Author: Guede Mazaka
Fifteen hands at the shoulder, a neck like a crossbow spring topped off by a small, gracefully narrow head that restlessly darts through the air, snapping at flies. It is the most beautiful horse Gawain has ever seen, and a moment ago it had nearly taken off his head. Now the stallion fights the tether and paws the air, neighing and bucking like a demon. Its hind-foot leaves a deep score high on one of the support poles.
Bors backs up, touches the fresh scar and mimes a burn, an overgrown child getting his comeuppance for snatching at dinner before it’s off the fire. “Send it out ‘gainst the Woads,” he roars. “Worth a whole legion by itself.”
If it ever allows itself to be even ushered into its new stall, perhaps. Right now its hysteria is catching down the line, a fire-arrow pricking all the other horses in the stable so they rear and squeal, calling in knights from all quarters. For his part, Gawain hangs grimly onto the lead-rope and tells himself the heat in his face is from exertion, not embarrassment. It’s rare enough that they have decent support, let alone have a fair richness like this dropped in their laps. He does not plan to waste the generosity.
Nor, apparently, does he plan to spend the next few days in hale and hearty health, for he is too slow in dodging the beast’s next plunge. Hooves flail-flash before his eyes and he rips out an oath before him even as he flings himself back, going too far with his weight. There’s nothing for it but to fall beneath those deadly hooves.
No child, he rolls as soon as the ground slams his elbow askew, kicks down to dig his ankles into the floor and gain leverage. The rope tears skin from his hand as it coils away and up into the air, the horse tosses its beautiful head and bares angry white teeth at him. It’s frightened, confused, isolated—all feelings he can understand, but in this moment the horse is simply rage and Gawain is falling back before it.
His hand hits a pillar and he frantically gropes around it. If he stopped looking at the hooves scraping the air above him, he would be quicker but then he might never see them coming. He’s twenty winters and already he’s too used to facing the enemy to ever turn his back on it.
The hooves come down, and at the last minute hands hook Gawain backward, back, up and onto his unsteady feet. Bors, sober now, gives him a rough dusting by way of reassurance. “Little young to have your joints seizing up, aren’t you?”
Dagonet’s caught the lead-rope and is holding down the horse’s head by sheer strength, though his calm manner goes a long way towards convincing the stallion to cease straining. But, Gawain thinks, that has nothing to do with reassurance. More like the horse can look at Dagonet and know it looks on the immovable object of Arthur’s sayings. It’s not a dumb beast by any means, and it’s not yet given up if Gawain’s any judge of eyes and glints and malice.
Moments afterward and the fear and rush are already draining from Gawain, leaving him bereft of anything but flush of humiliation. He takes it as gracefully as he can, knowing well that it isn’t Bors no matter what the hot tightness in his throat and behind his breastbone says. “Thanks,” he mutters, and he takes a step towards the horse.
Its ear swivels and it jerks its head up hard enough to lift Dagonet onto his toes. He placidly regards it, does the same to Gawain, and then gives the rope a careless pull that makes the horse’s eyes roll with its force. “I think you should let it get used to the new place first.”
A good excuse. A way for Gawain to back down without looking like a coward, and though he tells himself he doesn’t care much for such stupid things, he still feels the grit in his throat when he swallows. “Good idea.”
The other knights, and there are many by now, are mostly giving him baleful looks. They blame him for upsetting the whole stable, for bringing them running with half-shaved, half-soapy faces and rumpled woman-smelling clothes and the stink of the practice rings still dripping from their sweaty hair that’s now freezing in the cold. Truth be told, Gawain would give himself a baleful look, if he weren’t the man eying his new horse with the sour taste of chagrin in his mouth.
The horse eyes him back. It is penned in now, high-barred into a stall the quality of which Gawain would find pleasing, if he were a horse. But his stallion pays no attention to it, merely keeps shifting from side to side while always keeping him in view. The whites of its eyes gleam like drawn swords.
“At least you’ll have all winter to train him,” Tristan says. Even he’s been drawn to the tumult, come down from his makeshift eyrie on the roof. Now he limps next to Gawain so it is all too clear how the horse marks him with respect.
“I can’t train that.” So Gawain says under his breath, bitter and furious and utterly frustrated. He pays back Tristan’s words in a far more ungenerous coin, but a truer one, and he knows Tristan values that more. Tristan’s a friend, so Gawain shows him the uglier face and he forgives Gawain for it. “More wildcat than horse. Think they bred too much of Britain into that one.”
He earns himself a cool look with a bubbling of something beneath it that Gawain would suspect is passion, if Tristan were given to such things. But Gawain is a friend to Tristan—as far as Gawain can tell—and so Tristan shows that he hides secrets from Gawain, and Gawain forgives him for it. Which is a fancy way of saying Tristan keeps a mild face and puts a knuckle to his mouth, eyes flicking over the horse so Gawain has time to calm down. “If you’d gotten it in the fall, I could’ve broken it for you.”
And that is a dry, unornamented way of apologizing for not being able to help, and of telling Gawain that they are still not going to discuss whatever exists in Britain that could send Tristan fleeing back to the garrison, with scabs on his chin and a limp twisting his stride even two weeks later. Gawain shrugs. The horse snorts, darts out its neck as if to leap the gate and he flinches back. It’s smiling, he thinks, and bites back a growl. “No. It’s my horse. I should—”
“I hear there’s a man good with horses in the troop that transferred in at first snowfall,” Tristan says, still nibbling on his thumb-knuckle. He slants a glance through clumping locks of hair, a fox-like pair of eyes peering through brambles. “Galahad. You met him yet?”
After some thought, Gawain dredges up a very young face and a feeling of curly something topping it, but that description could fit half the knights in the garrison. “Doesn’t come to Vanora’s tavern, does he?”
“He spends most of his time riding. I think he keeps a patch cleared on the east side so he can practice even with the snow on the ground.” Something about the way Tristan is looking at Gawain makes the hairs on the back of Gawain’s neck prickle. It is not that Tristan would be malicious, but Tristan’s sense of humor is Tristan’s sense of humor, and therefore Gawain usually doesn’t understand it.
“What’s the matter with him?” Gawain asks. He wishes Tristan would get the hair out of his face, or at least look less like something that has a long muzzle and a tricky manner. But he supposes it’s a sign Tristan’s returning to his old self, so he doesn’t comment on that.
Tristan merely raises an eyebrow. “He’s dedicated.”
“Oh.” Clearly this is all Gawain will get from Tristan, so it seems he’ll just have to meet the man himself. He unthinkingly takes a step forward.
The stallion kicks at the wall of the stall, startling Gawain into stumbling. He catches himself and walks stiffly out to the sound of a derisive whinny.
* * *
“Him? No, he doesn’t come around here.” Vanora pops a baby into Gawain’s arms as a matter of course and slaps a rag over the pitted, dented table-tops. She rubs hard and it puts her milk-swollen breasts in grave danger of spilling out of her dress; a tiny wet spot starts on the left side of her chest and Gawain realizes with some embarrassment that it’s her milk running.
He looks away, but the only other thing to look at is the baby, a round cooing thing stuffed full of dimples and mystery. He has no idea what to do with it except that if he drops it, Bors will hang him from the ramparts. At least it’s baring its teeth to him in a smile.
“But some of the girls see him round the barracks, and don’t be asking me what they do up there. I reckon you know already,” Her scrubbing shakes loose a lock of her hair and it falls to obscure her wink with clever scarlet. Gawain idly wonders why everyone is beginning to look like a fox to him. “They say he’s about your height, though too skinny—poor motherless boy like the rest of you, don’t know when to eat ‘less you pick up a girl of your own to remind you. Darkish hair, curly. Not so look-at-me as Lancelot, but I’d say from their giggling that he’s not got a face to be ashamed of.”
“What about what he’s like?” Careful as he is with Tristan’s hawk, Gawain tentatively wiggles his fingers in front of the baby. He’s seen Bors do it a thousand times and he thinks he’s doing it right. After a long, breathless moment, the baby gurgles happily. Then it spits on him.
Vanora looks up just in time. Laughing, she tosses him a rag and takes the little bastard from him. “Oh, he doesn’t talk to them. Doesn’t talk much to anybody. Though he must talk to Arthur and Lancelot, because Lancelot’s been in here whining about the brat who uses up all the arrows in practice. He complains about everybody, so I can’t say that tells you much.”
No. Except that Galahad is dedicated. Gawain gives up. He wipes his face, thanks Vanora, and turns his feet towards the eastern end.
* * *
The snow had melted a bit from the last storm, but it is still knee-high overall and up against the shadowy side of buildings it can jump to waist-high without warning. After every new fall, all the people from commander down come out to shovel clear the main areas, and then out of habit people tramp down their favorite trails to and from their haunts, but this area is sparsely used. And so the snow here is still thick, and it’s laid undisturbed long enough for an icy crust to form on its top so every time Gawain flounders, he can hear it.
He flops through a particularly deep drift and suddenly the snow gives way, sends him nearly to his knees in clear space. It’s a trail, neat and well-worn and narrow. Wide enough for one man and a horse going single-line, and when he turns to look behind him, he sees the stable roofs humping out of the white plain.
Ahead he can see a black thing sticking out of the snow, a long and narrow oblong like one of the strange monoliths that he saw years ago while being shepherded through Brittany. But this pillar moves, flicks sideways into a familiar silhouette as he walks down the trail. The man astride the horse wheels it about a small circle that has been cleared down to the withered grass—if it was done only by himself, then that is motivation.
And that is skill, Gawain notes. He stops at the edge of the clearing and watches the man put his horse through walk, trot, canter and then back to walk as seamlessly as water streaming from between cupped hands. The man rides bareback and uses only a light halter, though on the far side Gawain can see lying on the ground a blanket-wrapped bundle that bulges like a saddle and proper bridle should.
“Are you Galahad?” Gawain calls.
Ice fragments scatter against Gawain’s boots as the horse skids to a stop. He has the feeling that that was deliberate.
“I’d be him.” He is very young, cheeks still round with baby fat, but the wariness in his eyes temper them as hard as those of any veteran. And he goes bare-legged in this bitter cold, though from this distance Gawain can see and smell the fat Galahad has smeared over his skin for protection from the biting wind. His socks look too large and flop awkwardly out of the tops of his boots, which are equally ill-fitting, and when he dismounts his foot nearly wobbles out from under him because of that. He catches himself with a jerk of the chin, then ratchets his chin even higher as he faces Gawain. “Who are you?”
“Gawain.” Who does his best to ignore the clumsiness of the other man’s walk. After the smooth grace of Galahad’s riding, seeing it is like the first slap of water to the face in the morning. “I hear you’re good with horses.”
Galahad’s horse isn’t of the best stock—too short in the back, faintly jug-headed—but it carries itself as proudly as the general’s stallion. Its head lifts over Galahad’s shoulder to glower at Gawain, while its rider stiffly scuffles his way through a small drift till he digs up a leather pouch. The carrot he pulls from it is frozen, so he warms it by rolling it fast between his hands. “Well, you could see whether that was true, couldn’t you?”
It’s a familiar belligerence, mixed in with an odd kind of pride. As if Galahad thinks his skill might be something to be ashamed of, which is a strange idea to have here. If one can’t ride, one usually ends up dead in short order. “Sorry. You are good with horses.”
The words startle Galahad so much that the carrot squirts from his hands. He gasps and makes a snatch for it, and in doing so comes even closer to upsetting himself than the first time. But when Gawain catches the treat and offers it blunt-end forward, Galahad skitters back, nervous as a colt. His hair curls in his eyes and it makes him look even more frightened, and angry about it.
Eventually he takes the carrot. Roughly. Gawain notes that Galahad feeds it to his horse as if he were tidbitting a choosy baby. “What do you want?” Galahad asks.
“Some advice, maybe. But first let’s go inside. I smell a storm coming.” In all truth, Gawain doesn’t see any difference in the slate-grey of the sky, but he can no longer feel his fingers and Galahad’s nose is blistered red by the icy breeze. Out here they can’t help but speak coldly to each other, no matter how Gawain tries to keep his irritation out of his tone, and so he wants to bring the conversation in where it can thaw.
After a moment, Galahad nods. He tosses his reins to Gawain before stomping across the clearing to retrieve his tack. Halfway across he slips, skids and goes to one knee. When he rises, he has an irregular patch of bright red on that joint. Though Gawain is studiously looking in the other direction, of course.
He gets no thanks for it. Galahad brusquely takes back the reins and begins to unwrap the saddle, only to stop at Gawain’s curious look. Curious because despite the cold, it’s only a short walk to the nearest building. And then Gawain remembers how well Galahad rides, and how badly he manages on two feet.
But it’s too late; Galahad’s back stiffens and he hefts his tack onto his shoulder. It is bulky and he walks tipping side-to-side so one moment he nearly runs broadside into his horse and the next the saddle shifts to flash a dogged, hunching face with wind-blasted cheeks. Somehow Gawain doubts an offer to lead the horse and so free up that hand would be welcome.
The weather, Gawain thinks, does not look promising in any case.
* * *
They’ve been standing before Gawain’s horse for several minutes now, watching it lift its lips and show them its teeth. Once, when Galahad had walked over to get a glimpse of its flanks, it had snapped at him. What had come out of his mouth hadn’t been much of a chuckle, but it had been close enough to make both Gawain and his damned vicious horse stare. But Galahad had been turned away, and so Gawain hadn’t seen if the man looked any less sour with a smile on his face.
“It’s a nice horse,” Galahad finally says.
Gawain opens his mouth to reply, but is drowned out by the sudden rear-and-whinny of his horse. Its hooves clatter like thunder when it comes down, ears laid flat back and head squarely pointed at him.
“Doesn’t seem to like you much.” There may be a trace of a smile about Galahad’s lips, but it’s not a pleasant one. In fact, if his face were stretched out about a foot, he’d look very much like the horse.
It’s hard not to roll his eyes, but Gawain makes an effort. “I noticed.”
“What’d you do to him?” When Gawain doesn’t answer right away, Galahad sighs. He puts his hand to his face and says, voice too old and tired and resigned, “I can’t do anything unless I know how you broke him. What was it—whip, short rations, overworking him?”
“Nothing. I just got him today—I haven’t even laid—I can’t even get any closer than this to him. You can see that,” Gawain snaps, goaded a little too far. He’s survived four years in this land. That isn’t done by riding horses into the ground…and on top of that, he was raised in Sarmatia like the other man. It’s an insulting assumption for Galahad to make.
Galahad raises his eyebrows in utter disbelief. “You didn’t do anything?”
“No. I did not.” Every word is carefully enunciated. “I can’t speak for the previous owner, but I had no hand in…whatever it was.”
After another long moment, Galahad decides to accept that. He turns his back on Gawain and folds his arms over his chest, eying the horse. “What happened to the previous owner?”
Dedicated, indeed, Gawain thinks. More like flinty and unfriendly as a cliffside, pocked with more eccentricities than Tristan. “Dead.”
The hands Galahad has wrapped around himself tighten convulsively on either side, and for a moment, he looks as if he’s trying desperately to clutch something into himself. But it’s merely a twitch and it passes before Gawain can blink. “Oh, right. Only way we get new horses is over a corpse.”
Growling in Gawain’s stomach tells him it’s nearly dinner, and that means it’s time for him to go and drag Tristan out from whatever nook in which he’s nested himself. “So can you help or not? I…well, I can’t pay you in coin for a month, but I can—”
“You always get your pay on time?” Surprised eyes flick over a shoulder, but Galahad has reversed himself before Gawain can say anything. Or see anything. “Nice garrison,” Galahad mutters, so under his breath that he obviously doesn’t think Gawain can hear. “I can try for a week—if nothing’s happened by the end of that, he’s a lost cause.”
“And if he does improve, you’ll keep helping?’ When the other man nods, Gawain smiles in relief. And that’s another way to startle Galahad, he finds out. He waves his hand without thinking. “It’s almost dinnertime.”
Galahad stares at him as if he’s lost his mind, or as if he’s some crazy man of the woods making unintelligible gestures.
And Gawain belatedly remembers how Galahad had taken the carrot. “I…have to go. Are you free tomorrow to start? I get up around an hour before dawn.”
“I’ll be coming back to the stables. That’s fine,” Galahad says. Clipped and curt, but his gaze lingers a little on Gawain as he turns around. He looks puzzled.
For a moment, Gawain’s almost sorry he changed his mind. But a moment later Galahad looks at him again and there’s nothing but irritation in the other man’s face. “I thought you were leaving.”
“I was…but it can wait till morning.” Gawain is making up nonsense again, but it gets him out the door. He leaves Galahad with his horse, fine pair that they are.
* * *
Tristan nonchalantly looks up as Gawain sits down. Quick and silent as he is in all things, he’s already finished his meal. Some of the knights went out hunting and brought back enough deer for the portions to be generous, and Gawain’s pleased to see that several bones scatter Tristan’s plate in addition to the one he’s carving.
But not pleased enough to forget. He sits down with a thump and looks hard at the other man. “Dedicated?”
“He is,” Tristan says, mild as the watered-down piss they have for winter ale. “He gets up nearly as early as I do.”
“Then he must have a poor life of it. Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” It’s a sour comment. A nasty one. The taste it leaves behind ruins the first few mouthfuls for Gawain.
A bone-chip flicks past Gawain’s nose, and Tristan finishes the beak of the falcon he carves. The shape of the bird is strange, curving almost as voluptuously as a woman’s body. “Ah.”
And that is all Tristan says on that.
* * *
The air is always chilly, but today it has frozen solid, and it is only with the greatest effort that man and beast can force their limbs through it. Even the ire of Gawain’s horse seems to have tempered; it stands with feet wide apart as if ready to kick in any direction, but its head hangs low and sluggish.
“I’m betting it always happened in the stable, so the first thing’s to get him away from there so he’s not thinking about it. Besides, the fresh air’s better.” Galahad should by rights be knock-kneed with his shivering, but he still walks with some energy. Working seems to make him forget that his too-large boots should be tripping him more often.
“Makes it too cold to fight,” Gawain agrees.
Apparently that is the wrong thing to say, for Galahad snorts and spins on his heel as if he were shooing away a dog. Gritting his teeth, Gawain finds, also helps keep them from chattering. And if they continue as they’ve started, his annoyance will have him warm enough in no time.
He holds onto the long lead they’ve—with much trickery and more bruising—gotten onto the horse while Galahad carefully edges up to the beast. His manner of doing so is a little odd, for he steps sideways and circular, moving in tighter and tighter half-circles towards one side of the horse. But it’s working. He gets nearly within five feet before the first sign of restlessness, and he’s almost able to stretch out his hand to touch its withers before it rears.
Gawain instantly jerks on the rope, trying to head it away from the other man, but Galahad shoots him a look that could light a signal fire. After backing up a pace, Galahad goes no further and instead tries to talk to the horse. Snatches of old hero-stories Gawain remembers his own mother telling him, the latest camp gossip, a snippet of a song. Anything.
The horse’s ears are swiveling to and fro as it prances and yanks on the lead. A cloud of steaming air abruptly blasts from its nostrils and it settles down so quickly that Gawain, not expecting the slack, nearly loses his balance. As he straightens, he glimpses white teeth. But Galahad’s lips are together too soon for Gawain to tell whether it was as humorless a smile as last time, and the other man is busy trying his luck in creeping forward a few inches.
He’s so intent on the stallion that he’s forgotten all about Gawain, as he shows when he tells the horse its new rider is a bit thick, but doesn’t look to have a hard hand with the reins. The animal whickers, a little trilling laugh, and this time Gawain has a full view of Galahad’s smile.
It’s not bad. It smoothes the hardness from his cheeks and softens his youth, makes him look more like a man than a suit of armor. “Ah, there’s worse,” he says to the horse. “Better to have an idiot than an intelligent bastard on your back.”
And perhaps the suit of armor is preferable to the man. At least it stays clamped down and doesn’t throw around insults so freely.
* * *
Gawain lands on a hard clump of ice that might as well be iron for all the give it has on his ribs. He lays on his back for a moment, panting at the dancing white spirits in his vision, then rolls over and puts down his hands. That, he immediately regrets, for the rope had sliced through his hands when the horse took off and his palms are raw and screaming with it. “Damn it.”
“Four days and he’s letting you hold out hay to him. Not so damnable, I’d think.” Squatting down but not offering a hand, Galahad looks as if he’s enjoying this far too much. At the end of the long, long first day, he’d managed to stroke the horse’s nose for a few moments and ever since, it treats him as if he were its mother.
Whereas Gawain pilfers apples from winter storage and earns the unending ire of the cooks, changes the water in its stall twice daily instead of once and nearly rasps out his throat trying to sing, and the best he can do is stretch out his arm as far as possible so it can cautiously lip hay. Then bolt across the field so he can look forward to a pleasant afternoon of trudging through snow after it. “Did you see where it went?”
Something that he said makes Galahad frown, narrow his eyes and study Gawain as carefully as he would the lay of a battlefield. But that isn’t a new rudeness, so Gawain ignores it in favor of dragging himself to his feet. His side aches and snow is melting down the back of his collar so he has to scratch and bat at it like a demented cat.
“You name him yet?” Galahad slowly rises to his feet and looks at the Wall. It is a sight to see, all stark darkness and heavy portent. End of one world, beginning of another, boundary of safety and danger, center of their lives and chief cause of their deaths. If it wasn’t here, they wouldn’t be here either.
“Am I supposed to?” Some of the men name their horses, but Gawain’s lost enough of them that he has gotten tired of thinking up new ones. He supposes he could do as Bors does and always use the same name, but that seems unfair. Anyway, they’re always Rome’s horses, not Gawain’s or Arthur’s or anyone else’s. It isn’t wise to name others’ property.
The look Galahad gives him sneaks out from the side of the man’s eyes, a furtive little thing that hisses with one paw and bats piteously at Gawain’s ankle with the other. Then Galahad shrugs, retreating into indifference. “It’s obvious he thinks all men are disgusted with him and want to hurt him. You aren’t exactly giving him much encouragement.”
“And naming him would help with that?” Gawain asks. He speaks more sharply than he means to and tries to cover it up by smacking the snow off his knees hard, but he knows how useless that is. So he stalls, takes more time than he needs to with dusting himself off. He looks at Galahad’s knees and wonders once again how the other man stands it, and from there his gaze idly continues down to the boots, so worn that he suspects they’d be shapeless without the thongs Galahad has bound around them. “It just makes it harder when they die.”
“Well, maybe he wants to know it’ll be hard for someone when he dies. Knowing someone’s going to throw you away isn’t how you get through a battle,” Galahad retorts. His feet withdraw roughly from Gawain’s view, and when Gawain looks up, the other man is stomping through the drifts after the horse.
It’s snowed again and the fresh fall is heavy, clinging, wet. Beneath it the older layers have compressed so they’re very like thick mud, and so it’s no surprise when Galahad yanks up one foot and his boot fails to come with it. He topples from the sudden lack of weight and bangs an elbow hard into Gawain’s side when Gawain catches him.
“Ow.” Galahad pushes himself off Gawain and stumbles back a couple feet, face screwed up as if Gawain is a leper.
“You’re welcome,” Gawain mutters. But his patience somehow dredges up a last effort and he refrains from simply turning on his heel and leaving. Instead he pokes around till he finds Galahad’s boot, then hands it to the other man. “You better go inside and knock out the snow. If it’s not frostbite it’s chilblains, and neither’s good for riding.”
“I’m not an idiot. I know that, mother.” As usual, Galahad rips the boot from Gawain’s hands. Then he almost falls over again while trying to put it on.
Possibly the only reason Gawain doesn’t strangle the man right now is that he needs to track down his horse before it gets too far. He doubts it will—it’ll have as hard time getting through the snow as they do—but he’d rather not have it rampage through the middle of camp and then get his pay docked for the damage. “I’m not your mother. Your mother has to love you.”
His words are like a punch to Galahad’s stomach, and though Galahad takes it surprisingly well, it still shows. The satisfaction Gawain gets from that lasts all the way till he finds his horse. But by then he’s cold and tired and he very much wants to go inside himself where he can forget the whole mess in the warm glow of a fire and the laughter of friends.
He can’t. He has to spend another half-hour trying to convince the damned horse to let him grab the rope and take them both where it’s nicer. But it doesn’t believe him, and he only ends up chasing it till they’re both shaking, their sweat freezing to their skin while they stubbornly stare at each other.
“Fine,” Gawain whispers. He isn’t thinking. He’s just tired and frustrated and the memory of his words is eating a canker in his gut, because the damned horse thinks it knows better the same way Galahad did, and Gawain wants to hurt it in the same way. But he doesn’t hurt horses. Or people. And so he hates the feeling of wanting to, and so his irritation only grows and grows.
Finally it gives way. He staggers to a stop and rests his hands on his knees, staring through his bedraggled hair—which has long since flown loose of its thong—at the focus of his misery. Fine. Fine. It wants to be his pain in the neck, it can be. “Damned brat.”
The horse raises its head.
“That’s what you are. A brat. Brat. Easy name to remember.” Gawain slaps a hand against his face, trying to warm the flesh.
A moment later, something warm and wet nudges the side of his head. He looks up and he sees his red-faced reflection in Brat’s eye and…he can’t help laughing. He’s still laughing as he runs a hand over Brat’s velvet muzzle, as he winds the rope around his sore hand and turns them home.
* * *
Gawain has spent entirely too much time tromping through snow this winter. The onset of fall is supposed to mean peace, rest, hiding away from the nastier aspects of life while there’s time, and yet all he seems to do is walk around outside. He’s beginning to turn into Tristan.
And apparently more so than he thought, for when Galahad wheels his horse about and sees Gawain, his eyes widen and his legs jerk down and back so his horse leaps forward. That’s not the kind of reaction Gawain is used to getting.
It takes Galahad several minutes to slow his horse down and bring it alongside Gawain, and by the time he does, he’s fully recovered. The face he turns to Gawain rivals a marble statue for blankness. “What are you doing here?”
“Wondering where you are. It’s still a day less the week—you said you’d help for that long at the least.” For a moment, Gawain thinks Galahad is going to fall off his horse. That would be a trick, and not only because Galahad’s sitting down in his element. He shifts the bundle beneath his arm. “Brat’s letting me feed him, but I still can’t get a saddle on him.”
Galahad goes very still. Then he says, all incredulity, “Wait…what did you call him?”
Self-conscious isn’t something Gawain feels very often, but suddenly he has the urge to hunch over and flush. He tells his spine very firmly not to even think about it. “Brat. He likes it, so don’t ask me.”
The other man chews on his lip, the thoughts flitting through his eyes as numerous as the flakes on the ground. Then he grips the saddle-horn and leans over his horse’s neck so he’s nothing but a hump with scraped, dirty knees smelly with animal fat. His shoulders start to shake and Gawain almost steps forward before he realizes that Galahad is merely laughing at him.
Oddly enough, Gawain doesn’t find it annoying. Instead he smiles. “So? It’s already two hours after dawn.”
Eventually Galahad’s shoulders stop moving, but he stays slumped over so his voice is little more than a collection of muffled whuffings. “Let me take in Gaheris first.”
“Gaheris?” Gawain lightly rests his hand on the horse’s shoulder and turns to walk alongside Galahad so the other man doesn’t have to get down.
But Galahad does anyway, all brusqueness again. He drops from the saddle with a thump and walks so all Gawain can see of him is the old resentment and fear burning in his eye. “My brother. He said he’d take care of me, but he took ill and died just as we landed here. My new commander shoved me at a horse and said that could be Gaheris instead, so get moving.”
They walk for a while in silence. By now Gawain knows better than to offer meaningless apologies.
After a while, Galahad glances over his saddle again. “What’s that you’re carrying?”
“Oh, right.” Though Gawain’s debated long and hard about how to do this without getting it flung back in his face, when it comes to actually doing it, he’s still undecided. So he just shoves the bundle over the saddle and hopes for the best. “Boots. You look like you’ve got the same size as—”
“—you?” Galahad already looks as if he’s going to spit.
Gawain has to work hard not to lock his jaw. Nothing too much has changed, he thinks. “No, the dead knight. The one that had Brat last. They came with him.”
“Not much of a recommendation,” Galahad mutters. But the offended light in his eye is dying away, and from the sound of things, he’s shoving the boots beneath his arm.
“Neither was Brat, and you turned him around,” Gawain reminds him.
Either Galahad ducks his head, or Gaheris bobs up his head so his neck and shaggy mane hide Galahad. Whatever the case, Gawain doesn’t catch sight of Galahad’s face again till they’re back at the stables, and by then Galahad is concentrating on Brat.
* * *
Gawain braces a foot against the rail and looks at Tristan, who is placidly mending his tack. He hasn’t touched it since he came back after that week of storms, so Gawain takes it to mean Tristan’s starting to think about going scouting again. “Dedicated?”
“I don’t think he can do much else,” Tristan says. He holds up his needle and carefully threads it; he’s finished the major work and is now seeing to the sparse but fine decoration that scrolls down his bridle straps. They used to be simple spirals, but the new stitches he puts in are angular lines crossing over and slanting against each other, like the scratches on stone and wood that the Britons say is their writing.
“Because of who? His commander?” Though Gawain knows Arthur is a rare leader, still he’s grown so used to life under him that it’s a shock to remember how callous other officers can be.
Tristan lifts and drops a shoulder. “He’s been here for nearly two months. Arthur’s his commander now.”
It’s a good point, and one that Gawain chews on for a long time afterward.
* * *
“They’ve got in a good bard for the week at Vanora’s. Do you want to come and hear him?” Gawain says.
And Galahad spins like a knife tossed in the air and glares at Gawain. “What do you think I am?”
They’re leaning against the rail and staring at Brat, who has just let Gawain ride him with a halter and a saddle. Still a few weeks before the horse is easy under full armor, but Gawain is beginning to believe in that as an end-goal and not merely wishful thinking. The sun is weak but out so Gawain can lift his face into the light, and for once Galahad has been relatively pleasant to talk to. Up till now.
After a moment, the other man flings himself back against the rail as if he’s a boar brought to bay and working himself up to a last mad charge. But he wraps his arms around himself as if that is the only way he can hold on his skin. “I lied, that first day. I knew who you were. You’re the one that’s friends with Tristan, and nearly everyone’s heard of him.”
“So I am. What does that have to do with anything?” Gawain is biting his tongue to keep from saying something pointed about the perfectly-fitting boots Galahad now wears. Sometimes he wonders why, exactly, he picks such difficult people with whom to keep company.
“So what I am to you? Another wild one you feel duty-bound to befriend? Well, I don’t need it,” Galahad snaps.
In the middle of the paddock, Brat lifts his head and makes inquiring noises. Since he doesn’t seem to be welcome with the men, Gawain decides he’s better off making closer friends with his horse. “And you’d better never say that to Tristan. He’d kill you. Actually, I want to kill you for that, but you’re new here and you’re obviously confusing me with someone who bothers with lost causes.”
Gawain pets Brat until he hears Galahad leave, and then he presses his forehead between Brat’s eyes and groans. “Damn it, he’s annoying.”
And Gawain’s also sorry, but it’s too late to say that.
* * *
Somewhere in this empty stall Gawain has dropped his hair-thong and he’d like to find it soon. He’s sifting through the stale-smelling hay when he notices that feet have appeared beside him, and that the shoes are familiar. But he has reasons for wanting to find that thong so badly—namely, it and a carved-horn spoon are all he’s got left of his mother—and so he keeps poking about while he waits for Galahad to say something.
Galahad, however, never does, and finally Gawain stops on hands and knees. He sighs and says the first thing he can think of, because frankly he’s too irked with too little explanation to try thinking on the matter anymore. “Why don’t you wear trousers like a sane man? Your knees look like someone’s taken a whetstone to them.”
Then he turns to look up at Galahad, and at the same time Galahad is squatting down, or stepping forward, or both. Either way, they tangle together and Gawain discovers that it takes more than a pair of good boots to cure Galahad’s awkwardness when not on a horse. It doesn’t help that Galahad won’t calm down and untangle himself slowly; the hay goes flying in Gawain’s face and mouth as they roll over so he chokes and can’t see. Finally he jams his foot against a corner and makes them stop, then yanks out straw from his hair till he can see.
Galahad is beneath him, and oddly still, and staring up with very, very wide eyes. “Um,” he says.
“I’m sorry about earlier, but you know, there’s nicer ways to say no.” There’s a broken straw that’s wound itself round Gawain’s ear so it’s jabbing in and it’s very irritating, so he takes a moment to untwist it. Then he shifts his weight to get off, and then he has to stop and think his life really won’t stop spinning him around. “Oh.”
“Um,” Galahad says.
Gawain chuckles uneasily and stays put since he’s not really sure what to do. “Then again, I suppose no trousers is more comfortable for some circumstances.”
Frustration, that oh-so-familiar sight, appears on Galahad’s face and turns his eyes steely. He stops croaking and instead throws up an arm to pull Gawain down. And that is all Gawain really was waiting for, after all.
Dedicated. He’s going to kill Tristan. Later.
* * *
It’s been years, maybe, since Galahad’s been around someone who didn’t make him slam up armor and it shows. Through Gawain’s head fly memory fragments of odd looks from Galahad, odder words, and it’d make him curl his nails into his palms if he wasn’t so busy prying Galahad open again.
And Galahad is young, as Gawain’s noticed but never really understood because of the sharpness Galahad has thrown up around it. At first it’s almost as painful and ludicrous as watching him walk in his old boots, all flailing and frantic and nownownow without regard to any real feeling. All rush so it won’t really touch Galahad. Except Gawain can be…ah, dedicated himself, and he certainly has grown too old for adolescent fumblings.
He tries to be patient, to soothe with hands and meet clashing teeth with a soft mouth, and soon Galahad is calmer, moaning not in hurry but in sensation, but then it’s Gawain who has problems. Long firm thighs, small tongue, throat bending into the pressure of his mouth. His hands roam up and down Galahad’s body, getting drunk on the feel of clothes crumpling away to reveal smooth skin stretching over panting lungs, on the heft of a prick swelling for him, on the clutch of a hand on his arm. Galahad’s mouth finds his nipple and though that doesn’t normally feel like much for Gawain, here it makes him muffle a cry in Galahad’s shoulder.
Fat builds up beneath his nails because he can’t stop running his hands over Galahad’s legs and it’ll stink later but here it’s useful, it eases the way and Gawain is determined to have nothing of hurt in this. He doesn’t hurt horses or people—he doesn’t want to, especially now when his mouth is full of Galahad’s breath and the razor curve of Galahad’s hip is carving itself into the muscle-memory of his hand. He takes his time, though it nearly drives them both mad and long before he’s in Galahad the other man is clawing and pleading even though he—somehow, adorably—blushes at what he’s asking for.
But then Gawain is in Galahad, and Galahad’s blush is completely lost in the scarlet fever that blooms beneath their skin and heats their breath and melts their bodies into one frenzied rhythm. His hands are slipping on Galahad, and he thinks he’s going to lose hold of him, but fingers twine around his arms and he knows from the pressure that that won’t happen and so he can let go. He can let Galahad go, and know the other man will stay.
* * *
“’m sorry about what I called you,” Galahad mumbles. He’s tucked up beneath Gawain’s chin and refuses to move even though they’re sticky and they’ll pull out hairs separating if they don’t clean themselves off soon. His mouth is chewing on Gawain’s hair and on what feels like straw scratching Gawain’s throat, but Gawain just can’t lift a hand to pull those away. “And Tristan.”
“Have you even met him yet?” The other man sounds so reluctant about the second part of his apology that Gawain laughs. He flops a limp hand down Galahad’s back.
Galahad snorts. “Yes. He’s…fond of you. And he shows it, which must mean a lot with him.”
“But we don’t,” Gawain says, staring up at the rafters. He can hear Brat. The damned horse is snickering.
Well, let him. Gawain looks back at Galahad and ruffles his hair. “We do. If you get off me in the next few moments so the hunting parties coming back don’t catch us.”
The other man butts Gawain’s hand and defiantly drops back to Gawain’s chest. Brat.
* * *
One hand on the saddle-horn and a foot in the stirrup, Tristan pauses only long enough to say six short words. “It wasn’t meant to be funny.”
“That—what—how do you know what I’m going to say?” Gawain sputters, completely exasperated.
Tristan merely grins, and twitches his horse’s head towards the door. “I take it you two are done tying up the practice areas? I need time, too.”
Gawain thinks about beating his head against a pole, but ultimately he decides against it, since now he’s got better things—better people upon which to expend his time and energy.