops into place across the table, grinning easily back at her. "Sorry I am late," he says, grabbing a roll as Pepper sets a bowl of porridge in front of him. "Ship came in."
It's amazing, really, how just the sight of him, the sound of his voice, can virtually swamp her with relief. Amazing and a bit silly – it's only been a matter of hours since they parted after supper last night. But they've been difficult hours, and… and she's just so glad he's here now.
She feels tension ebbing out of her, tension that she hadn't even consciously realized was in her.
It's a mixed blessing, though. The surge of well-being that courses through her brings with it a new and even more powerful wave of tiredness. Suddenly it's all she can do to keep from folding her arms on the tabletop, dropping her head onto them, and –
Gunther's grin fades. He's watching her closely now. Too closely for comfort.
"Jane? What is wrong?"
Maggots. She hasn't mentioned her dreams to Gunther, and has no intention of doing so now. Or, for that matter, ever. She's not going to make him worry over something he can't control, can't fix. That would be pointless and counterproductive, and entirely unnecessary because she's fine. She's fine. Or… she will be, at any rate. This… unpleasantness… can't last forever.
No. NO. It can't. It won't. She will get a handle on this. She will, she has to. The alternative is completely unacceptable.
Gunther is frowning now, waiting for her to answer.
"I… I am all right," she says, sounding entirely unconvincing, even to herself.
"No." Gunther's voice is pure, flat certainty. "You are not." Rising slightly out of his seat, he reaches across the table and presses a hand to her forehead. "Are you ill?"
Oh, for God's – she jerks away from his touch, a sudden flush of annoyance overtaking her. She doesn't need a second mother, thank you very much. The one she has is nearly more than she can cope with.
On her best days.
Never mind now.
"I said I am fine," she insists, distantly noting, with dismay, the exhausted petulance of own voice. She doesn't sound fine; she doesn't even sound within hailing distance of fine.
Her irritation deepens still further when Gunther shoots a look over her head, locking eyes with Pepper, his expression clearly questioning.
Oh, so now he'll just go around her to try to get his answers?
Of all the blatant nerve.
She whirls in her seat just in time to see Pepper give Gunther a subtle, but nevertheless unmistakable, head-shake. She narrows her eyes, trying to suss out the meaning behind it. It could mean, back off, squire, I am not divulging anything about Jane to you.
But Jane doesn't actually think so, much as she'd like to. She thinks it means, no she is not all right, are you daft? Just look at her!
UGH! Her face twists into a bonafide scowl. That traitor!
Well, there's this much to be said, at least; she's decidedly more awake now.
Pepper, caught in Jane's glare, looks abashed nearly to the point of being frightened. Gunther jumps bravely into the breach, clearing his throat. "Pepper, would you, uh, be so kind as to pack us a picnic lunch? We will be out in the archery field for a few hours, I think."
Looking immensely relieved, Pepper takes herself off to fulfill his request.
Jane, for her part, turns back to find herself the object of Gunther's scrutiny once more. He's still watching her intently, not appearing the least bit disconcerted by her baleful expression. To the contrary, a decidedly challenging light kindles in his eyes.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Turnkey? Eat up. I assume you must be of good appetite this morning, seeing as how you are so wholly and entirely… fine."
And suddenly she's shoveling the now lukewarm-at-best porridge into her mouth as if she hasn't eaten in days.
"Jane, stop. Stop. Give it here."
Frowning, Gunther holds out a hand for the bow. Jane passes it over, wordlessly. Her fatigue has come back so strong she feels nearly drugged with it. At this point she's simply going on rote, following his instructions, in a state that can almost be described as trancelike.
It was one thing when the dreams had been occasional, occurring only sporadically, weeks apart. But rather than resolving over time, the situation is worsening; this had been the third such nightmare this week alone. The compounded sleep deprivation is finally catching up with her. Actually, more than that.
It's flattening her. Dragging her under.
A long moment passes before she even registers that he's simply placed her bow on the ground and is staring at her expectantly, arms crossed over his chest, the fingers of his left hand beating a steady, restless tattoo against his right bicep.
"Gunther… what?" God, it's so difficult to even string the words together.
"I am just waiting for you to tell me what the hell is going on."
"Nothing is –"
"Jane. For God's sake, will you let me in!"
Startled by his sudden vehemence, her eyes fly to meet his, lips parting in a hurt little breath.
Gunther presses his eyes shut for a second. When he opens them again his face is wiped clean of its former frustration. Instead there is such deep and genuine concern etched across his features that it nearly unravels her.
"Your wrist," he says quietly. "You are favoring it. You barely started to pull back on the bow when you –" he breaks off and extends a hand. "May I see it? Please?"
Sighing, Jane steps closer and places her hand in his. He bends over it, brow furrowed in concentration, rotating her wrist in a way that reminds her powerfully of his frenzied inspection after bringing her out of the cave. She shudders, slammed back into that moment – rain driving down, pasting her hair to her head; blood running from the cut over her eye, turning her vision red; Gunther's eyes dark with panic, nearly black with it, and lost, so utterly lost –
She is unable to stifle a pained gasp when her wrist twinges badly under his ministrations.
"Jane –" he's holding her hand steady in one of his now, the fingertips of his other hand running gently, questingly, along her wrist and forearm – "what happened?"
"I suh… slept on it badly," she says, through lips that almost feel numb now, and that's not a lie. No, not a lie at all. She did sleep on it badly, very badly indeed.
His mouth twists downward at that, but then he is releasing her, returning his gaze to her own. For a second of two he looks on the verge of speech – but instead he just sighs, closes the last little bit of distance between them, and pulls her into a strong, steady embrace.
Jane, for her part, virtually melts against him, burying her face in his neck and inhaling his Gunther-scent of leather and woodsmoke and clean sweat and iron.
"Sit down," he says at length, releasing her. Obedient as a child, practically in a stupor now, she folds herself onto the grass, Gunther dropping into a squat beside her, rummaging in the large satchel he'd brought with them. "Half these arrows need refletching," he says absently, pulling the necessary supplies out of the bag. "This is as good a time as any. Keep me company while I work?"
Distantly, faintly, Jane understands it's a ploy, and a poorly constructed one at that. The arrows don't actually need refletching, but if it hadn't been the arrows it would have been the bow, or his sword, or... Gunther would have found something, anything to redirect their activities so that Jane – given her current state – can have an opportunity to rest.
Gunther – maggots, he knows her too well! – is only embarking on this... this obvious busy work to ensure she capitulates to his coddling.
She ought to be indignant, even angry to be manipulated so. But that sort of response requires a degree of energy she cannot even begin to summon at the moment. She merely nods, and when he settles against her, back to back, she lets her head fall to his shoulder and her eyes drift closed.
The golden autumn sunlight is saturating her with warmth. Insects drone soothingly all around them, lulling her. And Gunther… Gunther is here. Gunther… has her back… in every… every way…
Her thoughts are grinding to a halt. But that's okay. She's safe here. She can drop her guard here. She can… rest… here…
She registers, just at the dimmest edge of consciousness, Gunther shifting against her, easing her the rest of the way down to the fragrant yellow grass. Then he's actually curling up around her, abandoning any pretense of arrow fletching – it's hardly necessary now – and slipping an arm under her head to cushion it.
Sleep settles over her, deep and peaceful, a gentle current carrying her away.