|Humanity Prologue: Shock
Author: Guede Mazaka
“This is boring.” Admittedly, it was relieving for once to not be worrying about arrows in the back, or Romans trying to cut out their legs from under them before heaving them onto the battlefield, but nevertheless, it was boring. Tracking wasn’t Galahad’s specialty for a good reason, and so he didn’t see what the point was of going along with Tristan. The man knew what he was doing and he usually did it fine without company.
For all Galahad could tell, Tristan had probably forgotten someone else was there. He was off his horse and pawing around the leaves at the base of a tree, whistling tunelessly as he poked the ground. So was his hawk, which occasionally swooped down to check back before soaring upwards again. It was lucky—it could come back when it wanted to, and didn’t have to obey stupid Gawain about tagging along after Tristan like a pathetic little puppy.
They weren’t even in hostile territory. It was rough country and sparse of towns or even villages, but they were well behind Roman lines and no battles were on the horizon, except for the mock kind. Some new unit was being broken in at their garrison and so they got to play around down in the hinterlands, doing drills and hunting and generally loafing about. Arthur had even brought one or two of his precious books along with the intention of catching up on his reading, though the way Lancelot had rolled his eyes at that made it doubtful that Arthur would. “What the fuck am I doing here? I’m staring at squirrel scratches and waiting for you to decide it’s nothing. This is--”
“—I didn’t ask for you to come along.” Tristan got up and leisurely moved forward a few paces before squatting again to look at more leaves. He flipped a hand over his shoulder. “It’s nearly dusk. You should be going in anyway.”
“Oh, yes. Because the trees will eat me if I stay out too late,” Galahad muttered, turning away. If he went back without Tristan, Gawain would turn into a scold for the whole night and then there really wasn’t a point in having free time since it wouldn’t be enjoyable. “What are you looking for, anyway?”
Tristan ignored him.
When they got back, Gawain had better have a good explanation for shoving Galahad out here. The two of them could’ve made a run to the river and found a nice big rock to fuck on or something pleasant like that, but no, Gawain had to be responsible. He couldn’t possibly have that much to do, yet he still managed to find things.
Galahad sighed and looked up. He and Tristan were at the base of a fairly tall, thickly wooded hill. Sometime in the past, Britons had cleared off the top and built a modest fortress, which had subsequently been taken over by the Romans and properly fortified to protect the rare spring that welled up there. The woods had since been allowed to creep upwards and a small village had sprouted about the garrison, but Galahad could still see the tops of the stone walls over the leafy fringe. “Could you hurry—”
The arrow came out of nowhere. In fact, for the first second Galahad thought it’d merely grown out of the tree. But Tristan was spinning up and throwing himself into the saddle of his suddenly-nervy horse, and Galahad’s own charger was whinnying and dancing as his hands yanked up bow and arrow. Then his mind engaged and he clapped his knees into his horse’s sides, wheeling it back and forth to present as small a target as possible. More arrows whipped by his head and thunked into the ground at his horse’s hooves. One struck his gauntlet longways and skittered down its length to fall harmlessly away. Another stung his ear and left hot droplets behind.
His horse reared and he caught a gleam of something in the trees. Galahad shot and heard a wet thump, which meant flesh and not wood. He hastily got out another arrow and took aim, then let it off. That one sounded as if it’d missed, but Tristan had unloaded five in the same time, and he’d hit all of them. Sometimes he was handy to have around.
Still wasn’t going to do much good; they were cavalry and they needed to get out into the open. Here they were easy targets. Galahad was opening his mouth to say so when Tristan jerked around and whacked the butt of his bow across the flanks of Galahad’s horse, which promptly took off like its tail was afire.
“Bastard!” Galahad fell heavily onto his horse’ neck and nearly fell, with only a last-moment grab at his saddle to save him. He hauled himself up just time to duck another arrow, only this one was from his fellow knight.
Tristan had hooked his leg over his saddle horn and was shooting behind them. As good as he was, he wasn’t going to be able to keep up that balancing act for very long, so it was a damned lucky thing they weren’t far from a wide clearing. If Galahad remembered right, Arthur and a few other knights should still be there, finishing up practice.
And he was right, but it didn’t help them much. He and Tristan broke from the trees into a blood-splashed field full of Woads. Howling blue sons of whores hacking at bodies and raising spears towards the newcomers—Galahad cursed and slammed his heels into his horse. It leaped, clipped some bastard in the skull as it went and came down heavily, impact ripping up through it to jar him. “Shit. Shit, shit, please don’t have a broken—”
But his horse resumed its pace after that stumble. Galahad couldn’t spare the time to give thanks, or even to feel relieved. He rode down another Woad, felt gore splatter up onto the bottoms of his boots, and cut back into the woods.
Fuck. Fuck. They weren’t even armored, and the only proper building around for miles was the fort, but the Woads were between Galahad and Tristan and that. And fuck, Arthur was—Galahad hadn’t seen any faces. He tried to remember if he’d recognized anything—swords, strips of cloth—and nearly let himself get knocked out of the saddle by a low-hanging branch. No time to worry about that, no matter how his gut wanted to poison itself.
“We can’t run!” Tristan called to him. The other man shouldered his horse besides Galahad on the narrow path. “Not in the woods. Too thick.”
“Can’t fucking stand either! Too many.” They smashed through some bushes and came out on the banks of a small stream. The hooves of Galahad’s horse skidded on the wet stones and he twisted it back onto the dirt.
Tristan’s horse didn’t miss a step, but that was its downfall: a Woad lunged out of the other side and into the middle of the bank, where she stood with mouth a red gaping scream and pike braced against the ground. The momentum carried Tristan’s horse right onto it; he kicked out of his stirrups and jumped off before his horse fell, but at the last moment his horse gave an agonized twist and hit him, or snagged him for a moment, or did something that threw off his landing. He went down and rolled away from the Woad, who was already crumpling over the arrow Galahad had put between her breasts.
More were coming up behind, and they announced their presence by sending an arrow through the eyes of Galahad’s horse. He scrambled to get off it, dropping his bow, and landed better than Tristan, but then he nearly dislocated his shoulder trying to turn and draw his sword to block the first ax. He made it, barely—it slashed a new scar through his sleeve—and kicked out to get distance, then cleaved the Woad’s skull in two. Another one came up his left and he ducked the man’s wild swing to drive in low and gut him. “Tristan?”
Galahad looked there and saw a spear, which he parried just in time. He elbowed the bastard in the eye and then slammed his hilt into the Woad’s skull hard enough to feel it pulp through the bone. “That’s very funny—”
“—useful’s better, and it was that.” Tristan had dragged himself up the bank and had grabbed Galahad’s discarded bow. Then he’d apparently used the Woads’ own arrows to kill the rest.
For the moment, anyway. Suddenly the woods weren’t boring, but nerve-wrackingly quiet. There had been more than that seeing to the dead knights in the clearing. “Arthur,” Galahad gasped. “Did you—”
“I don’t think—” Tristan stopped, face oddly white, and took a deep breath “—he wasn’t there. But they were carrying off the bodies.”
“Why would—oh, fuck.” All Galahad could do for a long heartbeat was stare into Tristan’s eyes and see the dread peeking out from behind the man’s composure. Raiding parties let bodies be. Armies took them to mutilate and leave at the edge of fields in order to terrify the other side.
They couldn’t even go on leave without someone trying to kill them.
A hysterical little giggle crammed Galahad’s throat, and if he’d been with anyone else, he probably would’ve let it out in some form. But it was Tristan and the man never, ever let a chance to throw embarrassments back in Galahad’s face go by, so—and Tristan was pale. Very pale. He also wasn’t standing up.
Galahad wiped at his forehead to give himself something to do. He breathed in, ignored how it made his exhausted lungs hurt, and tried to think. To start with, he wasn’t going to die in some nasty backhanded Woad ambush. Therefore they needed to first get away from here and second get back to the fort. It looked as if the Woads were temporarily too busy to send anyone else after them, so they had a little time.
He knelt down besides his horse’s corpse and feverishly attacked the saddle-straps; good tack was worth almost as much as a stallion out here, and he wasn’t going to leave his for some moron in blue paint who’d only smear it up. Plus he’d need the food and supplies in the saddlebags. “We need to go.”
“I told you to leave,” Tristan snorted, voice far too weak. He made no attempt to drag his feet out of the shallow stream, nor to get at his saddle.
“Yeah, and I should have, but I promised Gawain. What, you want to stay and get taken by the Woads? They don’t kill nice, you know.” The buckles were suddenly slippery as water-snakes and Galahad’s fingers couldn’t keep up. He couldn’t keep up with everything he thought he needed to do—he needed to leave—there was a Woad army—Tristan wasn’t getting up.
Tristan. Damn it, but Galahad was embarrassing himself anyway.
The thought gave him a good slap and knocked his mind in order. He looked at his shaking fingers, almost laughed at how ridiculous it was for him to panic now after so many battles, and just slashed through the straps with his sword. He could fix that.
And now for Tristan. “What?” Galahad snapped, voice thick and raspy.
The other man just stared back, but a casual glance at his hand showed it was white-knuckled and digging into the mud. When Tristan spoke, his voice was shaking ever-so-slightly. “They aren’t going to take me.”
Galahad felt the poison in his stomach braid itself into a whip and lash at his insides. His hand went out before he even thought about it to grab at Tristan’s shoulder and lift the other man just enough to see. Then his other hand pinned down Tristan’s wrist, and with it the knife Tristan had been taking out. “What? What are you doing?”
“My leg’s broken, you blind—” Tristan cut himself off there and dropped his head. His shoulders went rapidly up and down with a breath before he looked up again, far too calm. “Their trackers are good. You’ll have to stay with the stream for a long time before you can get out—there are some caves nearby. Go for those.”
“And I don’t have the slightest fucking idea where those are, so you’re showing me. Don’t argue or—or I’ll knock you out and you won’t get a say,” Galahad snapped. He yanked away the knife and shoved it into his belt, then swallowed hard against that damned panicky giggle that wouldn’t get out of his throat. No time to think, so…do.
Right. It hurt to leave the saddle that he’d had for so many years now, but he couldn’t carry it and deal with Tristan. The saddlebags he kept, with only what they absolutely needed in them. Then he yanked Tristan all the way onto the bank and rigged a splint; it was a bad break just from feel, but the bone hadn’t gone through the skin. “That should hold. And everyone thinks it’s a bad thing I took so long to learn how to ride in armor—it taught me about surgery, anyway.”
“You’re being an idiot,” Tristan muttered. He was still very white and when Galahad tried to stand him up, he didn’t even make it to his knees before he collapsed. His hand slapped against Galahad’s neck, then slid to push weakly at Galahad’s chest. “You don’t even like me. And you need to go. Someone needs to warn them.”
“If I only saved people I liked, there’d only be a handful of knights left. And I’m telling the truth; I don’t know how to get to the caves. So shut up and…oh.” Galahad’s hand had run across a warm wet patch on Tristan’s side. He swore, and he kept swearing as he pulled up the other man’s jerkin to see the deep oozing cut, as he hurriedly bound it up with strips of their undershirts.
By the time he was done, his muscles were trembling and weak and he just wanted to lie down for a few moments. But off in the distance were voices that he didn’t recognize, and they were coming closer. So Galahad threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and tied them there so they wouldn’t slip, then ducked down and got Tristan’s arm over his neck and his arm around Tristan. He staggered up, took a step forward and discovered that he couldn’t possibly have enough energy to make it.
Well, he’d have to. He took another step, and another, and eventually they were moving at a fairly good pace. Galahad ignored the pain and exhaustion till it all started to blur into a haze he couldn’t really feel, for which he was rather thankful because then he didn’t know exactly how terrified he was. “You weigh too much. And walking in the stream, great idea—the stones are slipping under my feet. I swear, when I see Gawain again I’m going to—”
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll pass out and then you’ll have to carry me,” Tristan said, very quiet and very sharp. “Stop panicking.”
“I’m not. What’s there to panic over? Aside from you threatening to kill yourself, we’ve done this all before.” As jittery as Galahad did sound, he meant that. And it was true. “You’re not going to argue about that, are you?”
Tristan made a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a pained grunt, edged with a peculiar rawness. “You’re an idiot.”
He was repeating himself, and the look he shot at Galahad was more glassy-eyed than anything else. If they didn’t find somewhere soon, he was going to pass out whether or not either of them wanted to.
“And you’re scared,” Galahad guessed, more because he needed to distract himself than because he was actually trying to judge Tristan.
He didn’t receive an answer. Swearing, he picked up the pace as much as he dared.