|Brotherhood IV: November
Author: Guede Mazaka
“In the great hour they stand,
* * *
Tristan generally took advantage of every chance he had to ride out beyond the garrison’s walls, but in this case, he would have been happier to stay behind. Or even to remain with the rest of the scouting party and practice the mind-numbingly boring task of sweeping woods that had already been had the Woads driven out of them. That was the price he paid for being so damned observant and skilled at picking out trails, he supposed. But did it have to be Lancelot?
“Great. You.” The voice came from a thick clump of bushes to Tristan’s left, and if he leaned a little, he could just glimpse a horse calmly nibbling at the foliage behind it.
“Arthur sent me. He wants to know why you shook off Alymere and went off on your own. And he…respectfully…orders your immediate return.” With an inward sigh, Tristan turned his horse off the trail and wove his way towards Lancelot.
The other man was sitting on a stump, one of his swords across his lap as if he’d been cleaning it. Random heaps of freshly-cut branches lay scattered about him; their ends were still dripping with unfrozen sap and the layer of frost on the ground hadn’t yet repaired the breaks in it from the impact of the branches. There were some sizable hacks in the trees around Lancelot as well. As for him, his cheeks were red with more than exertion, and the anger in his eyes went beyond Tristan.
“Did he.” Lancelot made no move to get up.
“Are you coming or not?” Today was gray and cold, and the drill was nothing that Tristan hadn’t already done a thousand times before. He had never pretended to have much patience—rather, he had a good sense of when to make his exit—and at the moment, he didn’t feel like wasting any of it on Lancelot.
Dark, sardonic eyes flicked up on him, just as Lancelot snapped his sword back into its sheath, so fast that the wind of its passing sheared Tristan’s cheek. “You want me to say no, don’t you. Then you can drag me back and look good.”
“If that mattered to me, you’d already be across my saddle. Arthur’s upset, and worried. Hopefully that means something to you.” It was a fortunate thing the hawk was still too untrained to bring out, Tristan thought. Otherwise the tension in the air would have long since driven her into hysterical agitation.
“Means something…” Now the aggravation was squarely directed at Tristan, but at least Lancelot was rising to his feet. “Aren’t you the loyal little saint, defending your fucking God.”
Tristan started drumming his fingers on the saddle, then caught himself, surprised at his uncharacteristic fidgeting. He turned his charger towards the trail and tried to calm down by staring at the shifting rhythm of the rattling branches. The wind was snarling, and clawed its way through his many layers of clothing in such a way so that he shouldn’t have been able to feel any heat rising. Nevertheless, it was. “I am not a saint, Lancelot. Nor am I a spendthrift. This land eats wasted things, so I keep what little I have close.”
“And I’m not the one you should be preaching at,” the other man furiously returned, mounting up. “Go tell that to Arthur, the next time he decides that it hurts me less if he stays away than if he—what do you know, anyway? You watch and watch, but you don’t hear or see, you aren’t there when he’s throwing up some invisible, absent God and fucking Rome around himself—”
“No, I’m not there. I’ll never be there. You will.” The words seemed to rip themselves from Tristan’s tongue, leaving raw painful tracks in their wake, and beneath him, his horse shivered and made as if to jump forward because he was holding the reins so tightly. “You know, it’s like wandering in the snow and only being able to see the fire.”
Lancelot opened his mouth, but then a strange expression, something like twisted pity, passed over his face and he was silent. Whatever he was thinking, it wasn’t something Tristan wished to consider. Therefore Tristan faced the trail.
He was just touching his heels to his mount’s sides when the timbre of the trees’ trembling suddenly altered. Tristan wrenched at the reins, sending his horse cannonading broadside into Lancelot’s, barely in time for the arrows to miss them. Then his hand was stinging from slapping at the rump of Lancelot’s stallion, and he was bent low over the saddle, urging his horse onwards.
“Fuck—” They were going so fast that Lancelot’s cursing seemed to sing past Tristan’s shoulder like an arrow. And then something dark blurred, whooshing by to end in a gasp somewhere behind them, and Lancelot rebalanced himself for another shot.
“Damn it, Lancelot--watch where you’re going!” The idiot. That worked fine when they were in the fields, or even in the fringes of the forest, but here the trees were too close together and the ground too littered with holes and fallen bits of wood and stones to take such risks. They needed to find somewhere they could stand their ground first, and then fight. And if Lancelot didn’t want to break his horse’s leg, he’d turn around.
Tristan was scouring his mind for likely places of which he knew, calculating how far the other knights might now be, riding pell-mell at chest-high tangles of brush over half-frozen, slippery ground…he saw the wrongness of the angle a moment before he felt his horse gather itself for the leap, but there was no time. Blood scored over his tongue—he’d absently bit into his lip—as he kicked his feet out of the stirrups and, silently apologizing to the stallion, leaped free.
It was a terrible thing to hear a horse screaming. The beast’s right foreleg snapped under it on landing, and it went over onto its back, thrashing and shrieking so much that Tristan almost didn’t notice his right leg was doing the same. Slippery…he’d come down with one foot on a thick patch of ice, and everything had gone sideways. Air was coming into his lungs, wheezing through his nose, but he didn’t feel the clearing of mind that should have come with each breath. Black spots were dancing like drunks in his vision, nearly blotting out the flashes of blue whipping through the trees towards him.
A dagger found its way into his hand, and then into someone’s throat. Tristan crawled for his horse, using its wild kicking as a guard against his one side. But then an arrow put the poor thing out of its misery; he could get to his bow and quiver now, which were miraculously still intact enough to drop two more before the black dots grew too large and merged together to blank out everything.
* * *
“Damn it, wake up. Tristan, you stupid piece of…oh, fuck, this is…” The voice was hurt, or pleading, or angry. It was difficult to tell because it wouldn’t hold still, but instead wavered in and out. “I’m sorry about this. You’ll laugh—you’re supposed to laugh, you…wake up. It’s my fault, and I’m apologizing, and you’re supposed to be awake, damn you.”
“I am awake,” Tristan muttered, swallowing till his voice didn’t feel so fuzzy. “I wouldn’t sleep through that.”
Beat of silence. Then there was a hand squeezing his shoulder, shaking him just enough to prove that his leg was still injured, and Lancelot grinning a relief that was shading towards hysteria. “Good.”
After a moment, Tristan pushed himself up on his elbows and peered around so his vision would sharpen faster. A respectable number of bodies surrounded them, dangling from trees or flopped out on the ground, and Lancelot was thickly coated with blood. Tristan’s horse was dead. His leg appeared to have been roughly splinted. His head still hurt.
“I think you broke it,” Lancelot said, face going sober. He also stared about, looking as if he was only now noticing what havoc he’d wrecked. “Shit. This is not going to help my side of the argument.”
“Somehow I don’t think Arthur is going to care much about your stupid argument.” When Tristan tried to move any more, his head spun and he had to collapse against Lancelot. That wasn’t something his pride liked very much, but he was in pain and Lancelot could help. Had helped, in fact. “Thank you.”
“For what…oh. Well…thank you, too. Since you were the one that noticed them first, and made us go.” Lancelot didn’t seem any more comfortable; his shoulders shifted and his hands didn’t know whether to support Tristan by the arms or the waist. Eventually, he set his jaw and looked down at Tristan. “So where the fuck are we?”
Tristan stared. Then he shoved his face in Lancelot’s shoulder and laughed, even though that started agonizing streaks of fire up and down his leg.
“Yes, very funny,” Lancelot grumbled. “We can’t all be sages of the woods like you. Stop that so I can get you on my horse. And tell me you know where we are.”
Getting on a horse with a broken leg hurt enough to make Tristan pass out again. When he woke up this time, the first thing he saw was Lancelot studying him with a curious expression. The same one the man used when he was assessing newly-met knights or Roman officers, if Tristan remembered right.
Once Lancelot noticed Tristan was conscious, the other man took the horse by the reins and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
“Forward and left,” Tristan muttered, bracing himself against the jolting of the stallion.
They had gone about halfway when Lancelot interrupted the waves of pain that were sluicing through Tristan. “Arthur was telling me about his mother, and how she was nearly destroyed when his father was killed. As if I don’t know I might lose him every time he goes out the gates.”
“It works the other way around as well.” With every step the horse took, Tristan could feel the broken ends of his bone grind together. And the throb in his temple was slowly encroaching on the rest of his mind, threatening to lull him into blackness.
“I know that. But what can we do? Nothing about that. We’re knights. We go out and we fight and we die. And it’s not any better alone.” The bitterness in Lancelot’s tone briefly gave way to a rare moment of self-deprecation. “I think I just proved that today.”
Something was very puzzling about this conversation, and Tristan could almost figure out what it was. But the words slipped away from him as soon as they were spoken, and other noises rushed in to fill the void: rustling as loud as a rockfall, thumping like thunder. After a moment, he figured out that the second one was his heartbeat.
“It’s not as if he doesn’t want me. I can see—I can see—sometimes looking at him feels like being devoured. And whatever it looks like—whatever he says—I have no intention of leaving him alone. I make him happy. So I can’t understand why he keeps trying to avoid that.” Lancelot was speaking very quietly, talking more to the dirt than to Tristan, but his words pounded their way into Tristan’s skull.
“Are you asking me for advice?” Tristan mumbled, shifting so he could lay along the horse’s neck without having the saddle-horn jab him in the stomach. That move nearly blinded him with the fresh cresting of pain it inspired.
The other man started and glanced at him, oddly wary. “Why haven’t you done anything? As far as Arthur knows, you feel about him the same way you feel about Gawain.”
“What am I supposed to do? He’s already set for you, no matter what he thinks. That’s what I see. So what would be the point? Him unhappy does little to help me.” Tristan had the vague idea that he was smiling, raw and open like he usually tried to suppress. “I’m not your enemy. Believe me or don’t, but that is the truth.”
“No, I actually do believe…Tristan?”
Fingers brushed over his forehead, then lifted his chin so the world whirled around him. It must have been later than he thought, because the sky was already so dark.
“Tristan! Don’t—not again. Don’t you dare close your eyes. Tristan!”
Arthur, Tristan dimly recognized. He momentarily found the energy to pull back a little light, so approaching horsemen swam into view. But his grip was slipping even as it closed around consciousness, and it was hard to make out details.
“God in heaven, what happened? Lancelot—did you and Tristan—”
“What? No! What do I look like, a murderer—we ran into Woads. His leg’s broken, and I think he concussed himself too. His horse took a jump that was too high.”
More hands raising and cradling Tristan’s head. They were larger than Lancelot’s, warm and strong and smelling of ink and leather.
“Why would you think it was me?”
“I wasn’t trying to accuse—I’m sorry, Lancelot. That was unfair of me. But lately you and Tristan seem to be always at odds. And sometimes when he’s looking at me…I should have been watching more closely, I think. Then I would have noticed sooner.”
“Ride for the garrison and alert the surgeon,” Arthur called, voice louder and terser as if he was talking to a knight besides Lancelot. Then he lowered his tone. “We’ll talk about it later. But…damn it, Lancelot. I don’t even want to think about how close you were to being…don’t leave like that.”
“Don’t make me leave,” Lancelot answered, fervent and trembling. His words echoed through Tristan as sleep finally became too much to resist.