A/N: Happy day after Janther Week! I'm going to do what I can to keep the goodness going, starting by wrapping up this fic today. Plus I have many more chapters of Shattered queued up, plus a 2-chapter Saudade fic that I'm sitting on for the time being, and Laree will be posting 5(?) additional chapters of our co-authored Sellsword fic, on a weekly basis I think, so actually the Janther Week mojo will continue for quite a while :-D
A super stoked thank-you goes out to Laree for her awesome fanart of this chapter! You can see it on the Janther Week blog if you haven't already - also, it's my cover art for this story but I recommend going to the blog to view it larger, as many of the details are lost in the little cover art thumbnail. When will they make it so you can click on a story's cover art and enlarge it to more than the size of a freaking postage stamp? In any case – Enjoy the conclusion, and drop me a review! Pretty please?
It's not until the battle is in full swing – has been raging for hours – that he makes the connection.
The two forces are clashing in an open field. There is no fort to besiege, no castle to lay waste – and he had thought it passing strange that heavy war machines had been lugged all this way into the middle of nowhere. It had been done by the footmen of a kingdom that is allied to his own, and although he'd shaken his head in puzzlement, he hadn't followed up with any inquiries; he'd had too much to do, too many preparations to make on behalf of himself and his own men, the garrison that answers to him.
But yes – odd. Disquieting, even. They'd brought ballistas, catapults. Rather useless equipment, really, without something concrete at which to aim. He'd thought it an almost ludicrous waste of manpower, dragging them out here.
But then, they do have a target in mind.
Of course they do.
How, how could he not have realized?!
He's managed to acquire a new mount and is riding by, on the way to give his report, when the men begin loading them. The ballistas are being fitted with wicked-looking, barbed projectiles – but before he has time to really ponder the purpose of those, he sees what they're loading into the catapults.
And he goes simultaneously hot and cold all over, and he can't breathe, he can't breathe, he can't breathe.
They are not being laden with stones or flaming pitch, but with great spiderwebs of chains, weighted down on each end with spiked maces.
Woven metal nets, created for the sole purpose of bringing down a dragon.
And its rider.
Dragon's scales are virtually impenetrable – everyone knows that – although the presence of those barbed projectiles suggests that someone in authority has decided it's worth a shot anyway. But his wings – his wings can be torn, his wings can be shredded, and if that were to happen, if he were to plummet from the sky, he'd be as susceptible to death – to having his neck snapped, his organs liquified on impact – as any other creature that is robbed of flight mid-air.
And then there's Jane.
By everything that's holy, there's JANE.
Jane will never survive a hit from the ballista, or the rending, shredding, ripping of those metal nets, or any fall from more than a few feet in the air.
Had he really thought he'd been afraid for her before?
He's plunged into an awful, icy, inarticulate terror.
Jane… God… no… no. Shite, NO.
He's paralyzed. And then a shout goes up; a cry that starts behind the lines and roars itself forward like a wave from man to man until it reaches him where he is still sitting frozen on his steed, staring stupidly at the machinery.
They are all yelling, pointing, hands held up to shield their eyes from the sun. Gunther follows their line of sight to –
Dragon. Dragon has taken, at long last, to the air, and Jane – of course – is with him. Even from this distance, Gunther can see the cold glitter of her mail, the sheen of Dragon's underbelly, the snapping red banner of her hair trailing behind her.
Then Dragon folds his wings and – Gunther's heart catches in his throat – rolls in the air like a barrel, dropping toward the ground like a stone. At what seems like the last possible moment, he snaps his wings out, righting himself, and makes a pass over the field of fighting men, so low that Gunther can see the sun glinting off Dragon's talons.
It's a breathtaking, spectacular, frightening display of aerial prowess. Proof that Dragon is a fiercely lethal force to be reckoned with.
The men fall silent as he passes overhead, watching with terrified awe as this magnificent creature and his glorious rider skim the tops of the few trees with almost casual grace. They've made it halfway around the battlefield when Dragon opens his mouth and roars. It's a sound unlike any Gunther has ever heard from him in all the years of their association.
Animalistic, wild – it's a gutteral, primal sound, holding no trace of Dragon's actual voice. It reverberates across the field; Gunther can feel it vibrating the armor on his chest, and a handful of men even drop to their knees, covering their ears in an attempt to block out the sound.
Then dragon finishes his circuit and begins climbing up, up into the empty blue bowl of the sky.
That first pass was just a warning, Gunther understands, just a… prelude. He can see Jane's forces pulling back; the next pass will be on the remaining combatants.
His own front lines.
He's not the only one who's realized it, either. There's a sudden frenzy of activity as the men around him snap into action. They're rushing to load, to crank down the tension, rotate the dias, angle the weights. Anything and everything to ensure that they're fully prepared and ready to take down a dragon, and… and murder Jane.
No. No no no no NO.
No, he can't let that happen. He can't, he won't.
He's in motion before his mind has even finished processing his categorical denial.
The first catapult is easy enough. He's already almost on top of it, and the men loading it are certainly not expecting an attack from within their own camp, never mind by one of their own commanders.
Gunther is mounted and all he has to do is lean forward and down, swipe at the rope restraining the bucket. No one reacts quickly enough to stop him.
The payload goes flying up… up… into nothing. Dragon isn't anywhere near their firing range – he's barely begun his spiraling ascent – and so the mess of chains land uselessly behind Jane's line.
The second machine is just as simple. It's not fully prepped and his blow causes the weights to rip free and pull the base from its moorings. The entire contraption swings wildly, upending at its base, flipping almost completely over.
It explodes in a roar of splinters and shards, some the size of gunther's legs. The flying debris cuts down three of the footmen attending it, and the firing arm lands heavily on another, crushing him to death.
Gunther might have felt bad – these men are hardly more than boys, really – but there isn't time for that. He's already moving on to the first ballista.
Unfortunately, however, the noise of the catapults' demise has drawn attention. By the time he reaches his next objective, the men are aware of his approach – though they don't yet understand that he is the source of the commotion, and so like those before them at the catapults, they don't expect him to attack.
The ballistas prove more difficult to sabotage. The army hadn't bothered with the smaller, crossbow-like pedestals that can be operated by a single man. No, these are huge, three-man machines; heavy, sturdy, powerful, meant for… for hopefully impaling a dragon.
The tension ropes are too thick to cut with a single swing of the sword, but he manages to get two good whacks in before the men are able to overcome their stupefaction and spring to the machine's defense.
After that, everything becomes a bit of a blur.
One of the ballista-men comes at him with a short sword, slashing wildly. Gunther, with the advantage of height in his mounted position, plants his foot in the man's chest, knocking him backward before he can strike; but as he falls, he gouges a long slice down the flank of Gunther's steed. The horse kicks out in pain, unintentionally braining another attacker –
But that's where Gunther's luck deserts him.
A third soldier has managed to get behind him, round the other side of the horse, and grabs hold of Gunther's leg, trying to yank him out of the saddle. The horse, however, still prancing and rearing in pain – and now thrown off-balance as well –comes down hard on them both.
The weight of the beast pins the other man flat, but the impact knocks the breath savagely from Gunther's lungs and traps his leg so that the both of them – he and his assailant – are locked in a desperate struggle – fighting the bulk of the thrashing animal while also trying to avoid each other's blows.
An endless few seconds later, the horse rolls off them – Gunther, with a wince and a hiss, feels something give in his knee. He retains the presence of mind, however, to yank his dagger quickly free and dispatch his enemy.
The enemy who is garbed in the same colors as he.
Then he is up, trying not to think about that, limping badly but still determined, renewing his assault on the ballista. It occurs to him distantly that these are almost certainly the last few minutes of his life.
And he finds that he is perfectly at peace with that. There is nothing about his life that he is particularly attached to. He will part with it willingly enough – as long as he can manage to save Jane.
He severs one of the tension ropes, but it's not enough, the machine could still do some damage, so he kicks at the stays, gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, until he feels them give. The ballista can still be repaired, but to do so will take time, and lumber they did not bring with them to the battlefield.
For the present, at least, it is thoroughly out of commision.
Grunting, staggering slightly, Gunther catches the reins of his horse; swings back into the saddle, although with some difficulty now; and continues with his desperate mission of sabotage.
By the time he reaches the final two machines – both catapults loaded with those appalling nets that are intended to rip, shred, bring down and destroy the only thing that's ever truly given his life meaning – a cry has gone up. They know what he is doing now, even if they don't understand why; they're expecting his attack and have braced against it.
They're ready for him.
He loses his horse again almost immediately. He does, at least, manage to get clear of the animal this time, although impacting the ground sends a jolt through his hurt leg that makes his vision dim for a heartbeat or two, and wrenches an unwilling cry from his lips.
Then he's laying about with his sword, because men are coming at him from all sides now; he's fighting purely to defend himself and no, damnit, no, if he can't reach those last machines then this has all been for nothing – he has to, he HAS TO put them out of commission somehow, but he's outnumbered and he's on foot, trying to fight off six or eight at once, and more are coming on the run, and –
He manages to take one adversary down, but two more step in to fill the gap.
He's failed her.
He's being driven back, step by step, away from the catapults. No, no NO –
The force of his own despair almost sends him to his knees. To be this close and then thwarted – with something so much more precious than his miserable, pointless life at stake –
The point of a sword drives into his shoulder and Christ that hurts – simultaneously someone behind him uses the flat of their blade to sweep his legs out from under him. He goes down hard on his back, head slamming into the ground, wind knocked out of him again, and a booted foot comes down on his sword hand, then twists – grinding – forcing him to let go.
I am so sorry, Jane.
Things are sliding out of focus. Someone kicks him hard in the side, eliciting a sick little grunt. More blows are landing on his flanks, his ribs. Someone kicks him in the head and stars explode across his vision. He tries to curl away from the pain, and as he does so he sees another man, snarling with fury – and why not? It's justified; he'd be furious too, in their position – raising an enormous broadsword to deliver the killing blow. Jesus, he is about to be cut in half –
So sorry. I love y–
And then Dragon roars again.
Directly above him.
The men in the vicinity had become so focused on Gunther and his wildly unexpected attack that they'd entirely forgotten about Dragon – so, for that matter, had Gunther himself, at least in terms of keeping tabs on exactly where Jane and Dragon were.
And where Jane and Dragon are… is here.
They are right over him. Dragon's enormous form swallows the whole sky, and then the ground shakes as he thuds down. Gunther can feel the heat radiating from his body, shimmering off his scales. Dragon even smells like fire – like fury, and destruction… and protection… and home.
As Gunther watches, dazedly, several of the men simply disappear. Gunther's not sure if they've decided to retreat or if Dragon has knocked them away; and the man with the broadsword makes a small, almost mewling sound of distress before the top half of him – sword and all – just vanishes into Dragon's gaping maw.
Then the rest of him is gone too and Gunther can see bits of the cloud-dotted sky as Dragon whips his head back and forth, before tossing what's left of Gunther's would-be executioner to the ground. The man – or what remains of him, at any rate – does not move again.
With hardly a pause, Dragon steps carefully around Gunther's prone form, rotates, takes a deep breath, and flames both of the remaining catapults.
The heat is intense – Gunther rolls onto his side, instinctively balling himself up to try to escape it – but it's not as intense as the relief that washes over him.
The last of the machines are gone, demolished, obliterated by Dragon's wrath.
Jane is safe.
Dragon, now standing directly over him, roars a third time, almost as if in agreement with Gunther's sentiments. The sound is muffled by the bulk of Dragon's body, but Gunther can feel it reverberating through him, rattling his very bones.
His ears are still ringing with it when he thinks he hears, from somewhere very, very far away, Jane shouting his name.
"–ther! Gunther! Gunther, get up! You cannot stay here, damnit Gunther get UP!"
He realizes, only belatedly, that Dragon has stepped, at least marginally, away; the sky is unobstructed now, so why does everything still look so dark?
"GUNTHER!" Jane sounds frantic.
He supposes it has to be important if she's this worked up about it, although everything seems oddly distant now, the world around him... receding, somehow. Pulling away.
He'd accomplished what he'd set out to do, although he'd required assistance right at the end there… but regardless, his impromptu little mission has been a success and surely that means he can rest now.
He wants to – no, he needs to – rest now.
Jane, however, is being very insistent.
It really must be urgent. Gritting his teeth – almost every bit of him is hurting in some capacity or other – he forces himself up onto his knees… and immediately falls back to the ground with a gasp of pain.
Well, so much for that.
He makes a final, valiant effort to push himself up, manages to get one arm levered beneath his body only to have it give out – and then he feels Dragon scoop him up from the ground. Dragon is being careful not to hurt him – his great claws dig furrows in the dirt beneath him – but even so, one presses painfully into the wound on his shoulder.
He lets out a strangled gasp of surprise, and he thinks he feels Dragon rumble an apology before the entire world jerks away from itself. Gunther's head snaps backward – if he lives, his neck will be sorry for a week – as Dragon launches himself into the sky with only the strength of his haunches and the push of his wings –
– and then Gunther knows no more.
"–ake up. Gunther. Wake up, Gunther. Maggots. Gunther… please."
Jane sounds fretful almost to the point of tears.
There's a hand, small and warm, pressed to the side of his face. But it's taking him so long, so long to drag himself out of unconsciousness, that before he can force his reluctant eyes open, the hand is withdrawn.
He instantly, bitterly mourns its loss.
A moment later he hears her again, this time from a slight remove. "What if he does not – Dragon – what if –" she breaks off abruptly; it almost sounds as if her voice is choked off.
He makes another, mighty attempt to rally. He's just not… quite there… yet.
"Jane, he will," comes Dragon's reply. There's a pause before Dragon continues, "why would he do that? I thought you were enemies now?"
"I do not know, I.. was hoping to ask him myself. But then you had to go and squish him!"
"I did no such thing!" Dragon sounds highly indignant. "I am as delicate as a songbird when I want to be."
"Oh, certainly," Jane snorts. "A songbird that chewed up a full-grown man and then spat him out at the enemy."
"I still have beard in my teeth," Dragon grumbles. "Can you get lice in your mouth? Nevermind… I do not want to know. But as for Gunther there… after the way he hurt you, I rather think he deserves a good squishing."
"I hurt him, Dragon." There's an odd little hitch in Jane's voice. "Do not mistake what happened."
"No matter what happened, he should not have left you like that."
"No," Gunther rasps, prying his eyes open at last, blinking up at the sky, "I should not have."
Jane gives a little gasp, and a second later she's bending over him, and his breath lodges in his throat because she's so close and so, so very beautiful.
"Gunther! Are you – can you – God's blood! What were you thinking, you stupid, suicidal IDIOT!?"
"I… ugnh." Grimacing, he tries to lever himself up on his elbows. Shite, every inch of him is sore. He gives up and lies back. "Water?" he asks. He's so thirsty his throat feels scraped raw.
"Yes, I have water." Jane disappears for a moment, then is back, unstopping a waterskin. She lets him drink, then says, "now stop dodging my questions. What in the sarding hell were you thinking?"
Gunther holds his final swallow of water in his mouth, stalling for time, but it's no use. He can't form an even borderline articulate answer; he's too hurt, too scattered, too compromised. He gulps it down and sputters, "they – we – my side – the machines – I could not let them, Jane, I could not."
She frowns severely down at him. "We would have been f–"
"You would have DIED."
Exasperation colors Jane's voice. "You cannot actually know th–"
"Did you see what they were loading those catapults with?" he demands, because he sees, he can still see in his mind's eye; can see those vicious, awful nets, can see Jane and Dragon knocked from the sky, torn to pieces as they fall. He's going to be seeing that image behind his eyelids for quite some time to come, he thinks.
"No, I did not, but Dragon is more than equal t–"
"Jane. I saw, and I know. I had to stop them. I HAD – to stop them. They were going to –" he can barely force out the word – "kill you."
"They nearly did kill you!" She's shouting now. "And that is not conjecture, that is something I witnessed with my own eyes, and, and, Christ, Gunther, when Dragon picked you up I thought – I thought –" abruptly she's gone from his field of vision; he hears her draw in several quick, deep, shuddering breaths.
Gritting his teeth, he forces himself into a sitting position. The world tilts alarmingly for a space of seconds, but then it rights itself... more or less. Jane is a couple of feet away, on her knees, with her back to him and her arms wrapped tightly around herself as she struggles with her respiration.
Leaning his weight on one hand, he runs the other, shakily, through his hair… then reaches out and places it, tentatively, on Jane's back. He's bracing for her to jerk away from his touch, but she doesn't, and so he begins to rub circles on her back, trying to soothe her. He hears Dragon make a highly disgruntled sound, but he doesn't look over at him.
He doesn't quite dare.
Jane finally calms herself down and turns back toward him… well, partially at least. She stops halfway so he can only see her in profile, and seems to have developed a sudden and intense interest in the ground directly beneath her. She's staring fixedly down, fingers plucking restlessly at the grass.
"So you did do that – all of that – for us." Her voice is little more than a bare whisper now.
"Jane, I –"
"Are you ever going to learn to think before you act, Gunther Breech!?" she demands. "What are you going to do now? You have turned traitor, your entire army wants you dead, you cannot go back – ever! – dear God, what have you thrown away for me!? What – what –"
"Nothing worth keeping," he says. And he's not placating her. It's only the truth.
She turns, finally, to face him again, and her eyes nearly burn holes in him, her expression is so fierce. "What are you going to do?" she repeats.
"Maybe –" now it's Gunther who can't quite hold her gaze. He drops his eyes away, suddenly fidgeting. She's already bandaged the wound on his shoulder, he realizes. She must have a kit that she carries on Dragon, and… and sard, how long was he out? Wh–
He swallows hard. "Maybe I can go –" his voice is so hoarse that he has to stop for a second, clear his throat – "home."
Jane draws in a sharp little breath, and Gunther finally raises his eyes back to hers.
For a moment they just look at each other – Gunther isn't entirely sure he's even breathing. Then Jane's lips curve into a tiny half-smile. "Maybe you should at that," she says.
She unfolds herself to her feet then; walks a short distance away to where Gunther now sees there is indeed a large leather satchel lying open on the ground, contents strewn haphazardly about it. She must have been in an absolute frenzy, digging for her medical kit. The thought makes him feel simultaneously guilty, and… really, really warm inside.
Jane roots through the bag a little more, sets a couple of items aside, then packs everything else back in and resecures it to Dragon. Gunther hears the two of them murmuring to each other, but can't make out their words. Then she returns to him, carrying the things she'd pulled from her pack, and sets them down beside him. There are fresh bandages, a little pot of salve, a rolled-up blanket, a waterskin, some dried meat and hardtack, and a short sword.
"You are pretty well bruised up," she says, "but I saw nothing that should pose a serious threat. You ought to be able to travel, if you take it slow. Go easy on that leg."
"Jane, I cannot take all –"
"You are not taking," she cuts him off, "you are borrowing. Dragon and I have to get back to the… action. But if you start walking toward home, we will find you when it is… when we can. All right?"
He stares at her, unsure what to say… and then his hand comes up, seemingly of its own volition, to cup the side of her face just as she'd been doing to him when he'd first begun to come around.
"All right," he says quietly, thumb tracing the curve of her cheek. "Be… be careful, Jane. Stay safe."
She leans into his hand, lets her eyes fall shut, gives a long, slow exhalation through her nose. "You as well," she replies at length, brow slightly creased. "Gunther… about that night… you just… surprised me, is all. I am sorry – I am so sorry – that I did not recover quickly enough to..." she trails off, gives her head a little shake, breaking their contact. Then she's on her feet again, crossing back to where Dragon waits.
"I did, you know," she calls to him, throwing a leg over Dragon, settling astride his great neck. "I always have. I still do."
And then Dragon launches them skyward, Jane loosing a clear, high whoop as they go, and Gunther sits where he is and watches them dwindle, dwindle, until finally they are lost to the horizon.
He's alone again.
And yet… he doesn't feel alone. Not really.
He gathers up the things Jane left for him, rolling the small items into the blanket to make a sort of improvised pack for himself, then climbs carefully to his feet and shoves the sword through his belt.
He's stiff and sore, his shoulder and knee are protesting fiercely, and his head hurts. But he's alive.
And so is she.
She's alive and –
[I did, you know] –
For the first time in a long time –
[I always have] –
For the first time in three and a half empty, aching years –
[I still do] –
He feels as if his life actually has… potential.
He orients himself by the sun and starts the long, limping walk home.