Tangible Schizophrenia


Brotherhood XI: June

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot/Tristan.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Versions started with the movie, not me.
Notes: Pre-movie. Whole poem found here.
Summary: The choices men face, and the bonds between them.


“And still, between the shadow and the blinding flame
The brave despair of men flings onward, ever the same”
--“Picture-Show,” Siegfried Sassoon.

* * *

When Tristan walked in, Arthur had his hands splayed flat on the table and Gareth had his clenched against his thighs. The other junior officers were either pacing outside or standing well away from Arthur and Gareth, but they all had the same tensely blank expression.

Lancelot was slouched in one corner of the tent, seemingly the only relaxed one of the group, but the razor keenness of his gaze belied that pose. He had his eyes fixed on Gareth, and the loose folding of his arms behind his head put his hands conveniently near his swords. The moment he noticed Tristan, he nodded at Arthur.

As if a fine thread connected them, Arthur instantly raised his head and stared at Tristan. The man’s face was hollowed out with something fresher and more painful than the constant dull grind of war that ate away at all of them these days, and the way his clenched jaw dragged at his too-bright eyes spoke of some grim decision to be made, where neither choice was very favorable. Regrettably, those were too frequent in this season; Tristan hadn’t learned to read that expression of Arthur’s till after he’d finally been inducted into the campaigning of regular war.

“What news?” Arthur said, voice deliberately flat. Gareth, who had still been glaring at Arthur, started and twisted about to eye Tristan as if all his sword needed was a hint of an excuse.

Tristan looked back with as little expression as he could manage, then switched his gaze to Arthur. “They’ve brought up reinforcements to the west. In about two hours, they may have enough to completely surround us.”

“So we should move now,” Gareth snapped, pivoting to lean forward. He seemed dangerously close to leaping at Arthur’s throat like a mad dog.

“We are going to move. We’ll retreat to the hills and make camp there. Orders have already come down from the general.” The lack of inflection in Arthur’s voice became even more marked. With a visible effort, he pushed back from the table and softened his eyes, though his expression remained determined.

A snarl erupted from Gareth’s throat, and he started to step forward, but Bedivere snatched at his arm. While Gareth angrily shook it off, he did hold back. “Arthur. Those orders are to sacrifice knights for the sake of those fucking foot-sloggers. It’s only an hour till dusk, the ground’s bad, and there’s not enough room for maeuvering.”

“The point is not to make an offensive charge, Gareth. The point is to cover the retreat so the baggage train, on which we all depend, is safely brought away. And then to withdraw swiftly so as not to be cut off. Legionaries can’t move quickly enough for that.” Insults to the infantry were common enough, and Arthur usually tolerated them with good humor. So his pointed correction of Gareth made an uneasy ripple about the men crowded into the tent.

By now, Tristan had picked up enough clues to reconstruct the basis of the dispute: in the past few days, they’d been extraordinarily successful in their push into the hostile north. Arthur and the older infantry officers had had their misgivings about such good fortune, but the current army commander was young and eager for glory. He’d insisted on going farther without properly securing their return route, and now it looked as if the Woads were springing a trap. Early detection of Briton maneuvers to surround the camp had led to a decision to retreat to better ground, and as usual, the duty to guard the rear fell to the Sarmatian cavalry.

What Arthur said was true. What Gareth said was also true. To be honest, Tristan was suddenly glad that he didn’t rank high enough to have the weight of such decisions fall on him. But as he looked at Arthur and at the lines in the other man’s face, which were deepening by the moment, he was also desperately worried.

“So we get to die for them once again, do we?” Belligerent and patently showing his nerves, Gareth drew himself up and glowered about, apparently searching for support.

It was to all the rest’s credit that they avoided his gaze. But they didn’t glance at Arthur, either—except for Lancelot. And Lancelot was scrutinizing Arthur with an intensity that Tristan suspected was born out of some rapid calculations being made inside Lancelot’s head.

“I don’t send you out to die.” For the first time, some fire laced the iron in Arthur’s voice. “I send you out to do your duty. And in this case, it’s making sure the army—including the cavalry—makes an orderly, uninterrupted retreat. We’re too far from any garrison for any one group to survive on its own; all stand or all fall.”

“That’s a pretty saying,” Gareth muttered, dangerously close to crossing a line.

Arthur’s shoulders froze. His chin went up a fraction of a hair, and the opaqueness of his eyes briefly cleared to flash a quelling ferocity. Gareth twitched backward, then steadied.

When Arthur next spoke, however, his voice was quiet and unruffled by the silent challenge and back-down that had just taken place. “The general was kind enough to give me a free hand in arranging our deployment. The majority of us will be leaving with the baggage train, but I need two or three of you to keep your men back with me.”

At that, everyone jumped. With a sideways glare at Gareth, Bedivere voiced all their thoughts. “Arthur, you can’t be serious about staying. If you…then who’d lead?”

“I’m volunteering to stay back because I’m confident that all parts of this retreat will be successful.” The veil dropped down over Arthur’s eyes and he relaxed a minute amount, as he always did when the chop of the decision had come down. Understandably—the anticipation was the worst aspect.

But here, Tristan thought that was a little precipitate. That was clearly an unpopular choice, and for good reason. Due to recent casualties, Arthur was the only able and competent cavalry officer left.

“Gareth, you jackass,” muttered Pellinore, who was standing behind the man. Then he shouldered forward to stand before Arthur. “Well, me and mine have been missing out on the skirmishes lately—wouldn’t want to fall behind the rest of you.”

“Thank—” Arthur began, but he had to stop because Bercilak was also coming forward, and, a bit shame-faced, Gareth…who was only a beat before the remaining officers. “Knights. I only need three at most. Pellinore, Bercilak and Gareth, you’ve the freshest men and you were quickest, so—”

Bercilak, who was a laughing man of easy ways but of unbending will once he’d been roused, politely coughed. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but I think the reason we’re all coming forward is to say…well, either you go or we all stay. Me and Pellinore’ll have no trouble holding the damned Woads back ourselves—it’s nothing more than bluffing a boar, really.”

That silenced Arthur. With a look of disbelief, and then one of mixed dismay and pride, he gazed about the room. In the end, his eyes alighted on Gareth, who was the only one to not immediately look approving of Bercilak’s words.

Lancelot snorted and ambled up, ostensibly to come before the desk with the rest, but really to smoothly slide in beside Gareth and smile sharp as his blades at the other man. “Honestly, if you need that much reassurance, I’m sure Arthur wouldn’t mind lending me. Everyone knows I’m a better shot, anyway.”

His remark had several effects: Gareth flushed even redder and ducked his head, while the others released the built-up tension of the past few minutes in a rush of chuckles and approving looks. However, Tristan noted a few of the knights looking even more concerned; it was common knowledge that Lancelot was significant in some way to Arthur, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the more perceptive knights had picked up on the real reason why.

For a moment, a scream of protest peeked out of Arthur’s eyes. But then he smiled a little, like he was swallowing ashes and had to pretend to like it, and gave a slight nod. “Gareth? Any further objections?”

“No, sir. We could use him, sir, and thank you.” When Gareth finally looked up again, he seemed regretful of what he’d done, but resigned to it at the same time. After making such noise, he could hardly take it back without further damaging his pride and authority. And as an officer, he did need to retain those two qualities in order to command effectively and to be able to meet his colleagues on equal terms, since he wasn’t one that could accomplish that through only skill or force of personality.

Likewise, after upholding his point about carrying out one’s responsibilities to the greater cause, regardless of personal opinion, Arthur could hardly show favoritism. Lancelot’s interjection had been extremely well-timed—and interestingly effective in how it had lifted the overall morale of the tent.

“We’ll need a tracker too, if one can be spared,” Pellinore added. “It will be dark soon, and I, for one, don’t trust myself in this terrain at night.”

And in a single moment, Tristan knew that the other scouts were still out, ranging ahead to keep an eye on the escape route, and he knew that anyway, he was better than even the oldest one of them. He could feel the tiredness in his bones, the ever-present hum of fear suddenly twisting a little harder in his gut, and he could feel the bitter weight of duty tilting the world. It sloped downwards to the leadenness of Arthur’s anguished eyes.

“Then I suppose you’d better hold onto my horse’s tail,” Tristan said before the other man could speak. He watched Arthur glance down and clench his fists, then look up to give Tristan the same approving, self-hating, bleak smile he’d given Lancelot.

From then it was like any other meeting, which soon broke up to send all the knights on their various ways. Tristan made a quick stop to leave his hawk with Gawain, who was happy for the distraction—news traveled extremely fast in camp, and bad news almost faster than thought. While Gawain was going with the rest of the army, Galahad had recently been shifted to Pellinore’s command and would be staying.

But that was war, and Gawain and Tristan choked down on it and restrained themselves to hurried, censored farewells. Then Tristan was mounting up, and trotting away to meet Lancelot.

“Well, no one can say we aren’t motivated to get this done fast and right,” Lancelot muttered, fidgeting in the saddle. Up close, it was easy to see the nerves through the cracks in his composure.

“You didn’t need any prompting,” Tristan observed, letting a little of his lingering surprise into his voice.

The other man shrugged and directed them towards Pellinore, who was gathering his men. “I don’t question Arthur’s authority—only how he uses it. And this time he was right, and Gareth’s an idiot who’s been panicky ever since that arrow grazed the side of his head, two weeks back. But everyone was catching the same damn mood. So I did something about it.”

“You…don’t question it.” Tristan noted that even his attempt at a dry tone was becoming saturated with worry.

“No. It may not always seem like it, but he’s…” Lancelot sighed and laughed quietly at himself. “He’s who I follow,” he said simply.

And Tristan honestly couldn’t have said it better, so he said nothing at all.

The last thing they saw of the army was Arthur, sitting his horse and watching them for as long as he could. When he could wait no longer, he gave them a smart salute before turning to go. All the other knights immediately shifted their attention to the most likely approach of the Woads, but Tristan touched Lancelot on the elbow and looked for a moment longer.

Arthur paused, twisted half-round, and seemed to eat them with his eyes. Only then did he go.

* * *

Coming into a well-ordered, clean camp was like being pulled out of the water just after finally believing that drowning was inevitable. Even the slight lightening on the horizon made Tristan squint and reel as he dragged himself off his horse.

Gawain and Dagonet appeared from nowhere, taking charge of his, Galahad’s and Lancelot’s horses before Tristan could even blink. And Gawain tucked Galahad into his arm as well, ushering away the other man. Just as well—Galahad had been extremely quiet since Pellinore’s eye had been shot out in front of him. Pellinore would live. Probably.

Tristan and Lancelot staggered their way to their assigned place, where someone had thoughtfully seen to all their gear. Lancelot instantly collapsed onto the cot, then began clumsily dealing with his bloody armor; somehow, Tristan managed to stay standing long enough to pet his dozing hawk and get his armor off. Then he fell in next to the other man, deciding his wounds were minor enough to see to in the morning.

He didn’t know when he woke up again—not enough to see how much light was filtering in the tent flap, but enough to know someone was tending to his injuries. And to Lancelot’s, he supposed—the limp body beside him was murmuring and stirring. A warm mouth pressed against his forehead, his lips, his throat…a ragged breath passed over his face…and when he finally pried his eyes open, he saw Arthur’s back twisting out of the tent. The other man was heading in the direction of the surgeons’ tents, Tristan muzzily concluded.

“Good morning,” Lancelot belatedly groaned. Then he curled closer to Tristan and went back to sleep a bare heartbeat before Tristan did.


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