The following day dragged by. Everyone in the castle carried the weight of the tragedy, twin burdens of grief and guilt. Grief because Jester was loved by them all, from the lowest of the castle staff to the King and Queen themselves, and guilt because everyone felt party in some small way to the circumstances of his death. They had all, at some time in these past years, turned a blind eye to the activities of the Merchant. The deceitful man had worked on everyone. With small favours and the occasional coin, he had greased every palm in his long road to ingratiate himself to both King and Court. Why had they not spoken out before? If they had, even one of them, might poor Jester still be alive?
Jane herself had gone directly to her small tower room. Others had taken Jester’s body to the cool air afforded by chambers deep below the castle. Rake and Smithy had made him a bed there of herbs and wildflowers, a place of momentary rest while arrangements for his final departure could be made. Jane told them of Jester’s wish, that he be given the passing ceremony of a Northman, but not yet, not until other matters had been settled.
She had carried Jester’s body back herself, refusing any help as she made the long trek up the harbour road to the castle gates. Then she had gone straight to her room, thrown herself on her bed and given herself up to her grief. All that night she remained there, and much the next morning; her face buried in her sheets and Dragon watching over her from the battlement window. He said nothing. He had no words of wisdom to share, all he could do was keep her safe from intrusion.
Jane’s mother and father had come early that night. Twice they had approached her door. Twice Dragon had put a claw to his lips for silence and waved them away.
‘Soon,’ was all he’d said.
Dragon had relented when Pepper came marching up the steps at midnight with a cloth bag over one shoulder. He waved her away, but Pepper grabbed hold of his claw and glared at him.
‘Don’t wag that at me! Let me in!’
‘How much blood has she lost?’
‘What blood? Who gave it to her? That girl loses so many things.’
‘Her blood! Robert has given a full report to Sir Theodore. We all attended. She fought off a pack of wolves when she went up the path to look for the princess.’
‘That! Yes. I felt her fear, I flew to her aid as quickly as..’
‘Not quickly enough! Now, move aside, I must dress her wounds!’
Dragon was sitting on the far side of the tower, his long neck draped like a scarf around the curved wall, his head resting on the flagstones between Pepper and Jane’s door. He sighed, and drew back.
Pepper pushed open the door. Jane was lying face down on her bed and didn’t react, except to turn her head away.
‘It’s only me Jane, come to dress your wounds.’
‘Later! Please go.’ Her voice was muffled by the bedding.
‘Come back when you’re dead, you mean. Come back and bring the bloody sheets out for cleaning?’ She set cloth bag on the bed then went to the shelf above the hearth where she used Jane’s flint to light every candle she could find. With enough light to see by, she turned back to the bed. There were large splatters of blood, but no dark pool. Thank the spirits. Robert had said as much to Sir Theodore.
‘Jane is covered in blood, but most of it is from a wolf she killed. I think her leather tunic saved her from the worst of it.’
Pepper took out a knife and started cutting away the torn clothes, unpicking each layer like skins from an onion. Jane didn’t resist.
‘Not too deep, that’s a blessing.’ Pepper inspected the damage. Three long rakes from a wolf’s paw. The claws had ripped through the skin and some flesh beneath. Pepper eased the edges apart but could see only raw flesh in the troughs. No muscle or bone. There were shallow puncture holes on one hip from teeth that had failed to bite through either tunic or skirting, both garments made from layers of woven leather.
‘You are not a pretty picture, that is the honest truth, Jane. But it appears the forest sprites looked over you, and not over those wolves today. You will mend and the scars will be pictures for bedtime stories your tell to a fortunate man one day.’ Pepper washed the wounds with vinegar and applied her dressing of herbs and honey. Jane neither moved, nor spoke.
‘Now the front,’ said Pepper. Jane let herself be rolled over, but she raised her hands to cover her face. Pepper understood. With guilt came shame, and shame was a private affair. She applied herself to her work. The claw rakes on her back extended round and across her ribs. They stopped before reaching her stomach. Another blessing. A breach of the stomach wall was beyond her craft to put right. Pepper finished her work, bound the dressings with strips of clean linen and helped Jane put on a tight undergarments to hold her handywork in place. Then she put a bed sheet over her and began patting down the corners like a mother settling her child for the night.
‘Come to the kitchens when your done weeping, we need to be together for this. Everyone’s hurting Jane.’
‘Yes,’ Jane nodded briefly but kept her hands to her face. ‘Please go, Pepper,’ she whispered. Pepper did. She blew out all the candles and left without another word.
Even in the midst of her tears, Jane knew what was happening to her. She had seen grief before, she had watched on helplessly when a farmer had lost an only son beneath a plough. She had been down at the wharf when word had arrived of a storm at sea. She had waited as families had gathered for news. She had watched as their worst fears were realised - two fishing boats had gone to the bottom. Ten families stripped of loved ones and livelihoods in the same instant.
So Jane let the cruel turning knife of grief overtake her and wreak its terrible pain through every corner of her mind. The anguish left her soaked in sweat and racked by nausea. She bent over her washing bowl and tried to vomit. Nothing but hot bile burned from her throat. She embraced the physical pain, the short respite it gave from the mental anguish.
Hours later, Jane crawled from the bed, found her sword, and began destroying everything in her room. Every treasured object, every memory of love and kindness, every link to her childhood and to happiness. She cut and smashed them all until her room was husk of stone walls with nothing inside but scattered debris.
‘Only Jane. I want to speak to her. She will know what has to be done. Jane always knows.’ In the Royal Apartments, Princess Lavinia was wrapped in her own cocoon of grief. She had spent the long night shutting everyone out, even her mother and father, screaming in total abandon if anyone approached her or tried to give comfort. The king and queen had remained in vigil, sitting or pacing on the far side of her room. With dawn approaching, the queen had left to attend to the needs of the castle staff who seemed adrift in the wake of the tragedy, and to the needs of her son who had set down roots in the kitchen and was eating himself to distraction. Her husband had remained at their daughter’s side, and was sitting beside her as she struggled to emerge from her tantrums and speak through her tears.
‘My dear child...’
‘I should have told her.’
‘Rest, my dear. You’re safe. You’re safe.’
‘Everything, at the start. I should have told Jane.’
‘Or me. Your father.’
‘No!’ Lavinia started to thrash and wail again.
‘Alright, my dear.’ Her father took one hand and squeezed it gently. ‘If not to me, then yes, do please speak to Jane.’ He paused, his worry for his daughter competing with his anger and confusion. ‘Why in the name of our ancestors did you keep silent?’
‘Jane would have told you, Poppa.’
‘Told me what?’
‘I’m not saying!’ She tore her hand away. ‘Jane first. Then you. I didn’t tell her before because she would have told you everything.’
‘No. Not perhaps.’ The Princess wiped a sleeve across her tear stained face. ‘It would have been her duty and Jane always does her duty. You know that!’
‘She strives to, certainly.’ He found her hand again and held it.
‘Then Gunther would have been in such terrible trouble.’ Then despite her misgivings, Lavinia’s wall of silence broke. ‘His father is a traitor, he was plotting to marry his son to me. And Gunther kept quiet about it.’
‘Did he indeed?’ the king kept his voice low and tender. He was not a man of sudden tempers, and he used that control now.
‘He wanted his father to see it through to the end, to expose him, to show everyone how bad his father can be. So Gunther kept quiet, he was letting me fall in love with him so his father could keep on with the plan. And I confess I do love Gunther, just a little bit. He can be good, poppa, when he listens to Sir Theodore and to his own heart. He can be quite good.’
‘Mmm, not so very good my dear. He placed his own ambition to thwart his father above his duty to me – and his duty to you.’
‘THAT’S why I never told you! I knew that’s how you would see it. And now Gunther might be dead, and it’s all my fault for being silent.’
‘Jester and Gunther gone like terrible stories that hurt and hurt you forever, and it’s all my fault, Poppa. And the hurt of it this is too much, I will never eat again, I don’t deserve to ever eat anything, or to sing or dance or play in the sunshine ever again. I will stay in the dark with no food and then I will wake up with our ancestors and find Jester and Gunther and beg their forgiveness.’
‘My poor child, my poor darling child. So tell me what happened and perhaps we can find young Gunther. Track down his father and..’
‘NO! Jane. I will tell her. Only Jane will know what to do. If poor Gunther is alive and can be saved, Jane will know how. Everyone else will make a big mess of it just like I did!’
Sir Theodore was halfway across the battlement bridge that led to Jane’s door when he heard her screams of rage and the smashing of furniture.
‘Good,’ he muttered. Yet it gave him pause, he had never had to deal with Jane in such a state. He knew from bitter experience that a terrible loss could trigger an equally terrible outrage, one that had to be vented like puss from a wound lest the infection be trapped within and slowly poison the heart. Measure for measure, grief could be transformed by anger into something more potent. Some warriors never made the transformation; their grief remained a quagmire of soft ground that slowed their progress and stole their futures. Not so for Jane, clearly. Which was good, and yet alarming in one so young.
What was his duty here? Three expectations were upon him, yet they seemed, finally, to have coalesced into one. Jane’s role. His first and original duty was to uphold the pledge he had made all those years ago, one made to honour the noble sacrifice his colleague had made. That pledge was to find and protect any dragon still at large in the world. That original duty had led him here, to this castle, beneath this mountain, when he had investigated the rumours of a dragon sighting. Thus it was that he became part of their story, ending the siege that held the royal family prisoners in their own caverns during those long wilderness years. Swearing a duty to his new king had allowed him to maintain his pledge to watch over the dragon. Then Jane had arrived like a wildfire into that gentle mix. The dragon had befriended her and suddenly she was the new centre of Sir Theodore’s world. He had done his best to equip her for what might lie ahead, but not even he, with all his years of research, had understood the terrible price Jane would pay if she became a dragonblade to this creature. Now he did. Young Robert, son to one of his pledge brothers, had opened a veil that could never be closed.
So? What to do? There was only one possible answer. He would do whatever Jane required of him, should she chose to take up that burden. He came to her door, raised his hand to wrap on the oak panels, and felt the hot breath of Dragon on his neck.
‘Not yet,’ whispered Dragon. ‘Safer for everyone.’
‘No, old friend.’ Sir Theodore looked up. Dragon was lying across the tower roof now, his head hanging down. He looked the old knight in the eyes.
‘You may be several hundreds of years older than me, but you are no wiser, not in matters of grief and guilt. Step aside and leave this to me.’
‘Now listen to me, Squeaky legs!’
‘MOVE ASIDE NOW!’
‘Alright, moving, see.’
Sir Theodore knocked on the door. The crashing and shouting stopped. Without waiting for a reply, he pushed inside – right into a snowstorm. Jane was standing on what remained of her bed. She was dressed in white undergarments. Patches of red stained the sides where blood had leaked through her dressings, and she was slashing at the large stuffed sack which served as her mattress. Goose down swirled around her like a blizzard of snowflakes. She turned and glared at Sir Theodore, her eyes red and raw. She said nothing, then resumed the attack on her bedding.
‘Please, don’t let me stop you, Jane.’
‘I won’t.’ Her voice was a painful rasping whisper. She looked around for her water jug. It was in shards on the ground.
‘How can I be of service, Jane?’
‘You can fetch me fresh water.’
‘At once,’ Sir Theodore turned to go.
‘Wait! What are you doing.’
‘Your bidding Jane, so do please take a moment to consider the scope of any request before you make it.’
‘Stop. Well done and bravo, Sir Theodore. You have my attention. No frontal assault on my wall of anger. Under the smoke of confusion you hope to bring me out of myself and attend to my duties. I will not. Not today. I have another more pressing call on my time.’
‘I mean to find Gunther. Before his father does.’
‘I do? And in preparation for that, Princess Lavinia wishes to speak to you, and you, alone.’
‘Oh!’ Jane dropped her head, the fire draining from her eyes. All of a sudden she was child lost in grief again. ‘I’m not ready for that.’
‘Make yourself ready.
‘I need rest!’
‘On the contrary, you need action. If Gunther is alive he must be found. I have worked with Sir Ivon to collate any reports concerning the Merchant’s movements.’
‘Without including me!’ Jane fastened her eyes on her captain. The old knight took a deep breath and smiled.
‘Yes, Jane. Without you. You have been busy healing,’ he glanced around the room at the results of her sword work.
‘And?’ Jane threw her sword down and folded her arms. Her eyes were red but they were looking out at Sir Theodore, not inward at her sorrow. He saw determination there, the same fierce determination that had marked her out from the very beginning. ‘Where is he?’
‘He fled, Jane, all four vessels in his trading fleet set off within minutes of your arrival back here with Jester’s body. They dispersed, each one on a different compass heading.’
‘We can assume three of the ships are decoys.’
‘Yes, and the Merchant will be on the fourth. Only Dragon can cover those distances and reach all those vessels in time.’
‘And news of Gunther?’
‘A mystery,’ Sir Theodore shrugged his shoulders. ‘But not to the Princess. Young Lavinia knows what happened that night. She won’t speak of it, except to you. Go to her Jane, right now. Every minute of delay is another furlong of ocean to search.’