Author: Guede Mazaka
“It was not this cold in Sarmatia,” Galahad says.
And you know that this is true. The mountain cold, with its parching winds that fling snow and rocks and men off cliff-tops, with its icy breath hanging so long in the air that it almost tinkles when it finally does fall—that is brisk and shuddering and brutal. It makes no pretense at being kind, and the whiteness of its snow is a hard deathly blanket that sucks and claws at the horses’ hooves who dare stamp through it. But here in Britain, in these foothills that they the natives call mountains, the cold is damp and heavy. It sinks into the valleys and soaks the boggy stinking ground, it sinks into the marrow so that even in spring the memory of winter seeps through men. The snow turns to dirty-flecked mush that cakes to boots and between fingers into the gaps of worn-out gloves, where her pretty sharp claws have previously rested.
She sits in the stable rafters, warming above the heat rising from the steaming backs of hard-ridden horses. Not that anyone does any racing now, as they used to on the hard-packed steppes in the spring, but because simply lifting one foot after another from the swirling, soft coldness is like dragging oneself out of death’s bedroll. That softness is the hardest to fight, calling out rest and relief as softly loud as it does. It heaps high in shadowy, looming drifts that swell as the flesh on men’s faces slackens, hollows, grows gaunt.
Arthur shares his men’s miseries and looks a worn-down cliffside for it. Lancelot’s skin snaps tighter around his internal flame, like the gleaming fresh cracked rocks of a mountain after an avalanche has scoured it clean. Bors and Dagonet circle the hearth fires like moths, firelight briefly tinting their faces healthy before they turn back into the silent dark. Gawain warms the open cracks of his cold-wizened hands against the bowl of his soup before he eats.
And Galahad still carries the slight curving softness of childhood on his face, though he shivers and rails and walks shoulders hunched forward like the rest of them. Sometimes you ride beside him just to hear the ever-changing stream of muttered swears, letting them sear past your slowly freezing mind. It is easier in some ways to pick out the broken twig bent the wrong way, the half-print crunched into the snow. But in other ways, it’s harder to look past the woods with their dead, clutching branches and see the men.
“Not that you’d notice,” the other man adds, low under his breath as if you’d be more offended if his voice was merely louder. He shoves his hands into his sleeves and turns into a dark hump against the paleness stretching out on either side of you.
But nevertheless, no one would ever mistake Galahad for part of the landscape. You find yourself admiring that even as you bite down on your irritation, for he is over-hasty and loose-mouthed and careless and impractical. The ends of his long tunic flap about his bare thighs—no, not quite bare. When the moonlight flicks over them, it shows shine, and the smell of near-rancid fat easily wafts through the frozen air to your nose. Perhaps it keeps him and the Woads warm, but you think trousers would be more sensible.
In Sarmatia we wore trousers. You think about saying that, but the falling snow weights your lashes and seeks to wrap you close in death-sleep. So instead you brush off the accumulated whiteness on your shoulders, palming handfuls and handfuls of the stuff that compact into little more than a bird’s egg’s worth.
There seems to be no hatching here, no real end to the winter. In the mountains, spring was short but it came like an explosion, earthy green dewed grass and small starry flowers under the white warm sunlight. But here in the valleys and plains and woods, the winter lingers, dropping chilly reminders in the summer months, nipping off tips of fingers and noses with late frosts. Everything stays the same.
Your fingers are nearly numb now, but you continue to scoop up more snow and pack it together. It’s been a long, long time since you’ve done this and you don’t have the raw bursting instinct of youth for it, you don’t have the sheer joy, but your hands remember in their muscles what to do. Beside you Galahad is staring, wondering if you’ve gone crazy as everyone thinks you are, and he looks too old that way.
The snowball is lopsided and the breeze is a tricky lady, so Galahad’s nose and cheek are hit instead of his mouth. White clumps, then falls, leaving traces on his gaping lips and on his collar that is pulled up close to his chin. Above, his staring eyes are wider and darker and fuzzily incredulous.
You start to pack another snowball. But you’ve used up the snow around your boots, and so must lean farther to scoop more towards you, and so concentrated are you on that that you forget he recovers quickly. Icy, hard puffing soft, it catches you in the side of the head and you almost lose your balance. Your next snowball is even more shoddily made because you weren’t even done, but it hits his angry curse right in the teeth. Galahad chokes, spits out snowflakes in a pretty shower, and you laugh at him.
He snarls. But then he laughs, and swiftly bends down to take you by surprise with a full armload of snow flung into your face. And you can’t wait and make another snowball, your retaliation won’t hold back that long, and your arm scythes through the snow, your cupped palm swiping up the white flakes so they fly and land to melt in his collar, send runnels of tickling freezing water down his back.
Before they make it halfway, he is plunging through the mist you’ve created and tackling you by the waist. When you two go down, a thousand tiny stars seem to fly up all around you to take your places.
“You,” Galahad pants, a moment later when the cold’s brought your wrestling to a gasping, shivering double-curl away from the iciness beneath you. His cheeks are red as the flowers you haven’t seen in years, and his eyes are changeable sparks. “You are—it’s--”
“It’s cold,” you agree. And then his face is not quite laughing, not quite sad, but something like wonder without the unqualified amazement, and you can’t tell who leans down or who leans up.
His mouth is hard, but gives at the corners, and your mouth softens in the center against his tongue’s insistent pull but you remain firm at the edges. Your nails are ragged and numb with it, but it still hurts a little when his clothes catch on them. But then your hands find their way into his hair, press against the hot trapped between the frozen stiff curls. The breaking-off of the strands’ ice-sheaths sounds a little like singing.
The rest of you don’t fit so nicely together. Galahad has no idea what to do with his elbows and your ribs suffer for it, but then your knees never seem to know where to stay, sliding against his sides or jabbing into his hips, so you suppose it evens out. Any gap in your clothing opens to snow and a hiss-jerk at the sudden freeze, and after a few minutes of awkwardness, you both figure that out. So the clothes stay on, touches becoming only muffled warm shadows against the thick unwieldy barriers of winter leathers. Because Galahad is a fool, your palms can slide against his bare skin, feel the tensing shift of his muscles the way you do a horse’s when canter goes to gallop, but the fat is sticky and slimy and you know you will be smelling it for days. You smell nothing but it now, a clinging musky acrid sting that rips raw the inside of you nose and makes you taste the long-forgotten salt-blood-fresh of the end of the hunt.
He sometimes yanks his mouth away from yours to bury it against your cheek, in your neck—once in your chest so when he came up again, a buckle had cut red across his forehead—and his breathing comes in deep whuffs. His hands are everywhere, shoulders and chest and thumbs digging sideways against your stomach, and they press ever harder to make themselves known through the layers and layers of separation. You’re both fighting through cold and hot and the hard distant insulation between them, and his teeth are in the side of your jaw and your eyes suddenly fly open, open, wide-open because there it is. And then it’s not fumbling while the snow melts into ice-water around you, it’s not clumsy flow from a ridiculous fight. It’s holding and grasping till your prick rubs against his, feeling like the leather in the way is thin as the breeze, it’s dragging your nails through his hair and down his neck and deep through the layer of fat slicking his thighs because that way he can feel you.
The closeness is fleeting, a glance there and a graze here, but it builds up like the snow around you. Faster than the snow around you, keeping you from being buried in the drifts till some half-hearted sun melts your body free in late summer, and it crams up in your throat as your cock strains and jerks, trying to rub through to meet his. For a moment, you think it might have.
And coming is not quite falling back into the ice, however quickly the heat leaches from your thrown-back face and his buried face, tucked into the curve of your shoulder and neck. You can feel the sting of the cold in your fingers, the bitterness in the back of your throat and the sweetness beneath your tongue, and the rapid cooling-congealing of the stickiness dripping down between your legs, beneath your trousers. It’ll freeze there, most likely, because you two cannot leave your posts yet and it is that cold and in winter you cannot ever clean yourself completely. Winter preserves everything, ices layer on layer, and it never really thaws long enough here. You’ll have this night with you for months.
“…will itch, and shift doesn’t end for another…” When Galahad mumbles, he sometimes disconnects the thoughts from the words, so he assumes he’s said something or not said something that he hasn’t or has. And he talks so much anyway that it frustrates everyone around him who tries to keep up with the jumps and dropped explanations.
You suppose it’s arguable that you’re in no position to criticize on that point. Though when you leave something out, it’s deliberate. “It’ll give you something new to complain about, instead of only the snow and the Woads.”
“You’ll have the same problem,” Galahad tosses back, and he needs a moment to understand why you smile at that. Then he kisses you again, long as a pull from a flask of sweet wine, and then he smashes more snow in your face.
Later Gawain will look quizzical and worried back-and-forth between you too, when he comes to relieve the sentry post, but you will smile again. And for once, Galahad will smile with you.