Author: Guede Mazaka
Through Dagonet’s memory flows a river. It is black, and death-cold, and it rushes down its course in a fury that eats up trees and rocks and whatever unfortunates happen to cross its path. Somehow, fish manage to live in it, and because of the daily struggle against the ferocious currents, their flesh is the most savory and tender that he has ever tasted. But the river throws up other things besides fish—strange things like old warped coins and broken bones and once, a stone arrowhead. He’d kept that one till a skirmish about a year back, when it’d fallen from him in the thick of the fighting. In its place he keeps a fragment of a talisman that one of the Woads had been wearing. It’s small and has indecipherable markings, and its material is a grey-blue stone that looks like the bruises dotting Lancelot’s body.
Usually Dagonet is the only one that comes down to the river at this time of the evening, but tonight Lancelot’s apparently decided to have a bath. There are bathhouses within the garrison, but they’d have people and people would probably ask questions about the dark spots that each piece of removed clothing reveals. They circle Lancelot’s wrists, smudge over his arms and trail messily down either side of his spine. Moonlight reflects off the water to point out the ones splayed over his hips a moment before he sinks below the surface.
They haven’t been to battle in the week, and Lancelot is more than equal to any fighter in the garrison.
When Lancelot rises and sees Dagonet at the edge, his eyes go wide and he backpeddles in a swash of white foam. Before the bubbles have all vanished, he’s calm again. “So this is where you get off to. We all thought you were courting some village girl.”
No. Dagonet leaves the courting of merriment and joy and love to others. For him, merely watching and knowing that such things remain in the world is enough; the wooing of life from the midst of imminent death takes up enough of his energies as it is. He takes his pleasure as simply as he dips his fingers into the water, which is a little warmer and much smoother than the water of his memory, and then he retreats to satisfaction. When his ax is sharp and his clothes mended against the wind, when there is food and a fire and a good pair of eyes at his back, then he knows that he is as safe as he’ll ever be.
“I don’t suppose that I’ll have to ask you to keep your mouth shut.” Lancelot’s mockery bites, but the fear in his eyes strikes far deeper. He’s what some would call foolishly arrogant, but there are reasons why he fears so little, and why what little that scares him does. “Stop looking at me like that. I didn’t get any more than I gave.”
Safety is something that anyone who holds a weapon can’t take for granted. There will always be lusts and ways to satiate such lusts, but once a man’s nerve is gone, it can’t be replaced. Dagonet has seen this many times before, on battlefields and in taverns and in stables. He knows that the only thing standing between him and that is an illusion—his ax itself doesn’t make him safer—but it’s an illusion he wants to maintain. The river’s waiting for him.
“Every man has their breaking point,” Lancelot mutters as he floats on his back, glowering back at the morose moon. “I wonder what you’d say if you knew that—never mind. Wouldn’t want to undermine the leadership.”
Dagonet thinks never mind as well, because he already knows. Brotherhood isn’t a fine, pretty golden shine, an iridescent veil over the harsh land that makes everything look better. They aren’t ideals of perfection, aren’t legends that can do no wrong. They’re men, and their kindnesses to each other are bloody and rough and bruising. This he knows, and this he doesn’t mind because he sees the way they work each other into another wall besides Hadrian’s, shaping themselves to fit each other. Though he does sometimes wonder why it must be so. Why life made them this way, and not the way of the high officials that prance in and out, not the way of the heroes in the campfire stories.
In the river, the other man rolls himself over and makes shore, shaking the water from his hair and scraping it off his dark-mottled body. He hisses as he presses into the bruises, and then he digs his fingers a little deeper into them. When Lancelot glances at Dagonet, a challenge slips from the edges of the man’s ever-burning eyes to the glimmer of his wolf-smile. “I would wonder too. So much for Christian doctrine; even it can’t make a man a lifeless saint if he isn’t one to begin with.”
“He would like to be one,” Dagonet finally says, staring at the dying ripples where the other man had climbed out. “Seeing those will hurt him.”
A breath whistles through Lancelot’s teeth, high and sharp. “He has a hard time remembering if he doesn’t leave them. At least this way, he feels it as much as I do all of the time.”
If Dagonet were to put a name to the emotion he hears in Lancelot’s voice, he would say hatred because it has that kind of anger and edge to it. And he knows that he would be wrong. It’s why he speaks little, because rarely are there the right words for the right meaning.
“It’s quiet down here.” Lancelot pauses in his dressing and sweeps his eyes over the water, taking in the scene. “I wonder that Tristan never comes to spend time with you.”
“Tristan likes a different kind of quiet.” Rustling and murmuring are two very distinct sounds. The former sets Dagonet’s nerves to jangling and his senses to finding the intruder, while the latter is companionable without the risk of being lost later. After all, rivers cannot be killed. “Good night.”
For a moment, the other man tenses up and looks as if he’ll take offense at the hint. But then Lancelot shakes his head, picks up his swords and walks on. “To each his own. I’ll be generous and leave you your peace.”
And though Dagonet dislikes the faint trace of violence Lancelot leaves behind, he sees no way that he can intervene in that man’s war. Take a fish out of the fierce currents and it immediately seeks to dive back in, no matter that the air is calmer. Its true element is the chaos of the water, and nothing can change that.