|Brotherhood X: May
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Drown me in quivering brightness: let me fade
* * *
Last night Tristan had spent the darkest hours slitting throats and testing the edges of the woods for any gaps in the Woad’s sentry line. The day before, a skirmishing sortie had unexpectedly bloomed into a full battle, and his saber had flashed up and down from dawn to nearly dusk. If he lifted his head only a little from the water, he had no problem smelling the pyres of the burning dead. There was no honor in that custom, but only a quick and dirty way to rid the battlefields of corpses before they rotted in the damp climate and fostered disease on top of all their other troubles.
But if he simply laid back and let himself float, the gentle current slowly leached the ache and twinge from his muscles, and his nose was engulfed in the clean, clear fragrance of the stream. Better yet, in that position he was blinded neither by the light reflected off the water nor by the sun itself; the thick canopy of leaves here did a fine job of filtering out the blistering sun.
Of course, should someone jump pell-mell into the deep eddies, Tristan was also in the perfect position to have his nose swamped full of water. Cursing and spitting, he forced himself not to follow his first instinct—to leap out and snort till breathing didn’t burn—in favor of diving under.
The stream was a bit murky, but not so much that he had any trouble finding a human ankle and yanking. Then Tristan pushed up so he broke the surface and calmly squeezed the water from his nose while Lancelot spasmed and choked and finally draped himself limply over a half-sunken log, eyes slitted like an infuriated cat. “Bastard.”
Tristan grinned. “Only the dishonorable protest a clear superiority in skills.”
“And now you’re quoting Arthur at me. We get two days off, and I still can’t find any peace,” Lancelot moaned, flinging out his arms as dramatically as he could without falling off the log. Then he rolled over and dunked his head in the water, scrubbing furiously so the accumulated dirt and dried blood of the past few days went swirling past Tristan.
“So where is Arthur?” Frowning, Tristan drifted towards the other man and pulled himself just far enough from the water to see over the bank’s slopes. Nothing. “I told him there wasn’t going to be any Woad activity for days.”
Bubbling. When Lancelot finally lifted his head from the water, his curls had nearly been soaked straight. They straggled over his face and outlined his surprisingly grim expression. “Exactly. So he’s volunteered to act as magistrate for the village nearby and hear any cases they might have. While we’re here.”
“He hasn’t slept a whole night in over a week.” Neither had Tristan, but he had managed a nice nap earlier in the day while Galahad tried to pester Gawain into going hunting. Where Galahad got his energy was one mystery Tristan had never really figured out—and for that matter, where Arthur got his was equally unknown. The difference between those two men, however, was that Galahad was fond of pursuing relaxation, while Arthur seemed bent on working himself into the grave.
“I know. It’s nice to be able to ride without wincing, but damn it, he could at least—” Lancelot stopped and plished some water at Tristan, facetious expression melting into one of angry resignation. “I’m joking, Tristan. Fucking is not the only reason I want him to take a break.”
A flutter of wings preceded the imminent arrival of Tristan’s hawk, who alighted in the branches of a nearby tree. She had a squirrel hanging from her talons, at which she proceeded to tear with great gusto.
Lancelot slapped away some buzzing insect and turned over, moodily watching her eat. “Even your pet knows when to see to itself. I keep telling Arthur the world’s a large place that’s been there before him and will be there after him, but he still thinks it needs to be cared for this instant, as if it were a newborn.”
Tristan pulled himself further onto the log and folded his arms beneath his chin, regarding the other man’s profile. In only a few months, the last traces of childhood had melted away to leave behind only the sharp, stark, strong planes of manhood. And there were also the dark hollows of exhaustion shading beneath Lancelot’s eyes, and the marks of strain gradually engraving themselves around his mouth and nose.
An absentminded glance into the water turned into a long look, for Tristan hadn’t realized that the same process had happened to him. The skin had pulled tighter around the bones of his face, stretching his cheek scars, and a faint white sword scar wove through the stubble on his chin, defining his jaw in an oddly determined way.
It was a warm day, but not so much so that he wasn’t chilled when the exposed parts of his body began to dry. He combed his tangled wet hair back from his face, looking about for his clothes. “How long ago did you see him? Is he gone from camp yet?”
“Why?” Though Lancelot’s first response was somewhat lukewarm, it only took a moment for him to snap fully out of his reverie and eye Tristan. “What are you thinking of?”
“I…” If Tristan could have thought of a better idea, he would have. But Arthur was rather good at picking holes in hare-brained theories, and anyway, Tristan had not yet managed to tell an outright lie to the other man. Whenever he tried, his mouth went dry and his tongue somehow slipped into other words. “Well, maybe I could tell him there’s some suspicious tracks here.”
A flash of hope briefly lit up Lancelot’s face. But then his sense asserted itself and he shook his head, splattering Tristan with spray from his hair. “No. That’ll make him even less likely to relax. And coming from you? He’d probably rouse the whole camp.”
“Damn.” Swearing was something Tristan rarely did because he had better ways of excising or quelling strong emotions, but at the moment, he could think of nothing else to say.
“Ah…he does smell. And Romans are insane about bathing,” Lancelot half-heartedly suggested. Then he rolled his eyes at himself. “No, that won’t work. After all, the true mark of a dedicated officer is how much of his so-called comfort he’s willing to sacrifice for duty’s sake. Sanctimonious prick.”
Tristan suddenly had an odd tingling sensation pass between his shoulderblades and down his back. In the tree, she fluttered and softly cooed. “Lancelot.”
The other man gave him a questioning look, which swiftly turned into dismay. Lancelot closed his eyes and flopped a hand over his face, which didn’t quite cover his irked expression. “Damn it, Arthur. Stop doing that.”
“And here I thought you were wishing for my company,” said the other man, quietly walking out of the forest. He was in an unusual state of undress, having stripped to trousers and a thin shirt, and he looked a little less tense than he had the last time Tristan had seen him, very early in the morning. “I also thought I’d taught you better than to speak ill of absent fellows.”
As he spoke, Arthur edged around the land-bound end of the log and knelt beside Lancelot. He idly began trailing fingers over Lancelot’s chest and ribs, drifting them in a decidedly ticklish manner.
“I’m merely speaking the truth, which according to you can be discussed any—” Growling, Lancelot weakly slapped at Arthur’s hand, then shoved at his shoulder. “Teasing bastard. You do smell. Worse than Bors after a weeklong drinking bout.”
“I remember there was a time when I had to practically tie you up in order to get you into the bathhouse,” Arthur returned, stepping up the movements of his fingers. Lancelot started to curl in on Arthur’s hand, shoulders shaking as he tried to suppress his laughter. “It seems the village needs a day to gather everyone, so I’ll see to that tomorrow. And then I thought I should check up on you two before I started on my paperwork.”
Tristan clawed his way higher on the trunk so that when he sat up, his and Arthur’s eyes were level. “Does the paperwork have to be done now?” he asked, careful to keep his tone neutrally curious.
Arthur went from playful to somber in the blink of an eye. He looked down, then back up to show an apology and a plea for understanding in his eyes. “It has to be done soon. And right now, I do have the time.”
Normally Tristan would have accepted that and dealt with Lancelot’s scorn, or Gawain’s concerned queries about his mood, but right now he was feeling a little reckless. Perhaps it was the sun and water, pure and comforting after weeks of stalking death and the dark, or perhaps it was the haggard gray undertone to Arthur’s tanned skin. Either way, he understood—but he didn’t want to allow.
After a moment, he nodded and leaned forward, as if he were asking for his usual kiss before Arthur left. In his peripheral vision, Lancelot was already beginning to scowl, but Tristan ignored that and enjoyed the warmth of Arthur’s tongue while he fisted his hands in Arthur’s shirt.
And then he pulled. Hard.
It wasn’t the best angle for it, but fortunately, Lancelot caught on quickly and joyously gave Arthur a shove from behind. It sent Tristan into the water as well, but that small inconvenience was tolerable.
Underwater it was cool and green and serene so that Tristan’s head cleared and he could see what he’d done so impulsively. Anxiety suddenly drenched him, making him dread the glimmering surface above for fear that he’d gone too far. After all, he’d always left this sort of thing to Lancelot, who had the better instinct for it.
But Tristan needed air. Though his gut wanted to keep sinking, he made his feet plant themselves on the ground and pushed up till he was in air.
It took a few moments to clear the water from his eyes, so by the time he could see again, Arthur had already righted himself. The other man had waded so the water was only waist-high, and he was regarding his thoroughly soaked clothing with an expression that was restraining some emotion—but whether it was a good or bad reaction, Tristan couldn’t tell.
The smirk slowly slipped off Lancelot’s face, and the other man started to crouch back on the log. When he ventured to speak, it was in an unusually small voice. “Arthur?”
“Mob rule,” Arthur muttered. “Majority vote.”
Lancelot glanced at Tristan, who shrugged because he had absolutely no idea what Arthur was talking about.
Very slowly, Arthur peeled his shirt off. Then he wadded it up in his hands, still with that peculiar stare…before tossing it onto the bank with Tristan’s and Lancelot’s gear. Shaking his head, he started to smile. “All right, all right. I’ll concede the point.”
“Good.” Confidence instantly restored, Lancelot sat up on the log and favored Arthur with mock-hauteur. “Only the dishonorable protest a clear superiority in skills.”
“Tristan, could you…” Arthur began, hunched over because he was trying to rid himself of his trousers.
Tristan could. And after Lancelot had stopped sputtering—which went on for much longer than strictly necessary—Arthur somehow backed them into a corner, thus reclaiming his stature as the best strategist. But then competition and tactics washed away with the current, and it was only them, cupping and curling and catching what happiness they could this day from the river of time.