A/N: Don't shoot!! Heh, another late chapter –sorry! Kris is awesome, as usual. Go give her some love!
Jane and the Dragon is © Martin Baynton, Weta and Nelvana.
The horse lay where it had fallen, neck twisted at an irregular angle. Scavengers had already taken its eyes, and Gunther could smell more waiting to feast on the dead beast in the night, but at least it was not Shade, his own horse.
Gunther could not ignore a stab of guilt as he reached for the saddlebags. He doubted that the horse would have leapt if it had only had wolves to contend with.
The food was covered in ants, and he quickly tossed it aside, almost sighing again, in relief. He would take fish every day over the hard biscuits Pepper had invented to last for long journeys. It didn't look like the ants were having much luck with them, either.
Next to be pulled out was a rough map of the roadways surrounding the castle. Gunther had brought his own copy, and he doubted it would be of much use if they continued on in the same direction for much longer, but he pocketed it anyway. After that was one of Jester's juggling stones. Gunther looked at it in disgust before hurling it off into the woods. That'd teach the clown to try and distract a knight when she had a job to do.
The last thing to be withdrawn was Jane's small purse, which he held delicately by one string. He wasn't sure what kind of money she'd brought with her, and wasn't willing to find out.
He dropped the purse back into the saddlebag, and then unstrapped the saddle. It took some heaving, and the smell was enticing rather than repulsive, but Gunther growled under his breath and kept working until he could pull the saddle away from the horse. It was a good saddle, just as the horse had been a good animal, and it seemed a shame to waste both.
He heaved the saddle up into a tree near the path where, with any luck, no one would see it, in the hope of fetching it on the return journey. Maybe by then they'd have another horse for the stable, too. Gunther used a stone to make a small mark in the tree, and then set off at a run. He'd have to hurry if he wanted to get back in time for a few hours of sleep.
Jane had washed her face, buried the final few embers of the fire, prepared breakfast and gathered their remaining supplies into a pile by the time Gunther woke up.
He gulped down the bread and cheese, took a long drink of ale, and then shoved their supplies into the blanket-bundle and shouldered it, eager to go. Jane sighed and joined him on the road.
They saw a few more peasants that day, including a farmer ploughing a field. There was a fat horse attached to the equipment, and Jane smiled happily.
"Finally! We can buy that horse."
Gunther gave her an incredulous look. "You would travel a quest on the back of a plough horse?"
"It is more practical than travelling on foot," said Jane defiantly, shielding her eyes as the wind changed direction and began stirring up dust.
"We would have to take turns riding," said Gunther. "So we would not travel any faster than we already are. Besides," he added as the horse began rearing, shrieking and pulling at its restraints. "It does not look very well trained. Come on." He began hurrying down the road, and Jane had no choice but to follow him, throwing a concerned glance back at the misbehaving beast.
It was warmer that night, although their camp was much less comfortable. There was no dry wood, which meant no fire, which meant bread and cheese for dinner. They ate in silence, laboriously chewing the dry meal. They had finished their ale earlier in the afternoon, and Jane missed it already. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend she was eating roast meat with seasoned vegetables, dripping with juices and warm from Pepper's fire, but all that did was make the bread taste like dust in her mouth.
Jane took first watch, tossing the blanket at Gunther and promising to wake him in a few hours. He sighed impatiently but laid down on the blanket, tossing a "Good night," over his shoulder before falling asleep.
Jane sat huddled against the cold and stared into the growing darkness. The moon rose, a cold sliver against the night sky. The night was quiet, almost impossibly so, as though she and Gunther were the only living things for miles. Jane rubbed her arms as they turned to gooseflesh, and shivered, trying to convince herself it was only from the cold.
Jane woke with a start at the sound of someone approaching, but it was only Gunther, with a dead rabbit in his hand and a smug smile on his face.
He dropped his bow and arrows, and then set about skinning and gutting his catch. "We can cook it as soon as we find enough wood to make a fire."
Jane nodded and gratefully packed the last of the bread and cheese into the blanket. Roast rabbit for breakfast would beat that any day.
It was another hot day, and they didn't find any dry wood until it was almost midday. But the rabbit cooked well, and they both laid down in the shade with full stomachs. Jane supposed they would only rest for a few minutes before setting off again, and started in surprise when Gunther began snoring softly beside her.
He had one hand over his eyes, and the other resting on his stomach. His hair, tied in a loose ponytail, was spread out beneath him, and Jane smiled as she plucked a blade of grass from it. When it came down to it, she could not help feeling concerned for the squire.
He may have been her rival, but Jane wondered if she would have tried so hard to be a successful knight if he had not been. She could still remember all the times she had worried about what Gunther would think of her if she made a mistake, or failed at a task, or wasn't strong enough to handle a new weapon. If she thought he would laugh at herr, she'd always try harder. She wasn't sure what had made his opinion so important to her, but maybe it was because he was not afraid to be blunt with her. While Jester and the others would be kind, Gunther would be honest. Well, mostly, anyway.
Jane smiled again and flicked away the piece of grass before standing up and brushing herself off. She busied herself, as quietly as possible, with burying the fire and packing up the small mess they'd made. Grabbing up the blanket, she hissed in pain and drew her hand back to find a small twig wedged under her nail. She gingerly pulled it out, and then sucked on the injured digit, the metallic tang of blood mixing with the after-taste of roast rabbit.
Behind her, Gunther woke with a start and sat up. "Jane? What is it . . . ?" He trailed off as she pulled her finger from her mouth, another drop of blood forming and spilling over the edge of her nail, and his forehead began to glisten with sweat.
Jane frowned at his expression and glanced down at her hand. "It is only a little blood."
He was gone when she looked back up.
In a small hollow in the side of one of the many surrounding fields, Gunther crouched with his head in his hands. He was trying very hard to form a coherent thought, but his mind constantly returned to one thing; Jane's blood. Not even the rabbit he'd gutted earlier that day had tempted him so much. He'd been able to stop himself from simply eating the whole thing raw, but this was another matter entirely. Just that single drop had almost turned him, then and there, and he was sure he could still smell it; certain he could still see it. He'd never wanted anything in his life as much as he wanted that blood. He wanted to tear her open and lap up every last drop, then swallow up her innards and suck the marrow from her bones. He wanted—
"No I do not!" Gunther screamed, punching the ground. He stared at his hand as the ugly thoughts swirled in his brain.
You do, you do, you do. You need to.
The dirt beneath his fingers seemed to turn red, and Gunther squeezed his hand around it, before releasing it with a yell and shoving his hand into his mouth.
There was a crack, and Gunther whimpered, but kept his jaw locked around his hand as blood trickled down his arm. It hurt, but the pain offered some distraction, and there was no satisfaction in the taste. Jane would taste no different, he told himself, relieved, as his chest stopped heaving and his heart began to slow its thundering.
"Gunther? Are you alright?"
Gunther froze as he heard Jane stop behind him, a small distance away. He gingerly removed his hand and licked the blood from his lips before standing up.
"What are you doing here?"
"I thought I heard you yelling." She took another step forward. "Why did you run off like that?"
He spun around, keeping the hand out of view behind his back as he faced her. There was an uncomfortable itching sensation as the bones knit together and the holes closed over. He closed his eyes briefly in relief when he realised that the smell of blood had weakened; apparently the wound had already stopped bleeding.
"I, uh, call of nature." He shrugged apologetically, placed his hand by his side, and began walking back towards the road.
Behind him, Jane frowned in confusion at the small bloodstain on the back of his shirt.
They travelled on for a week, beyond the farmland and into untamed regions, where the roads were narrow and the going hard. Jane was growing more and more frustrated as they seemed to be no closer to reaching their goal. No one they talked to was able to answer their questions, and she was beginning to wonder if it really was a waste of time.
And, although she would never say so out loud, Jane was beginning to miss home. Her soft bed, the warm kitchen where Pepper always had something to eat, her friends, and, although she cringed at the thought, her parents. But she missed Dragon most of all. She could talk to Dragon; say what she needed to say when she needed to say it. And she could be angry around him, or ridiculously happy, or even a little bit crazy without ever worrying what he would think. And oh, how she missed flying. The knowledge that she could have travelled the same distance in half a day with Dragon was truly infuriating. They were still on foot, and, it seemed to Jane, going nowhere very, very slowly.
Gunther seemed to be angry about their lack of progress too, although it was hard to be sure. Lately he had been angry about everything.
Jane's concern for Gunther had been growing with each day, as he distanced himself from her more and more. He always walked several meters ahead, and rarely ever spoke. He'd always been aloof, Jane knew, but this was more than that. Denial was getting her nowhere.
Sitting by the fire one night, legs aching after yet another day of walking, Jane studied Gunther as they ate their dinner. It was a cool night, and he was farther from the fire than he needed to be, slightly turned away from her as he crouched on his haunches, tearing into the pheasant he had apparently caught nesting, and staring at the ground, deep in thought.
Neither of them had had a chance to bathe in a while now, and Jane supposed she smelled pretty bad, but Gunther looked positively feral, with his hair dishevelled, and in need of a shave.
He's not even trying anymore, she realised, and the thought frightened her more than her original comprehension had.
"I know you were bitten." The fire snapped as she spoke, as though in warning.
Startled, he looked at her, his gaze sharp and intense.
Jane took a deep breath before continuing. "By that werewolf you had to kill."
He blinked, and his eyes seemed duller, less focused and more familiar. "I should have known you would figure it out," he said, tiredly. "How?"
Jane shrugged. "You have not been yourself lately. No insults, no teasing, you have not even been complaining! You have been taking off during your watch for at least the last few nights, probably more. You will not go near a horse, even though riding would make our journey a lot easier. You have been catching fish, pheasants, even rabbits without any weapons." She paused. "I counted your arrows. You have not used any. All those things were obvious, but actually it was a small thing that has been bothering me for a while now."
Gunther looked at her curiously, and Jane almost had to smile.
"You refused change from the people at the inn. The coins would have been silver."
Gunther gave her a wry smile, before cracking open a small bone and sucking out the marrow. He tossed it onto the fire and stared thoughtfully at the flames for a while. Silence settled over their camp, before he stood up and began walking away from the firelight. He paused to speak, but didn't turn around.
"You have the arrow, and I will not blame you if you use it."
"Gunther!" Jane jumped to her feet. "You Beef-Brain! If there is a cure, we will find it. I swear on the Knights' Code."
"And if there is not?" Gunther turned to face her then, and fear prickled along Jane's spine as she searched for an answer but found none. He gave her a small smile before turning away again. "Get some sleep; I will be back in the morning."
A/N: I have to confess; I've just gone and re-read all the reviews you guys have left me. They're lovely and you rock, so thanks heaps for your ongoing support. I know the slow progress is a little trying, and I apologise.