|Brotherhood VIII: March
Author: Guede Mazaka
“The window stands wide-open, as it stood
* * *
Serene and self-possessed, she perched on the sill and imperiously swept her gaze over the landscape outside. The world was newly-emerged from the long winter, with bits of green glinting here and there through the black-brown withered snarls, and the wind was temporarily fresh. Tristan also stared out the window, trying to fix the images and sensations in his mind before they became overwritten with the exigencies of war.
“Are you—” Arthur stopped in the doorway and slowly took in everything. It had been a while since Tristan—or Lancelot, to judge by that one’s surly mood—had been able to catch Arthur for any length of time. The reason for Arthur’s long midwinter trip had indeed been to plan a major spring offensive, and that reason had continued to eat up every waking moment Arthur could manage to give it. “You’re already packed.”
“I was going to request early leave with the rest of the scouts,” Tristan admitted, turning. His one hand brushed over his hawk’s back, letting the soft-stiff feathers run through his fingers before he gave her a slight nudge. She ruffled up, but silently acquiesced and dropped from the window into a perfect upswoop.
The other man had lost his characteristic air of sturdiness in favor of a strange tension, which made him almost vibrate before Tristan’s eyes. While Arthur normally didn’t fidget at all, here were his fingers tapping on the doorframe, his gaze flicking restlessly over the room before coming back to Tristan, where it flinched. Then he ducked all the way inside, closed the door, and came up to the window to pensively look outside.
“You’re so eager to go?” Each word seemed to snap from Arthur’s lips, like the last brittle icicles falling before they’d fully melted to crash into droplets of water on the ground. He kept his face forward, but his body was slightly turned to cover Tristan’s, and he leaned so his breath stirred the strands of hair hanging over Tristan’s ear.
In a few days, they would be going to battle, and that most likely explained Arthur’s mood. To be honest, Tristan wasn’t feeling quite himself, either: he’d killed before, and seen nothing wrong in it, but this was somehow different. It wasn’t in self-protection, or in defense—what was to come was a long, thorough sweep in an attempt to reclaim territory from the Woads, wherein the Roman talent for orderly destruction was to come into play. The woods would burn and scream.
“Back in Sarmatia,” Tristan said, and then he stopped, surprised at himself. He never mentioned his birth country, because in all truth, he had little occasion to think about it. That land seemed a fragment of dream now, compared with the presence of the black earth and sky-touching forests here.
A hand came to rest on the small of his back, soaking warmth through the thin cloth of his shirt. It was an unseasonably temperate day and packing was a sweat-inducing business, so Tristan had earlier stripped down to the bare minimum. Or so he’d thought—four long fingers and a slightly crooked thumb—Tristan had a vague recollection of hearing about a younger Arthur and a recalcitrant Bedivere—were moving in slow circles, rubbing off layers he hadn’t thought he’d had.
“In Sarmatia, there were places where you could still see how the Romans had scorched the earth dead.” When moist air turned to moist lips, grazing down the side of Tristan’s neck, he seemed to float high above himself to see it all. His head bending back, Arthur’s other hand splayed across his belly, and his fingers white-knuckled in their grip on the sill. “I never liked those places. It was hard enough to find life in the land—it’s a harsh country, and does not give up its beauty easily.”
“I’ve never been there,” Arthur murmured into the curve where Tristan’s neck and shoulder joined. Very slowly, while his hands leisurely drifted downwards and stripped Tristan’s lower half, he edged around so his mouth pressed insistently at the base of Tristan’s neck, urging Tristan to let his head droop forward.
So Tristan did. It was hard to tell whether he was sleepy or lightheaded, but either way, he wasn’t capable of resisting. But he did pull one of the shutters shut, even though people rarely came this way. He was in the middle of tugging the other one closed when Arthur’s palms stroked over his hips, up brief as sunlight beneath his shirt, and then angled down to wrap around his rising prick. It was a loose grip, only teasing now, but it was enough to engender a spasm that rocked Tristan’s fingers from their grip, making him slump sideways behind the closed shutter.
Arthur caught him, though Arthur’s mouth did slip down to drop spots of fire all over Tristan’s back and shoulders. Tristan opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t remember what he was to do with his tongue. And one hand was sliding further between his legs, brushing sometimes light and sometimes hard, and though he’d tried a few things and observed a few more, he’d never guessed that so little could shake so much.
“Four years ago, you were all only parentless boys, and now you’re grown men, going to war. And I’m supposed to lead you into it.” Rasping, rough as tree bark, Arthur’s tongue licked his words into the hollow beneath Tristan’s jaw, the cords of Tristan’s neck and the curve of Tristan’s collarbone. His voice was so ragged that he almost sounded as if he were weeping.
“Please…” And Tristan would have liked to add something about not fearing for them, about not scarring in remembrance, about his hawk who could vanish over the horizon any day but who kept returning, but he was shivering too much. He scrabbled at the sill, trying to stay on his feet if not upright, but his knees kept falling farther and farther apart and that imbalanced him.
Arthur wrapped an arm around him, temporarily leaving Tristan to survive only on the press of the other man against his back in lieu of hands stroking his prick and his thighs, but his mouth didn’t disappear. On the contrary, it grew hungrier and hungrier, roaming over Tristan’s throat and once in a while scraping across his cheek to seize his lips.
Skin instead of clothes suddenly pressed against the backs of his legs, and then—that hurt. He winced and bit down on only half his cry, and only by will did he keep his legs apart.
“First one. I have to put in more if you want to…” Arthur was muttering, taking long soothing swipes at Tristan’s nape while his oiled finger gradually eased further in.
Tristan breathed. Concentrated on that. Relaxed a little, let his jaw drop around his soundless gasp, and allowed in another. “Please.”
“God…” Then Arthur buried his face in Tristan’s hair, and did not lift his head till it was his cock that was stretching Tristan beyond all the limits Tristan had previously thought marked the ends of the world.
It still hurt, jagged bits of pain slipping in between him and Arthur, but there was pleasure wrapping him round as well. Fingers feathering down to hold his prick from the hard edge of the sill, and then to work up the incipient delirium that was pushing Tristan wholly into Arthur’s grip. He remembered light, and mountaintops lifting brave venturers of their slopes to the clouds, and at the side, verdant leaves flashing in the sun. At one point, he thought he threw up his neck, pulling all the muscles there to breaking, while liquid Briton intermingled with throat-rattling Sarmatian in the same universal curses.
When Tristan could see again, he was looking through the open side of the window at the distant forests, just starting to refresh their crests of green. “I want to be in the woods again, before either side presses their claim. I want to see them whole one last time.”
Arthur kissed the point of Tristan’s shoulder, like a sad benediction. “Your heart is there, isn’t it?”
“It’s odd. And sometimes I wonder if it’s a betrayal. But I think I love this land in a way that I never did Sarmatia, though that is my country and this one never will be.” Tristan twisted around to scent the sweat and leather at the hollow of Arthur’s throat. “But I give you more than I give anyone or anything else.”
The other man closed his eyes and pressed his lips together till the skin around them went white. Then he drew away, with only his hands staying to help Tristan clean and put things back in order. “You’ve my permission to go on ahead,” Arthur murmured, just before stepping into the hallway.
Tristan stayed behind to await the return of his hawk, hoping the confusion in his gut would soon settle into clear happiness or melancholia. But he knew better. In the end, all that was certain was the welcome nature of the aches inside, and with that he had to be contented.
Later, with hawk on arm and saddlebags slung over his shoulder, Tristan found himself standing outside the stables in an odd kind of guard. Inside were muffled moans, Arthur pinning Lancelot to a beam while Lancelot clutched and twined himself around the other man as if to make them into one. And then Lancelot whipped up his head, expression agonized with ecstasy, before slowly coming down into a desperately close slump against Arthur.
“What am I doing?” Arthur asked, self-cutting and furious and despairing, less the young commander than the still-uncertain twenty-year-old. “What am I doing? How am I supposed to do this, watch this?”
“What you have to. And as for the rest—we’re there and we’re with you because we believe in you. So let me do this for you--you need this, damn it—I can see that.” Lancelot laced his fingers into Arthur’s hair and yanked him down into a fierce kiss, as if he could transfer some of his fire that way. “We have to fight anyway, and it’s better if you’re leading. Arthur—you’ve trained other knights and led them into battle before.”
The other man sighed and pulled Lancelot impossibly closer. “But it’s harder this time.”
“Because it’s me? And—and—listen, you can’t shelter us. We won’t be sheltered. Do you know what it’s like, watching you go off to fight and having to wait back here?” The fingers digging into Arthur’s back clenched once more before Lancelot squirmed himself free. But he kept one hand on Arthur’s arm, holding the man to him. “Would you just trust me—us?”
“Us?” Arthur repeated, finally noticing the uncharacteristic plurality of Lancelot’s words.
“Yes, us. I…can taste him on you, and I’d be lying if I said I was happy about that. But if he’ll help convince you not to simply drop this and pretend it’s better to hurt alone…” Lancelot glanced sideways, then warily looked back at Arthur. “Well, I suppose I’m really that desperate.”
Because Arthur’s back was to him, Tristan couldn’t see how that affected the other man’s expression, but he could see the way Arthur’s hand trembled as it cupped Lancelot’s face, and how Arthur bent forward to press their foreheads together.
It was enough, he decided. And he forewent announcing his presence in favor of walking away. There was time enough to get his horse and find the other scouts; for now, he thought it might be better to take one last walk around the garrison, remembering it before war finally overtook all of their lives and reaped everything they knew from them.