|Brotherhood IX: April
Author: Guede Mazaka
“But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
* * *
Tristan had just begun scraping the cakes of dried blood from his hands when Lancelot stormed in, swords clattering on his back. “That fucking lunatic!” the other man snarled, flapping the door shut and then kicking it into its ill-fitted frame.
They were bivouacked in a village recently raided by and reclaimed from the Woads, so here and there the timbers were splashed with something dark and foul, and the air had the tang of violent death. But the walls of this house were sturdy, and had only a few holes that Tristan had already stuffed, and someone before him had dragged out everything so there were practically no reminders of the previous owners. As shelters went, it was the best they’d had in a long while.
“What’s he thinking? Do you know? Because I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve lost whatever knowledge I had of Arthur. He—damn it!” Lancelot kicked the door one last time, then slumped against it so the light of the heavily-smoking fires lashed over his armor and lingered on the hollows newly-worn into his face. He took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, he’d settled into a depression that matched well with the blood and dirt crusted all over him.
In the corner, the hawk shrieked once in protest of the agitated atmosphere. Then she calmed a little, half-lowering her wings, but still directed baleful looks at Lancelot. He glared back, making her take flight and come to land on Tristan’s shoulder.
He soothed her by petting her feathers and kissing her beak, then went over to the tiny window and fed her through it. A good long flight would see her restored to her usual imperturbability—would that he could do the same. His nerves were still jangled enough so that he could barely feel the wounds he’d received, and while his muscles were aching with the day’s fighting, so were they hissing for more slashing and twisting and fighting. “What happened?”
Now Lancelot was slowly moving to undo his armor, snapping off one piece at a time. He let the first one fall, stared at it, and then grudgingly picked it up, brushing off the dirt. “Today a frontal attack didn’t work, did it? The Woads still hold the river crossing.”
“True.” As the other man came wandering up, more focused on removing and seeing to the condition of his armor than to where he was going, Tristan shifted aside and started spreading his bedroll in one corner.
“So would you like to guess what we’re doing tomorrow?” A sneer at the shadows on the wall while Lancelot pried off the last of his armor. He plopped down on the ground and got a rag from somewhere, then commenced chipping off as much blood and mud as he could.
Tristan’s hands slowed in their work as he reviewed the day. Three knights dead, ten wounded badly enough to be excluded from any more fighting…and all they were going to do was repeat the same unsuccessful tactic. “That doesn’t sound like Arthur.”
“No, it’s the general’s plan, all hail him. But Arthur’s going along with it.” One stubborn fleck of dirt resisted all Lancelot’s efforts to remove it, and he finally gave up in disgust. Then he looked around, surprise starting to creep past his anger. “Where’s Gawain’s things? I thought you two usually…”
It was a hard decision whether to snort or just throw something. In the end, Tristan turned around with a sarcastic smile on his face and crawled over to adjust the fire so it wasn’t smoking quite so much. Last night it had rained hard enough for Arthur to mutter Biblical references, and the wood was still damp. “You haven’t been paying attention. Gawain shifted to Galahad a week ago. And why is Arthur going along with it? Hasn’t he explained that the way’s too narrow and the mud’s too slippery? It’s nothing but a bottleneck and makes us easy targets.”
“Yes, but the general won’t listen and we all have to put up with it, apparently. I’ve been trying to talk Arthur into disobeying—at least into changing tactics at the last minute to something that’ll work—but I’m not getting anywhere.” Lancelot glowered at the fire, then stretched out on his belly and deliberately readjusted a stick Tristan had just fixed. Grey choking clouds billowed forth, sending them both reeling backward.
“Lancelot!” Tristan snarled, throwing his sleeve over his nose. He dove in, shoved the branch back, and then turned on the other man. The painful itching of his muscles seemed to be pooling in his fingers, which no matter how much he tried to make them do otherwise, were flexing and cracking their knuckles.
Unrepentant, the other man raised his chin and met Tristan’s outraged gaze. “Why aren’t you going to talk to him?”
“If he didn’t listen to you—” Tristan began.
But he got no further when Lancelot seized his arm and tried to shake him. Tristan grabbed the other man by the shoulders, knocking them both over, and then they were rolling over the floor. The first time Tristan tried to get a knee up between them, it was pushed away by Lancelot’s, and the second time, Lancelot brought down an elbow hard on Tristan’s kneecap, which exploded with pain. So wedging them apart wasn’t going to work…Tristan shoved back with his arm and got them away from the wall they were nearing, then flung his leg around Lancelot. And he held the position till the other man finally tired of struggling.
“What does it matter if he didn’t listen to me?” Lancelot growled, eyes wide and snapping with fury. “Aren’t you going to try, at least? Or are you only going to let him—”
“He asks me about the weather, about the Woads, about the lay of the land. He asks you about how to fight, about what to do—why would he listen to me?” When Tristan felt the other man start to relax in surprise, he abruptly whipped his head forward to crack it against Lancelot’s. That hurt and brought black stars to his vision, but it also made Lancelot’s hold slip enough for Tristan to attempt to throw him off.
It didn’t quite work: Lancelot recovered faster than expected and hooked his fingers into Tristan’s clothes, dragging him back. Then he got Tristan’s wrists and pinned them to the ground so Tristan was stuck under Lancelot once more. “Because he doesn’t think you’re a hotheaded, selfish little bastard,” Lancelot shot back. The bitterness in the man’s voice flavored the very air, and the set of his shoulders was better suited to an old worn-out drunk. “Because you don’t hurt him.”
Then Lancelot bowed his head, dropping his gaze from Tristan. “He never smiles any more, you know,” he went on more quietly. “Not at anything. And it’s harder to remember he isn’t Rome, now that I’ve got to see the men falling and not only the bodies coming back. Do something, damn it. Don’t just ride your damned horse and play with your hawk.”
“What do you think I do, when I go out and track Woads? When I sit in a tree and watch them count how many swords they’ve taken from us?” Tristan wrenched and pushed, sudden and brutal. That freed his hands, but it also swept the supports out from under Lancelot so the other man abruptly collapsed onto Tristan. “They’re ruining this land for me, and all I can do is watch.”
Surprisingly enough, Lancelot made no move to get up. Instead, he curled his fingers into Tristan’s clothes and breathed, slow and arrhythmic and shallow. “I don’t understand you. You can stand—and you do—but you never take that first step beyond. It’s not only watching—haven’t we gone over this?”
When Tristan sucked in air, he didn’t taste a hint of the spring. Instead, all he found was the dregs of winter, concentrated into a cloying, harsh essence that ate away at his flesh and spread pain through his chest. His fingers were digging into Lancelot’s shoulders, but the other man didn’t seem to notice—that was what probably kept him still and listening.
“And this is only the first year. We’ve eleven more to go. When I’m twenty and seven, am I going to be dead-eyed and half-drunk whenever I can like Alymere? Will Arthur turn into the other officers, who don’t give a shit who dies as long as they do well enough to be transferred out of here?” Lancelot raised his head to reveal oddly wet eyes. “Will you watch then?”
“I don’t want to watch,” Tristan hissed, curling his fists even tighter over Lancelot’s shoulders. He struggled for the words to explain something inexplicable like the sense that told him when there were human eyes in the woods, like the sense that let him know when Arthur was coming or going. It was like drawing teeth, but he needed to make Lancelot see, if only to keep his hands from inching towards the other man’s throat. “I don’t—but I won’t help tear him in half. Better that I keep what I have than make him choose between us.”
At that, Lancelot blinked debate back into his eyes, but Tristan clapped a hand over the other man’s mouth.
“If he chose me, then I could never be what you are. If he chose you—and that’s far more likely—then he would feel too guilty for either of you to find tolerable. So I keep my place in his bed, and I don’t extract any payment for it.” And there it laid, like an open wound. Tristan swallowed against the rise of bile and let Lancelot shake off his hand, for the first time not able to predict what the other man might say or do. Because he’d never even expected to have as much as he did now, and he was so afraid of it slipping away that he almost didn’t dare to close his fingers around it.
For a long time, Lancelot stared at Tristan, searching for something. Then he sighed and rubbed at his eye, inadvertently scraping off a scab from his cheek so fresh blood welled up. “I’ve wanted to kill you more than once. Honestly. But if it came down to it, I couldn’t. One—you’re another knight. Two—you do something for Arthur. You give him something that I can’t figure out how to. So I wouldn’t let him choose, all right? Because you’re right—it would break something in him.”
The blood was flowing fast enough for a few drops to fall on Tristan’s cheek. In a bit of a daze, he absently lifted his hand and pressed the heel of it to Lancelot’s cut, trying to staunch it.
Lancelot suddenly grinned, half-knowing and half-angry. “You know, he thinks it’s his fault you fell into his bed. Something about corrupting the innocent. If you don’t talk to him about that at least, he’s never going to stop believing he’s ruined you. And that he’s got an obligation to make up for it, or something like that.”
“He thinks what?” Startled and suddenly worried in an entirely different way, Tristan jerked himself up. He was expecting Lancelot to move, but the other man only twisted sideways so Tristan ran into a shoulder instead of a head.
“Idiot just can’t let himself enjoy anything,” Lancelot muttered into Tristan’s ear, sounding nervous. The other man hesitated one more moment, then burrowed into Tristan’s neck.
And the back-and-forth of tensions, the strain that had been coiling and recoiling within Tristan as the situation had whipped around on itself, finally gave way. It wasn’t even so surprising, because hadn’t he and Lancelot been running across traces of each other on Arthur for weeks now? Perhaps Lancelot hadn’t noticed, but Tristan was accustomed to giving more weight to hints than to direct signals, and he’d carefully folded away into his memory every bit that the other man left behind.
It was dark, and chilly despite the season, and there was death on their minds. But they found warmth in the hollows and curves of each other, at which they greedily grasped and chased in an effort to banish that other absence. Lancelot was feverish and frenzied, and some of that kindled in Tristan, because when the other man nipped and stroked like the storm would break any moment, Tristan did likewise. Rolled and let himself be rolled, tried to drown himself in bend and twist of a wiry body that was so different from the one with which he was familiar.
Even then, not all was unknown. He came across Arthur’s taste in the ridges of Lancelot’s ribs and the pale thin skin of Lancelot’s thighs, and his fingers instinctively sought out the half-faded bruises and bites that wandered about Lancelot’s chest. There were callused fingertips rasping over his own remembrances, pressing hard so he could recall the exact angle a dark head had laid against his shoulder, and a wicked tongue wetting the underside of his jaw so the smell of Arthur, soaked latent there, rose once again into the air.
When he came, Tristan said a name, and the syllables of it were in concord with those that tore themselves from Lancelot’s lips.
“If we were others, and I was watching this,” Lancelot said a little later, nuzzling at Tristan’s face, “I would laugh. It’s pathetic.”
“It’s terrifying.” When the other man glanced up in quizzical inquiry, Tristan shrugged and let the sincerity take over his eyes. “I know, you all think I feel nothing. But I do. And yes, I’m frightened.”
Oddly enough, the look in Lancelot’s eyes had nothing to do with pity. It was a little sympathetic, but mostly understanding. “Who isn’t?” The side of his mouth quirked up, and he resettled himself so he could take in the rest of the room. “Aren’t you lonely, without even Gawain around? By the way, I give him and Galahad three months.”
“I think you’re misjudging them.” Interestingly enough, a knuckle drawn lightly over Lancelot’s backbone produced a slight arch and something like a low purr. Tristan eased himself out from under the other man and tried it again for confirmation. “I’ll go see Arthur.”
“Thank you.” It was a little strange to hear that coming from Lancelot without mockery being involved, but the other man appeared perfectly honest about it. Then he snorted and looked down at them. “You might want to come up with an excuse first, or he’ll believe we’ve finally had that fight he’s been dreading.”
That struck Tristan rather deeply, since he’d thought that he’d dismissed that worry from Arthur’s mind. It seemed he hadn’t been watching Arthur as closely as he’d believed—or he’d been watching Arthur too closely, and so had missed much that was beyond his field of focus. It was stupid, and he suddenly felt a little foolish and annoyed with himself.
But it also wouldn’t do for Lancelot to start thinking he had all the answers. “I think he’ll have trouble just with not believing that you lost.”
Lancelot turned and glared at him, ruffling up as quickly as Tristan’s hawk did. “You—”
And then he was staring, huge-eyed over Tristan’s shoulder, and his whole body had gone stiff as a frozen tree. Tristan flinched, closed his eyes, and then opened them as he twisted around. “How long have you been there?”
Arthur blinked and twitched, as if he’d barely woken up. “Long enough to be extremely ashamed of myself.”
He was shouldering what looked like both his and Lancelot’s gear, which filled both his arms so that he had to close the door with his foot. Then he carefully set his burden down before going over to the fireplace and rebuilding the dying flames.
Biting his lip, Lancelot unwound himself from Tristan and crawled over to press his head against Arthur’s arm. After a moment, Tristan followed and put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
“I was rethinking the plans for tomorrow—there might be a way to split the charge and take it sideways at the last moment, so we come down on the flank. If it’s done right, it would look like the Woads forced us aside. Lucilius might accuse me of not having the backbone to carry through a charge, but if the battle’s won it won’t matter.” Arthur spoke very calmly and deliberately as he deftly arranged the logs. But his eyes gleamed in the dim light like wet stones, and when he finally moved to take Lancelot by the waist, his hands were shaking a little.
He pressed a kiss to Lancelot’s forehead, then reached back and caught Tristan’s wrist, using that to pull Tristan around as well. Then Arthur cradled Tristan’s face in his hands and gave a look that seemed to seize on every particle of Tristan. “I never want you to be afraid to tell me something. You should always speak your mind, and if I don’t give you fair hearing, you should protest.”
Tristan curled his nails into his palms, then uncurled them. He spoke slowly, because he hadn’t come this way before, and the path was uncertain. But there were others with him. “Go on the left. Today we angled right—that’s where all the best perches for archers are.”
“All right.” And Arthur did smile, though he hid it in Tristan’s and Lancelot’s flesh.