Author: Guede Mazaka
Briton horses were thick-bodied and shaggy, and only earned their promotion from “pony” because even the so-called friendly Britons were a touchy race, and the word had gone out from on high to do nothing to prick their pride. Or at least to not make the first blow, anyway. But the program by which cavalrymen could earn extra pay and privileges by lending out their stallions for breeding with the native stock was entirely Arthur’s doing. If his superiors had known, they undoubtedly would have considered it a waste of resources, if not also an insulting way to treat the precious imported steeds of their cavalry.
To tell the truth, the native horses of Sarmatia were also small, rough-coated brutes without much charm, and so Lancelot should’ve had some sympathy. But one of the few actual gifts Rome had bothered to give him was his warhorse, and he wasn’t about to throw away a good thing just to satisfy some higher principle.
Perhaps. The money that letting out an Italian- or Gaul-bred stallion for stud brought was a welcome addition to the lousy pay the army provided, but the knowledge that his stallion was going to be leaving foals all over the country grated. When he left Britain, he hoped to do so with as few attachments as possible; the land had already scarred them body and mind, and that was going to be baggage enough. For that reason, Lancelot never quite understood Bors’ affection for Vanora. Yes, having a regularly congenial woman was convenient, but children?
“She’s not going for yours. What will the women say?” Arthur suddenly remarked.
He and Lancelot were leaning on the rails of the paddock in which Lancelot’s stallion was—badly—wooing the mare of a local merchant. The fault certainly laid with the mare, since Lancelot had grudgingly gotten up a half-hour early to boot-black his horse’s hooves and give its hide an extra-thorough currying. He still wasn’t quite sure why he’d bothered. “That like me, my horse has excellent taste?”
“Shh!” Arthur hurriedly said, but he was still smiling. Even he couldn’t do much to defend the mare, who had perhaps been passable once but now was well on its way to the day when its owner would have to whack it on the forehead with a heavy hammer.
She was knock-kneed and bad-tempered—and worse, coy about it. Lancelot’s poor steed would prance up, mane flourishing and hooves stepping high, but the moment he stretched out his neck to sniff at her tail, she would whirl in a furious snapping of teeth.
“Remember, you owe me for any marks that bitch leaves.” And any parting shot the merchant cared to toss at them, Lancelot sourly thought. That man stood about ten yards away, face turning redder and redder as his mare with the supposed glorious bloodlines going all the way back to Epona’s first steeds showed all the breeding of a marketplace harridan.
Beside him stood his daughter, who reminded Lancelot of the horse. It actually was hers, if he remembered correctly. She’d commented archly about the mud on his boots before Arthur had even done the introductions, so Lancelot hadn’t really bothered taking note of her after that. He was a soldier—did she expect him to go around perfumed and prissy like the Roman nobles? Even now she was staring at him as if she wished he’d just drop into the underworld.
“She’s a bit shy.” Ever the peacemaker, Arthur smiled apologetically at the merchant.
To give the man credit, the Briton did seem to realize that spitting on Arthur’s hand would be to his detriment. He mustered up a vaguely pleasant face. “Ah, her maternal line’s famous for being spitfires, sir. She’ll come round—she just wants to know her suitor’s got the mettle for handling her.”
“More like she wants a lust-driven blockhead. Any sensible horse would have given up by now and gone seeking greener pastures.” Lancelot folded his hands on top of the post and rested his chin on top, whistling slightly. His stallion pricked up its ears, but remained warily positioned in the corner to which he’d retreated. A harder whistle sent him cautiously forward, but only till the mare had locked eyes on him.
“Mayhaps she dislikes the color of him,” called the girl. From out of nowhere she produced a creamy-white smile. “She’s gentlest with me when I wear black and red.”
Arthur blinked, then graciously inclined his head. “Then I hope she’ll learn to look past such surfaces.” He clapped a hand on Lancelot’s shoulder; his fingers twitched as they felt the stiffness, but withdrew casually enough. “My friend here has the best-bred horse in the stables—better even than mine.”
“I find that hard to believe, good sir. Shouldn’t the commander have the best?” If she tossed her hair…she tossed it, and added a look so brazen that even her father uncomfortably shifted.
“Any commander is only as good as the weakest he commands. Oh—Bran, I believe you’ll have your new bloodline after all.” There was considerable subtlety in how Arthur directed their attention to the ongoings in the paddock, but it was lost on two-thirds of his audience.
* * *
“Good boy…” Lancelot stroked his stallion’s nose and slipped it an extra handful of oats for putting up with the afternoon’s nonsense. He left it happily munching while he passed his hands over its neck and onto its back, checking for any sore spots or cuts. His horse was quick, but that damned mare had been too free with her hooves.
The ringing thud peculiar to hobnailed cavalry boots entered the stables and made its way towards Lancelot. It stopped at the stall door, but he ignored that in favor of running his hands down his horse’s forelegs. Any damage there could see him killed in the next ambush.
“You’re being sullen,” Arthur finally said.
A glance up showed him leaning on the lower half of the stall door, expression torn between amusement and concern. He took a deep breath, prelude to some pretty speech, to which Lancelot turned his shoulder.
“I hope you noticed I wasn’t gone nearly long enough to have had her. Even if Bran would be so slack as to let his only daughter and heir wander off with a soldier.” Hinges creaked as Arthur came into the stall.
“With the commander of the garrison, which is, after all, a post of some prestige,” Lancelot muttered. He’d run out of horse to pet, so he slowly stood up and wiped his hands on his thighs. “You didn’t mention that they wanted your horse first.”
Arthur sighed. “She did. Bran preferred yours—he wants more speed, less heft.”
“Well, I see he’s got some idea as to what’s desirable.” Lancelot added a little curl to his words, more to provoke Arthur than because he actually wanted to…or perhaps he did. The problem was that Arthur’s presence tended to confuse Lancelot’s motives.
At any rate, Arthur’s eyes sucked in the shadows till they radiated a palpable hunger. But he didn’t act upon it, choosing instead to probe the wound further. “What is it really? You’ve seen women flirt with me before—this goes back to having to put out your stallion in the first place, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The fact that this land is prospering off of what’s mine again?” It was suddenly too crowded and stuffy in the stall, so Lancelot pushed past Arthur and headed into the aisle. He picked up his saddle as he went and slung it over his shoulder, intending to give it a good wash while he was in the mood for raking things over. “And before you say anything, I know you asked, and I know I said yes but—”
There apparently was a little closet near the end of the aisle, and it was ‘apparently’ because while Lancelot probably passed it a dozen times a day, he’d never really given it much thought till Arthur shoved them into it.
It was dark. It was dusty. Strands wisped over Lancelot’s neck and he had the nasty feeling that they belonged to spiderwebs. His saddle bumped hard into the wall, then slid off his shoulder and before he could recover it, Arthur had pushed them so far into the narrow space that Lancelot was forced to let it dangle at his side.
“That’s not it,” Arthur said.
A little bit of light petered in around his head and shoulders, but it was too dark for Lancelot to make out his face. They stood there, just breathing, with Arthur’s hands on Lancelot’s arms and Lancelot’s hands pressing against Arthur’s chest. Slowly—so slowly Lancelot couldn’t begin to tell when it changed from unconscious to conscious—Lancelot stopped trying to shove Arthur away. His fingers curled around the edges of Arthur’s cuirass.
“I don’t understand you,” Arthur suddenly whispered, low and rough. “Do you want me to push, or don’t you? You always—”
“If it’s any consolation, you confuse me. You confuse my mind, my—my senses—it’s five years till my discharge and I want to leave.” But Lancelot held onto Arthur nonetheless. He always did. Worse than horses, or damned children.
It came on them sometimes like this—like the brutality of grappling each other down from the edge of madness after a battle, but without exhausted muscles and spirits dulled by bloody horror. All the violence of hands and mouths clashing, of bones slammed and flesh bruised, without any of the release. Like lightning out of a clear sky.
Flashes, then. Flashes because they were easier than acknowledging the long unbroken history, flashes because Lancelot wanted heat: Arthur’s breath on his throat, Arthur’s hands spreading his thighs, warming themselves against his bare flesh while he scraped the back of his neck against the wall. Arthur’s mouth on him, suckling his prick. Arthur on his damned knees but not praying, oh, no—not praying, not worshipping. He took Lancelot that way as surely and utterly as he would have if he’d just lifted Lancelot up and fucked him there against the wall like the cheapest whore.
Flashes because heat and flickers were easier than warmth and duration. And when Lancelot was pulling his clothes together with shaking hands, when Arthur was leaning out to soothe a stamping horse in the stall next to them and the light limned his profile with pale gold like an idol—then it was safe to look long again.
“Damn it,” Arthur muttered, drawing the word out into a long sigh. He wasn’t speaking to the horse, who was still neighing.
“So what do your philosophers say chiefly makes a man? His experiences? His blood? Or what he leaves behind him?” Lancelot laughed shortly. “Don’t answer that. Maybe I simply don’t like giving to people.”
Arthur leaned back and looked sideways at Lancelot; his eyes snatched up the sunlight and turned green as the ancient hills. “Yet you give to me.”
“No wonder I’m being sullen.” Another laugh, and then Lancelot thought he was able to come out into the open. He pushed till Arthur backed out, and then walked out himself, pulling at his hair. “You can’t expect to fix everything by improving the next generation, you know. That mare, for example—she’d take at least four.”
“I think you could do it in three,” Arthur carefully replied. They were so uneasy around each other, and yet they never quite slid apart. Even now, their steps as they walked towards the entrance were slowly falling into rhythm with each other.
Lancelot deliberately mis-stepped. Then he snorted at himself, and let the inevitable occur. Yes, he laughed at the storm. Because it was still on the horizon, and he could laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous. What do you know about breeding? You keep company with barbarians.”
“I know enough to know when it’s meaningful and when it isn’t. I’d only call you barbaric when I’m trying to wake you in the morning.” And Arthur playfully ruffled Lancelot’s hair.
After a moment, Lancelot laughed a second time, but more good-humoredly. The sun was still shining, after all. For a while longer.