A/N: This is a Janther Week fic, written in response to the prompt for Day 1, Metanoia. I'm not at all sure that I've hit ANY of the prompts on the nose, but I guess that's the good thing about prompts; they are, by their nature, open to interpretation. This is my interpretation of a term that is defined as a "profound change in one's life or heart resulting from repentance".
Jane stretches and cracks her back, yawning. She really needs to splash some cold water on her face, bring herself fully around. The sun's almost entirely up; it's not like her to sleep past the very crack of dawn.
Or, more accurately, it's not like Gunther to let her.
Even when she's had middle watch, as she did last night, and so otherwise might be in danger of oversleeping, her partner can usually be relied upon to wake her with a nudge, a little shake, a lopsided smirk. A comment about her astounding laziness, her ability to sleep through anything that proves beyond doubt her status as a member of the gentry class. A deeply solicitous offer to carry her to their next encampment in a sedan chair so she can idle the whole day away, not just the morning.
It's disconcerting to wake to the sun already balancing on the horizon and the camp bustling with activity around her.
Then again – a flush of unhappiness courses through her and settles low in her stomach – it's hardly surprising that he left her well enough alone today, given last night's… unpleasantness.
That had… not gone well.
They're going to have to talk again, and the sooner the better. She can't just leave things the way they are. She glances around, but he's not anywhere in the immediate vicinity, so far as she can tell.
She does, however, spot a small knot of her fellow knights standing grouped together and staring at the outpost to which they've been laying siege for over a fortnight now. They're talking quietly and looking oddly… expectant.
Fingers working automatically to tame her sleep-mussed hair into a thick plait, Jane walks over to them, curious as to what has so arrested their attention. A cursory inspection of the building reveals no obvious changes, so why all the… staring?
It's a rather small castle, and is being defended by what amounts to little more than a skeleton crew; forty men, perhaps? Jane's company, by comparison, has five times that number, being about two hundred strong. Still, the opposing forty are behind stout stone walls, and that makes a world of difference.
Dragon could make short work of their defenses – walls and all – but Dragon is currently attached to their army's larger, main force. That had been the king's wish, and Jane, as a loyal knight and subject, had dutifully talked Dragon into honoring it. After all, it's not as if she's in any danger here.
This is nothing but a waiting game.
This outpost is strategically located, and will prove an asset once claimed. They want it, and they will take it, but as far as Jane can tell they are days away – at least – from seeing any sort of action on that front. They're starving the defenders out, just biding their time until the people inside run through the last of their supplies and either surrender or get desperate enough to sally forth and meet them in combat.
For all she knows, Dragon might even be back by then.
But right now, in the early morning chill, the little castle sits quiet, shrouded by ground mist, to all outward appearances deserted. Jane can see no sign of movement within, nothing to garner the level of… interest that her compatriots are currently bestowing upon it.
She stops beside one of the men she is better acquainted with, someone she actually considers, in a causal sense at least, a friend. Tying off her braid with a scrap of leather, she flips it over her shoulder, feels the weight of it lying heavy down her back. She cuts her eyes sideways to his face, then back to the castle, then again to her comrade.
"What is going on?" she asks him, folding her arms over her chest against the cold air. "Are we… expecting something?"
"Mmh," he says distractedly, not looking at her, his attention still focused with bewildering intensity on the very uninteresting building a short distance away. The grey stone structure has been the backdrop to her life – to all their lives – for half a month now. And it looks no different this morning than it had on any morning since they'd arrived.
So why this scrutiny now?
"Liam?" she prompts.
He glances over at her, seeming to actually become aware of her presence beside him for the first time.
"Jane," he says. His eyes start to slide away, back toward the castle on its low rise; then they return to her, a bit clearer now, more focused. He frowns. "You need to armor up," he tells her. "It should happen any minute now."
"Liam –" exasperation is starting to creep into her voice, along with a very slight pang of anxiety – armor up? – "what should happen any minute? What are we waiting for?"
"The gates," he says, as if speaking to a young, and not particularly bright, child – and Jane, feeling more wrong-footed every second, realizes that in fact, not only Liam but all the others too are fully geared up, as if they are truly expecting… well, action.
Glancing around the camp again, Jane makes a startling realization. The activity that she'd first taken for ordinary morning "bustling" really is something different, something… more. The company – the whole company – does appear to be preparing to engage their enemy. Men moving with purpose, girding themselves for combat, strapping on their weapons.
What is going on? And why hadn't anyone woken and informed her?
Why hadn't Gunther woken and informed her?
Even if he's unhappy with her at present – (and she supposes he has a right to be, she hadn't handled things at all well last night, in fact she'd bungled it horribly and she really does need to make amends) – but even so, it's out of character for him to leave her in the dark about something like this.
Unless he doesn't know either? Where is he, anyway?
She looks around again, but she still can't see him. True unease settles over her, prickling her skin into gooseflesh and twisting at her gut.
"What about the gates?" she demands, turning back to the knight beside her.
"They are going to open, Jane."
"And why in God's name would they decide to open them now?"
"They would not." Liam looks at her again, really looks at her this time, his face stamped with clear incredulity. "Jane, do –" and then he stops, his eyes widening. "Oh, hell." His voice is little more than a whisper now. "Oh, no. He did not tell you!?"
"Tell me wh–"
And then understanding clicks.
Suddenly it's all she can do to stay upright; her knees want to buckle under the sheer weight of horror that's come crashing down over her.
Oh Gunther, you reckless, idiotic – no, NO –
A bare instant later Liam is hauling her backward… which is strange because she hadn't realized that she'd started to run, that instead of buckling her legs had bunched – to launch her, without a shred of conscious thought, in the direction of the castle.
Her comrade has managed to grab her before she can break the cover of the treeline, though, and drags her a few yards back before releasing her again. Several seconds pass before Jane can make out what he is saying, over the rushing in her ears.
"– sorry, Jane, I never thought – you out of everyone I just assumed he would have told –"
"You thought I would allow this!?" she demands, spitting the words at him in her sheer, disbelieving fury. "YOU allowed this!?"
There's a beat of silence, but she can see it in his face, in his eyes; yes, he allowed this, and not only him, either; how many? How many did Gunther tell of his intent? How many did nothing to stop him?
"When?" she chokes out, her voice strangled. "When did he–?"
"Just after the start of final watch last night."
Just after their disastrous conversation, then. Just after she'd broken his heart.
Liam is still staring at her in frank disbelief. "Jane, I swear to you, I th–"
Her fist drives into his jaw, connects with all the force she can throw behind it. He stumbles back a step, raising a hand to the side of his face, his eyes blank with shock.
Jane for her part regroups, snarling, to strike again. She is beyond reason in her anger, beyond control. She's crazed with her sudden outrage, her fear and guilt and anticipatory grief. Why would he have done such a thing, why, WHY!? Why make such a blatantly, howlingly unnecessary, pointless, needless sacrifice? They are in no peril here and the gates would have opened anyway in a day, a week, a month… whenever the defenders could no longer withstand the siege.
Why, why throw his life away to speed along a process that was already in motion? Why throw his life away for nothing, NOTHING!
But she knows why. She knows, in the deep recesses of her soul, that she did this. She did this.
Before she can process this absolute catastrophe any further, though – before she can do any more damage to Liam either – a commotion arises from the castle.
It's jumbled in her mind; it always will be. She can't say with any clarity whether she hears the rumbling of the gates first, or the wild shouts of the defenders as they realize what's happening; that a party of the besiegers – or maybe just a rash, suicidal one – had scaled the wall under cover of darkness in order to throw open the castle from the inside.
It's just a wild, indecipherable cacophony to her horror-struck ears and in the next instant she's running again, but she's not alone this time and no one is dragging her back, either. They're all running together, bursting from the tree cover and sprinting the short distance to the gates which now stand open and jammed, and they meet no resistance at all as they close; no volley of arrows, no projectiles or oil or pitch. The defenders have been caught entirely off-guard, they've had no time to prepare.
Neither has Jane, of course – she has her sword because she always has her sword, but none of her protective outerwear is in place, and pausing to get it in place is not an option. She's vulnerable and Gunther would be furious and that makes her glad, glad.
Because she's beyond furious at him.
She's clumsy in her haste; she actually trips at one point, overbalances and starts to fall. Liam, racing beside her, throws out an arm; catches and steadies her for all that his jaw is still discolored from her blow. It appears that it's going to bruise up rather spectacularly.
He meets her eyes, a lightning-quick glance to make sure she's regained her equilibrium – in a physical sense, at least – but no further words pass between them. The time for words is done.
She draws her sword as she runs, and then they're there, surging through the breach that Gunther has created for them, and suddenly she's in the midst of a melee, combat eddying and swirling all around her; the clash of weapons, the shouts of anger, the cries of the wounded breaking over her like waves on the shore. There's only one thing she cares about, though; just one item on her agenda, and that's finding Gunther, reaching Gunther, protecting Gunther if it's not already too late.
But – of course of course of course – it is.
It's too late, and what's more, she knows it – has known it since the very second that she'd read the truth in Liam's eyes.
She finds him in the gatehouse, already dead.
Two of the defenders are in there also, trying desperately to repair the mechanism – which Jane sees, with a horrible, stark clarity, Gunther has jammed by wedging his sword into the works, thus rendering himself weaponless.
She kills them both and it's easy – easy – even though she's outnumbered two-to-one, they don't stand a chance, hardly have time even to reach for their weapons because she is fury in motion; a terrible, flame-crowned avenging angel for all that her eyes are suddenly blurred with tears. One of them looks barely a day older than Cuthbert, and shrinks back before the force of her wrath, and under any other conditions she'd have let him live, but the circumstances being what they are – Gunther, oh God Gunther GUNTHER GUNTHER – she's lost herself entirely, and she's snarling as she cuts him down.
A small, detached part of her makes note of the fact that Liam has followed her and taken up position at the door, guarding the little room, guarding her. No enemies will get past him, should any even try, which is in itself unlikely. They are wholly occupied at present, fighting for their lives.
She is alone for the moment, entirely alone, with –
She hurls herself to her knees beside where he sprawls, her bloodied sword dropping, forgotten, from her hand.
He'd fetched up against the wall when he'd fallen, so he's halfway sitting up and she can almost – almost – convince herself, just for the most fleeting of moments, that he's simply resting there, waiting for her, for all of them, to catch up with him. Preparing himself to deflect her ire with a shrug of his shoulders, a twist of his lips, an infuriatingly nonchalant roll of his eyes… his eyes…
His eyes, even more than the blood, are what debunk her desperate fantasy before it can really even form. They are open but entirely unseeing, fixed on some indeterminable point over her shoulder, and the sight of them like that drives the breath from her lungs, she feels like she's falling, falling, even though she knows, distantly, that she's already beside him on the floor.
His eyes… Oh, God…
"No no no no no," she murmurs, barely aware that she's forming words at all, barely aware of anything, really, as she reaches with shaking fingers to push a spill of dark hair back, out of his face so she can see more clearly because maybe, maybe she's got this wrong, maybe she just needs to look again to realize that everything's alright after all, that he's just playing with her, paying her back for hurting him last night, and she is going to kill him, kill him for frightening her this way, maybe – maybe –
"Look at me, at me, Gunther – Gunther – at me, damnit, come on –"
But he doesn't. He can't. His eyes are –
– Crinkled. Laughing. He's teased her past her ability to cope; she is spitting mad and it's all a game to him, and God, she just wants to smack that self-satisfied grin off his face –
– Blazing. Dangerous. They've stopped in a tavern with a few of the knights from their company and one of the local men has made several unsuccessful attempts to flirt with Jane, and resorted to using some not-so-nice language upon being rebuffed, and now she's pulling Gunther out the door because dear Lord he looks mad enough to –
– Worried, his brows knit in concern. She's on her cycle and cramping hard, but Gunther doesn't know that, he only knows that she's clearly unwell and in pain, her face pale and tightly drawn, and he wants to help but he doesn't know how, doesn't even know what's wrong in the first place and he's not going to hear it from her, never in life, and –
– Smouldering. Burning. A darker grey than she's ever seen them, and yet alight, kindled with desire for her as they come together for the first time, his hands in her hair, on her shoulders, her waist, his fingers twining through hers as they kiss, and kiss, and kiss until they can't breathe –
– Soft. Drifting. Still unfocused as he rises, slowly, out of sleep, as he blinks at her once, twice, coming back into himself, a small smile curving his lips, a look almost of wonder settling over his face as he drinks her in, hand moving languidly to cup her cheek as she whispers good morning, and –
– Wide, shocked, unguarded in that instant, that endless, spiraling instant before he's able to get his defenses up. It takes him longer than usual, longer than she thinks it ever has, because he's let his guard down around her, he's let her in, fully and unreservedly, the way he never has with anyone else in his life, and oh God, she's just wrecked everything, EVERYTHING –
They're empty, and they'll never be anything else again.
"Gunther – no – no, come back, I am sorry, so so sorry, I take it back, I take it back, let me… fix this, let me – Gunther, please, please!"
She presses her forehead to his, cradling his face in her hands, his stubble sharp and prickly against her palms, shuddering with the force of her despair because she knows, she knows perfectly well that she can't fix this, she can't go back and make this right, there are no do-overs, this is reality, this is her existence now, and Gunther has removed himself from it, cut himself out completely and permanently, and she will have to live with this – she will have to live without him – for the rest of her life.
How is she supposed to do that? How!?
She is gulping at the air in great frantic, sobbing breaths. The room is spinning and she cannot come to terms with this, cannot, cannot.
"Gunther!" She fists both hands in the thick leather at his shoulders and shakes him. "Gunther, stop, this is not funny! Gunther, I mean it! Get UP!"
His head rolls to the side and he slides a little further down the wall. That's the only response he gives, it's the only response he can give, and it's breaking her heart. It's breaking her mind.
She actually crawls into his lap, she's straddling his hips now, wild with grief, pummeling his shoulders with her fists over and over again, repeating his name in breathless, gasping little shouts.
It makes no difference. He doesn't hear her, doesn't feel her. He'll never feel anything again. As the understanding truly sinks in, she buries her face in his chest and screams.
Jane leaves the castle the same way Gunther had left the encampment; under cover of darkness, heartbroken and alone, with no expectation of returning. Ever.
Liam had pulled her off of Gunther before she could scream her voice gone. The castle had been secured quickly – how could it not, with both the numbers and the advantage of surprise on their side? – and their compatriots had started to crowd into the small room, drawn by her anguished shrieks.
So Liam had tugged her away in order that the others could carry Gunther out, tend his body, prepare his pyre – and she hadn't even resisted past a frenzied insistence that she kiss him goodbye.
When she'd scrambled back over to Gunther, she'd seen that someone had closed his eyes... and it had destroyed her just a little bit more that it hadn't been her – she should have been the one to do that, why hadn't she thought of it, why? Even after death she's still failing him. She'd barely been able to breathe under the weight of her sorrow and guilt.
She'd tangled her fingers in his hair and kissed his forehead, his cheek, and finally his lips. They'd been soft and cool, and she'd remembered them spitting childish insults at her before they'd ever begun to warm to each other, remembered them forming the words of an old song as they'd sat around the campfire with their comrades one night, and she'd had no idea he could sing like that, it was beautiful, beautiful.
She'd remembered them whispering words of comfort when she'd received the news that Sir Theodore had fallen. She'd run from the camp, blindly, not even realizing he'd followed her until she'd felt him fold himself around her, holding her and soothing her as she cried. She'd remembered those lips quirking in amusement, twisting in anger, leaving scorching trails of fire on her skin as he'd dragged them along the line of her jaw, down her throat, over her breasts making her shudder and gasp.
And she'd remembered them just hours before, parting in shock for just a split second's worth of time before wrenching violently downward and then pressing into a thin, straight line as he'd slammed his mental and emotional defenses into place. And it had been her fault, all her fault, he'd done it in response to her catastrophic pronouncement that they couldn't go on as they were, it didn't make sense, it was rash and irresponsible, a dangerous distraction and a conflict of interest; maybe at some future point, when the war was won, and after she'd fulfilled her obligation to Dragon, to help him search for his origins, for others of his kind, maybe then –
But he hadn't let her finish, hadn't been interested in maybes or somedays. He'd just yanked on that mask of… blankness… that she'd remembered so heartachingly well, and had told her he wouldn't trouble her any further with his unwanted attentions, and had turned around and walked away.
Still being on watch at the time, she hadn't been able to follow him, to even attempt any sort of damage control.
And now… now...
Gunther Breech keeps his promises. He'll never trouble her again.
She stops walking and glances back for a moment, but there's nothing to see. If the sky is still stained with smoke, it's too dark to tell. So she turns away again, turns her back on her company's valuable new outpost, purchased for them at the cost of Gunther's life.
Well… not her company. Not anymore.
She's done with all of that.
She's done with war, done with knighthood, wants no further part in any of it. In less than twenty-four hours she's undergone a profound shift in priorities, in… being, brought about by the loss of Gunther not just as a lover, a friend, a partner, but as one of the most fundamental pillars of her life, her very identity.
It's been Jane and Gunther for so long that she just doesn't know what comes next; but she's sure of one thing, at least. The next chapter doesn't involve bloodshed. She's seen enough of death to last her a lifetime.
No, the next chapter needs to be about somehow, somewhere, someday finding absolution for what she has done.
Because she did this. She killed one of the two most precious things in her life as surely as if she'd struck the blow herself.
She had struck the blow herself. The fact that she'd done it with words instead of a sword makes no difference at all. Not to her.
And not to Gunther.
And he'd overreacted, God yes he had, overreacted spectacularly, and she's still furious with him for it, incandescent in her anger – goddamn you Gunther Breech, you stupid, impossible man.
But it in no way lessens her own culpability; she should have anticipated that, that's who Gunther is.
So she's going to walk, just walk, pausing every few miles to try and summon Dragon with her sword, until she gets within range, and he comes to her. And then she's going to ask him to take her away, as far away as they can get.
She doesn't really care what happens after. She'll let Dragon call the shots for a while. All she wants at this point is distance. There's a part of her that understands she will not be able to outrun her grief and guilt and devastation – but there's another part of her that's determined to try anyway.
She closes one hand briefly around Gunther's signet ring, which hangs, now, on a leather thong looped around her neck; snugged safely beneath her clothing, nestled against her heart.
Or at least, against the place where her heart should be. She's not entirely sure she has one anymore, come right down to it.
Then she adjusts the pack on her shoulders, and walks on.