|Brotherhood V: December
Author: Guede Mazaka
“I am banished from the patient men who fight
* * *
The soft voice shoved Tristan out of his thoughts and nearly sent him startling off the cot. As it was, he was lucky Gawain was good at catching clumsy men. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” the other man sighed, setting him securely on the bed and dusting him off. Then Gawain twisted around to check on Tristan’s leg, which recalled the reason why Tristan hadn’t been paying attention.
Perhaps it was winter out, snow knee-high and wind a wail with teeth of ice, but outside was not stuffy and dark and…closed-in. Patrols still went out to keep the roads between garrisons passable and secure, but otherwise the fighting season had ended for the year; soldiers suddenly had free time on their hands, and a relatively safe land in which to waste that.
“You’re as bad as Arthur.” Again, Gawain brought Tristan back to himself. “Having a broken leg can’t be much fun, but honestly, it’s not as if you’re chained down.”
“Almost as bad.” Tristan rolled onto his side and glumly stared at the small window in the wall. His hawk was perched on the sill and preening herself in the weak sunlight, apparently content, but every so often, she would pause and stare outside. Her wings would lift a little from her back, then snap close to her. “Gawain, can you open the window?”
That request garnered him an odder look than he’d expected—or maybe Gawain had already been watching him like he was a loaded catapult straining to let its missile fly. Of late, Tristan found that it was harder and harder to pay attention to things inside when beyond the walls were trees and shy deer and black earth and freshness. He’d most likely been raising Gawain’s hackles, but the other man would be too polite to say so.
As Gawain pushed them open, the shutters creaked and whined just as badly as the tone inside Tristan’s head. Irritated with himself, and knowing exactly why, Tristan levered himself into a sitting position. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” The moment the window was open, the hawk blurred into a soft flutter and narrowed into a tiny speck whirling in the sky. A wondering, strangely vulnerable look on his face, Gawain leaned out and stared after it. “Well…it could be worse. Lancelot still has mucking duty as punishment. And he was just allowed free rein of the garrison again last week. As soon as Dagonet finishes mending your crutches, you can go out and do what you want.”
“True enough.” Tristan grinned, somewhat cheered by the reminder. He was pleased mostly because Arthur hadn’t let himself be subverted when it came to discipline—and also a little because Lancelot was so damned vain. Horses shat as a matter of nature, and a Sarmatian shouldn’t be disgusted about it. “How’s Percival?”
Rolling his eyes, Gawain pushed off the sill and came back to the bed. When he sat down, he forgot his usual exaggerated care around Tristan and plunked himself down in an uncharacteristically ill-tempered mood.
Crutches. With them, Tristan could hobble around and curse at how limited his movements now were, and completely miss entire chunks of garrison life. It wasn’t that he had an appetite for gossip, but that he liked knowing what was going on. That way, he knew
where to step and where not to. “Elaine?” he ventured, racking his brains for the last few he’d seen Gawain partnering.
“Now I’m wishing you would heal faster. Something odd is going on…” Gawain shook his head, but whatever thought that was making his expression incredulous didn’t disappear. “I think Galahad is…courting me. Of course, his idea of that is to scare off everyone else and scowl at me over his ale.”
Tristan made a note to pay more attention to Galahad, as clearly the brat was finally growing some eyes. And perhaps some brains, if he was clever enough to discourage Percival without ending up in the infirmary. “The next time—”
Someone knocked at the door. A moment later, Arthur and a pair of crutches poked inside. “Am I interrupting?”
The most irksome part of the whole business, Tristan had decided a couple weeks back, was that he couldn’t keep up with Arthur long enough to corner the man and figure out whether certain overheard statements had been the product of shock, or of truth. And Lancelot refused up front to discuss anything, although he was markedly less hostile to Tristan now. He wouldn’t explain that, either.
Arthur was looking right at Tristan, and it was suddenly hard to remember what, precisely, needed explaining.
“Ah…nothing important,” Gawain hesitantly said, glancing at Tristan. When he didn’t receive any sign to the contrary, he hastily made his excuses and sidled out the door.
As Gawain passed him, Arthur turned to watch. Then he closed the door behind the other man but didn’t lock it, and crossed the room to take a seat by the cot. The crutches slanted themselves towards Tristan, who belatedly realized Arthur was trying to hand them to him. Since it looked as if Arthur wanted an interview, Tristan leaned the crutches against the side of the bed and sat back.
“The surgeon says you’re healing well. Another two weeks and the bandages come off.” While Arthur’s gaze was direct and steady, his fingers twined and untwined themselves in his lap. He was wearing armor and heavy clothing, so Tristan assumed he was about to take another patrol out.
“Not too soon.” The room was rapidly chilling because Gawain had forgotten to close the shutters, so Tristan plucked up the blankets over his knees. He waited for Arthur to say something else, but the other man only watched him. When Arthur felt strongly about something, the color of his eyes intensified into an almost palpable sensation; Tristan had noticed the detail long ago, but had never been on the receiving end of it. “Arthur.”
The other man blinked and his eyes flickered back to their normal pale hue.
“When did you know that I…” Tristan had to look down and fix his eyes on his hands, which were clenched in the furs. “I thought I’d kept it out of sight.”
“You did,” Arthur answered, not needing any explanation of what they were speaking. Leather and metal scraped each other as he shifted his weight. “I didn’t suspect till I heard you scolding Lancelot outside the chapel, the night Cai was killed.”
For a moment, Tristan was torn between laughing and wincing. Lancelot had such a talent for bringing out the sharp, unthinking side of Tristan’s tongue, and of course it would be when Arthur could hear. It was entirely too predictable.
“You’re only sixteen, and…”
A dark thing flowed over Tristan’s hands. When he glanced up from Arthur’s shadow, the other man was leaning forward, a touch of knowing irony on the bend of his lips. “This isn’t going to go any better than when I tried to warn Lancelot, is it? You two couldn’t be more different, but inside I think you’re made of much the same stuff.”
“Losing people isn’t anything new. We all lost our families and our land,” Tristan replied, so quiet he could barely hear himself. It hurt to see the guilt rising in Arthur’s eyes, but it had to be said. “And I know not to expect anything.”
“Why me?” The abrupt heat, raw and twisting, in Arthur’s voice surprised Tristan. Apparently it surprised Arthur as well, because he flung himself back in the chair and slumped over to cradle all the conflicts in his face with his hands. “Why would either of you risk so much?”
Tristan shrugged, then remembered Arthur couldn’t see that. So he swallowed the ashy laugh that had been gathering on the tip of his tongue and shuffled forward till he could graze his fingers over Arthur’s hair. “You might as well ask me why I breathe.”
Some noise that bore only a passing resemblance to humor strangled itself out of Arthur’s throat. He slowly raised his head so Tristan’s hands fell away from it. “Lancelot said much the same thing,” he remarked, gaze turned inward. It didn’t look as if he enjoyed seeing whatever was there.
And although Tristan had told himself many times over that he knew better, that it was better to have no taste and an undefined sense of longing than to have a stolen little and know exactly what was lacking, he couldn’t not. Arthur was there.
Because of the mismatch between the level of the bed and the chair, Tristan had to crane his head, and even then his mouth pressed more on cheek than lips. The former was rough with stubble, faintly coppery from a cut Arthur had given himself while shaving, and the latter was chapped from the harsh winter air, but it was still the sweetest thing Tristan had ever had.
He was only planning to dart in and back, but as he was pulling away, fingers dug into his hair and kept him still. And then Arthur turned his head so their lips met squarely, and Tristan knew nothing but singing.
The next moment, Arthur was stumbling out of the chair, raking a hand through his hair. “I’m—I—apologize, but…I promised Lancelot I’d see him before I go, and…oh, God.”
Tristan couldn’t blink as he looked at the other man. He could, however, take a breath, and shockingly enough, it did him more good than harm. His mind cleared, at any rate. “You can tell him I started it. That’s the truth.”
Instead of relieving Arthur, that only seemed to agitate the other man even more. But then he grew very still, eyes glowing like foxfire. “Tristan. I’ll be gone for the next month; there’s business in the other garrisons that I have to deal with. When I come back—we’ll deal with this. You’re going to talk, and not back away when it becomes uncomfortable.”
By the time Tristan had realized the full import of what Arthur had said, the other man had already left. Shivering, Tristan wrapped a blanket around himself and reached for the crutches.
“Arthur left in a hurry—no, wait. I’ll get the window; I was stupid enough to leave it open in the first place. Freezing in here.” With that, Gawain went over and started pulling the shutters shut.
At the last possible moment, a brown streak shot through; she landed on the bed and flipped her tail at a bemused Gawain, then smoothed her feathers. Two dainty steps brought her to Tristan, who patted his hawk with the feeling that he was actually touching a ghost. Things didn’t yet seem real.
Back away from discomfort? That was the practical thing, wasn’t it?
But practical had little to do with the lingering traces on his tongue. He rolled them about his mouth, savoring them till they melted inexorably away. And now he was hungry.
“Tristan…” Gawain eyed him, then flicked a look at the door. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No.” The room was warming up again, due to a brazier of hot coals in the corner, but that wasn’t what made Tristan cold now.
Sighing, Gawain sat down on the bed next to him. “Well, that’s two of us. At least the company’s good?”
Tristan leaned his head against the wall, thinking. He eventually decided in favor of smiling, because what else could he do till Arthur came back? “Yes, it is.”