|Brotherhood II: September
Author: Guede Mazaka
“You understand my thoughts; though, when you think,
* * *
It was a fortunate thing that Tristan had been crouched low to the floor to begin with, else he probably would’ve overbalanced in his surprise and slipped off the edge of the loft. As it was, his ankle wrenched a little as he turned around to see whomever was tracking him, and his hands inadvertently tightened. Pain, accompanied with a sharp whistling cry, suddenly blossomed in his thumb. “Shit.”
“Tristan?” The shadow stooped under the rafters and straightened into a quizzical-looking Arthur. When the other man’s gaze finally alighted on Tristan, he instantly became concerned. “Are you all right? Sick?”
Given that Tristan was doubled over in an odd position, that was a fair guess, though a wrong one. For a moment, he was tempted to dissemble, but soon dismissed that idea. One, he couldn’t think of a good excuse, and two, it wasn’t likely that Arthur would believe him anyway. “No, I’m fine. I’m…feeding my hawk.”
And with that, he resignedly leaned back to reveal the secret that had eaten what free time he’d had during the past three months. She blinked unimpressed eyes at Arthur before nestling in his hands, beak still red and wet. Tristan’s cheeks felt rather warm as he transferred her to the straw and wiped off his bleeding thumb.
“It appears to be eating you,” Arthur observed, apparently amused. One eye on the hawk, he came around to Tristan’s side and passed over a clean rag without making a single quick movement.
Well, if the bird wasn’t impressed, Tristan was; as a rule, soldiers only were cautious when fear of death made them so. Otherwise they were roaring and rambunctious and uncaring of where their feet and fists landed, so long as they had food, drink and a bed at the end of the night. They could be entertaining, enjoyable company, but not when Tristan was trying to court a high-strung, proud ball of half-fledged feathers. “Thank you. And it’s a she,” he replied, using the bit of cloth to staunch the blood.
Arthur grinned at him, then gingerly reached out a finger to stroke lightly along the top of her head. She ruffled up and glowered, making him retreat. A little taken aback, he shrugged and folded his hands well away from the hawk. “My apologies, lady.”
“You don’t mind?” After he’d tied up his thumb, Tristan gathered the few remaining scraps of meat and bound them in their carry-cloth. His fingers slipped once or twice on the simple knot because he was trying to gauge Arthur’s mood, which was curiously lighthearted. While the other man wasn’t the depressingly miserable preacher camp gossip made him out to be, neither was he usually without the shadow of some thought in the backs of his eyes.
“Mind? Of course not, as long as you can see to it without neglecting your duties. And since it took me two months to notice, I don’t believe that’ll be a problem.” Another smile, this time with a generous flash of white, found its way onto Arthur’s face. He stood up, but waited for Tristan to settle the hawk before he moved towards the ladder. “Some of the other knights keep dogs, you know.”
Mostly because they wanted something to retrieve shot-down birds so as to not have to chance the forest themselves, Tristan silently added. It was more of a working arrangement than anything, and it provided the officers’ mess with meat, so everyone turned a blind eye. “A hawk’s more useful and takes up less space.”
“True.” Encumbered as he was by his officer’s cape, Arthur gracefully made his way down the rungs and petted his horse, which was stabled near, while Tristan came after. He gave the loft a considering glance, then transferred it to Tristan. “So that’s what you’ve been up to. Gawain kept telling me that you were climbing trees around the garrison, practicing your scouting skills.”
“I do that, too.” So Arthur had been keeping tabs on him. Not that Tristan had expected much less; in the closeness of the garrison, any odd behavior was soon remarked upon and wondered at. Some of the other knights had tried to trail Tristan before, which had been why he’d gotten Gawain to give out a standard excuse for him.
Speaking of which, it was curious that Gawain hadn’t seemed to have done that this time. Though his hands were increasingly full with Galahad, who was still in grips of a frenzied discovery of women, and who had a tendency to snap back at the older knights’ amused comments. Lancelot did that as well, but Lancelot now actually had the height and coordination to back up his claims. Galahad was a little weedy yet.
“Don’t blame Gawain. After a few weeks of hearing the same thing, I’d started to think there couldn’t possibly be any more you could teach yourself behind the Wall,” Arthur said in a light tone, though his eyes had taken on a familiar serious cast.
As always when the other man looked earnest, Tristan felt discomfort rub up against his ankles. He didn’t quite understand why Arthur would need to beseech anything from him, and it was odd to see the man he followed almost try to reverse roles. “I wasn’t planning to.”
“Good…God in Heaven. Is there an animal you can’t charm?” Laughing again, Arthur looked down at Tristan’s hands, which had quietly sneaked out to be nuzzled by Arthur’s horse. The other man petted the stallion’s nose, teasing it about its fickleness. To which the beast replied with a snort, a last snuffle of Tristan’s fingers, and a sulky withdrawal.
For a long moment, Arthur simply watched his horse plunge its head into its manger, gaze on some distant musing while the smile gradually faded from his face, flattening his lips from the center outwards. Then he looked down and up, eyes finally fixing themselves on Tristan’s face.
Tristan reminded himself not to hold the railing too tightly and merely stared back, not really knowing what Arthur wanted.
“I thought you might have been slipping out the gates without any partners to see to your back. The others say they can’t even keep pace with you anymore.” Half of Arthur’s mouth twitched into a deprecating curve. “I have to confess, I’m relieved that it’s a hawk and not the Woads that is occupying your time.”
“I would do better without a partner,” Tristan replied. He wasn’t proud because that was just how it was—in fact, it could be a little irritating at times—and he didn’t see the point in false humility. If one was to make a decision, then better to do it on truthful observations than lies.
Arthur nodded, his expression oddly ambivalent. “Seventeen’s when you’re all full knights, and then you can go alone if you wish. And I doubt that even now, I couldn’t stop you if you wanted to do that. But I’d appreciate it if you waited.”
“And pretend I’m still a boy? I already have deaths on my hands. What else is there to being a man?” The words came out sharper than Tristan had planned, but he didn’t make an attempt to take them back.
And then Arthur did that curious thing where he took words and made them into bruises in his eyes. “I know. I respect that—and I can’t help but regret it, though there’s nothing to be done now. But I want to be at least nearby when you’re out, and that won’t happen till a year from now, when you join the rest of the cavalry wing on full duty. My time’s divided between the older troops and yours, and when they’re in the field I can’t leave them to be with yours.”
Tristan blinked and tasted wet salt washing over his tongue, but before he could give voice to his sudden understanding and regret, footsteps rattled outside. Barely a heartbeat’s length of time passed before Lancelot was swinging into the stables, fresh scrapes and cuts from arms practice all over him. He took in the situation with an eye-flick and went straight for Arthur, pulling up just before he would’ve knocked over the other man. Certainly too close for propriety; Tristan checked for any nearby legionaries, all the while silently cursing Lancelot’s impetuousness.
“Figures. I leave for two hours and you’ve already gotten yourself dragged back into a mood,” Lancelot snorted, throwing an insinuating glance Tristan’s way. But then he was grinning wide and white as the moon’s crescent turned on its side, nearly bouncing on his feet as he turned towards Arthur. “Prick. I beat every single one of those creaking old bastards we’ve got for drill instructors, using both swords, and you weren’t even there.”
“I think I’ll believe you.” There was a teasing, affectionate note in Arthur’s voice that had been missing before, and his eyes were bright again as he looked at Lancelot. Clearly, Tristan would do well to ease out before being forgotten grated too much.
Lancelot play-smacked Arthur on the arm, then leaned up, shoulders arching like a preening bird. His voice swooped low and rich. “So now will you stop thinking you’ll hurt me and actually spar with me?”
“You think you can beat me.” Arthur was amused—naturally, since he was counted the best swordsman in the garrison, and one of the best in Britain—but regarding at the same time.
Tristan made a note to shift his hawk the next time he came by; she was old enough to slip into the barracks, and Gawain shouldn’t mind too much. The man could put up with Galahad’s excruciating snoring, after all. And if Tristan offered to help Gawain on the next storeroom raid…calculating just how much he’d have to offer in order to persuade the other man, Tristan turned around and made to leave.
Arthur had one hand on Lancelot’s shoulder, but was actually holding the other man aside so he could have a clear view of Tristan. Lancelot saw that perfectly well, and resembled an angry squirrel, only without the vitriolic chittering.
It wasn’t exactly conducive to the situation, or to keeping the other man from seeing more, but Tristan couldn’t help himself. He smiled at Arthur and said, “I’ve been too busy to have been everywhere within the Wall yet.”
Then he pivoted on his heel and left, letting Lancelot mull over the meaning of that.