|Humanity I: Fear
Author: Guede Mazaka
Lancelot pressed his elbows into the mattress and lazily stretched, pulling on muscles from shoulders down his back to the hands circling his waist. There the satisfied ripple fragmented outward and turned his hum into a deep groan; his knees slipped a little farther apart to let Arthur in that bit more. The other man’s breath hitched and his teeth found their way to the join of Lancelot’s neck and shoulder. But they only grazed in passing—the morning light was a warm soothing bath over their skin and it simply wasn’t the time for that. It was just a sweet, slow slide of Arthur’s prick into Lancelot, of Lancelot’s knees on the sheets, of their last few gasps and sighs out of their throats.
“Good morning,” Arthur mumbled, settling down mostly on Lancelot’s left side. For the first time in months, he sounded genuinely cheerful. He licked at Lancelot’s shoulderblade, paused to twist his hips and pull out, then went back to tracing shivers out of Lancelot’s skin.
It certainly wasn’t a bad one so far. To judge by the length of the sunlight coming through the cracks of the shutters, Lancelot had even managed to make Arthur wake up late. That in itself was cause for celebration, whenever Lancelot worked up the energy for that.
He lifted himself on his forearms and bent down to nuzzle at a small thin scar along Arthur’s hairline. “Now aren’t you happy I pestered you for this?”
Arthur softly snorted and buried his face in the sheets, but not before Lancelot caught him smiling. He absently drew a hand up and down Lancelot’s back. “The men did need a break. Morale’s improved a good deal.” Of course, from there Arthur always had to go on to the cons of the situation. Faint worry lines drew his brows together. “I just hope nothing serious has come up at the Wall. Pelles doesn’t have much—”
His lips struggled for a moment against Lancelot’s, but they acquiesced soon enough. Damned man needed to stop spoiling the day before it had even really started. For that matter, he needed to stop measuring everything solely by the condition of his men. It wouldn’t matter how well-rested and ready for a fight they were if they didn’t have an able commander.
When they pulled apart to breathe, Lancelot nipped a last time at Arthur’s lip. “We’re in friendly territory. There’s only a handful of villagers, all delighted to have the business of bored cavalry. We’ve got a room with nice thick stone walls and a lock on the door. Only you would manage to still find something to—ow!”
He jerked away and began to reach back, but stopped himself before he made things any worse. And Arthur laughed, cupping his hand around the spot he’d just pinched and daring to feather fingertips between Lancelot’s buttocks. If it wasn’t such a delicate, teasing…Lancelot told himself to squirm away from it; going the other way didn’t help his dignity any.
The other man pressed his mouth against the corner of Lancelot’s eye and patted him like he was an overfed barncat, then twisted around. Arthur swung his legs off the bed and started to dress. “I’d offer to make it better, but even rest-leave has its chores.”
“Nice to see your sparkling sense of humor show up,” Lancelot grumbled, flopping back into bed. He didn’t have to get up for another hour. The bed was nicely warm all over from their languid coupling a few moments ago, and if he curled just right, he could avoid the damp patch.
He only managed to lie still for a five-count before he resignedly pulled himself up and reached for his clothes. By then, Arthur was already done and standing over the water-basin, splashing his face. He looked over and arched an eyebrow at Lancelot, who made a face back. Letting Arthur wander around by himself invariably led to him working himself into a minor funk over something, and then they’d have to waste half the night getting him to admit it. And then it’d be the other half of the night finding a solution, or if it was something that didn’t come with a solution, getting Arthur to just let it go for a while.
Lancelot gave himself a cursory run-over with a wet rag before throwing on his trousers and under-shirt. “So what’s today? Settling more farmyard disputes? Someone swipe someone else’s best hen?”
“You don’t have to get up,” Arthur observantly pointed out. He turned back to the bit of mirror he had propped up on a shelf and shaved another strip of cheek, then glanced at Lancelot.
“No.” A quick elbowing-aside of Arthur and a check in the mirror showed Lancelot he didn’t need to crop his beard today. He swiped the piece of soap Arthur had been using to make lather and took care of the few places that did need a touch of the razor. “But it’s fun to watch you treat little domestic issues as if they were coronations.”
Arthur stifled something that sounded like annoyance and went back to shaving. “Because out here, they might as well be coronations. The Britons have to see that Rome isn’t just a distant city, but a law and justice that can improve their daily lives.”
So they wouldn’t notice how with the other hand, Rome was slowly grinding them into powder, Lancelot almost added. But he glimpsed sobriety beginning to re-carve the lines in Arthur’s face, and he remembered the lightness of Arthur’s teasing a moment before, and he let the issue pass. For the moment.
Anyway, Britain wasn’t his land. There was no point in caring overmuch about what Rome did to them, except for how much more it made the Woads want to kill the Sarmatians, and it was hard to see how the Woads could get any more enthusiastic about that.
Arthur was staring at him, eyes dark and pensive. The man should’ve looked ridiculous, given the whitish foam drying on bits of his face, but instead he made Lancelot’s chest ache. “I know—”
“Is that what we’re doing?” Lancelot interrupted. He snagged his swords from the corner and tucked them beneath his arm, then grabbed an apple from the shelf. It tasted cool, sweet, uncomplicated.
“No.” It looked as if Arthur was going to push the conversation anyway, but at the last moment he changed his mind. He carefully scraped at the last bit of unshaved skin before rinsing razor and face. “Actually, I wanted you to check over the fortifications and see if they need any repairs. I’m taking out a few knights—there’s a few small-group formations that I’ve been wanting to try. Also, Tristan says he might be able to find wild boars for hunting later.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes and crunched more of the apple. “Wouldn’t Gawain be better for that? Or does having a nice wake-up fuck mean I have to do penance with drudgery?”
It wasn’t that deep a jab at Christianity, but Arthur flinched anyway. He folded away his shaving kit without a word, then picked up Excalibur. The set of his shoulders was starting to slump, as if there were lead weights attached to him.
The last bite Lancelot took from his apple shoved a painful sliver of its skin between a tooth and his gums. He cursed and picked it out with his nail, then stared disgustedly at the small piece of mangled red peel. Sometimes it seemed as if there was nothing truly harmless in the whole world, despite best intentions. “Never mind.”
A curled finger slid beneath his chin and tipped it up into a long, tender kiss that washed away the tiny spark of hurt. Then Arthur pressed their foreheads together before stepping back. He had a half-smile on his face that still bore traces of his earlier good humor. “I’d rather you do it. Gawain’s very capable, but he isn’t as…”
“Good as me when it comes to picking out flaws?” This time, Lancelot hoped the jeer would come off on the right level. He leaned against Arthur and grinned up at the other man. “How was the apple?”
“I need to remember to get more while I’m out.” Arthur, thankfully, decided to play along. He had another taste before he unlocked the door.
* * *
Dagonet eyed the recalcitrant stone, then braced the handle of a spare spade against it and shoved. It went in with a loud grating crack and a scattering of fresh chips at his feet, but the stone now fit snugly in the wall. He nodded at it and stooped to scrape up mortar to properly fix it in place.
“Bit of practice with masonry. Suppose it’ll come in handy when we get back home; Vanora’s been complaining about a draft.” This part of the wall curved sharply about, so Bors could be heard long before he could be seen. When he finally rounded the corner, he still wasn’t visible due to the huge armful of food he was carrying.
They’d patched nearly all of their assigned length of wall before Bors had left to snitch food, and during his absence, Dagonet had finished the rest. Then he’d done a few more to use up all of their mortar. Even if Lancelot weren’t preoccupied with a problem on the far end of the garrison, he’d have no reason to rebuke them for taking a break.
Before he sat down, Dagonet carefully raked off the mortar traces from his spade. He set it beside him and reached for a great wheel of cheese, which crumbled off pale yellow bits as he halved it with his hands. It was sharpish with an undertaste of grass, and it quickly melted away his hunger. He traded half for some bread and a pull at the wine-skin.
“Damn good food. Not that it’s up to Vanora’s, but still, not to be sneezed at.” Bors dropped his feet over the side of the on the platform edging the inner side of the wall and ate with wet smacking chews loud enough to attract attention from below.
Two of the village women were heading for the gate with baskets of laundry beneath their arms. One of them, a pretty-faced blonde, Dagonet recognized but couldn’t quite place. The other was a brunette with a long beaky nose and an ungainly mouth, but for all of that, she would still have garnered a few smiles if she hadn’t looked so sour. As the pair of them passed below him and Bors, the brunette tossed them a glower that could’ve curdled milk. She leaned over and noisily whispered something to her companion in Briton.
Bors suddenly choked. He stopped almost as soon as he started, swallowing hard and slashing the back of his hand over his mouth. “Cunt.”
For all his size and volume, at heart Bors was a strangely gentle, polite man. His mouth might have been the crudest among the knights by far, but it only ever kissed one woman. So Dagonet stared at his friend, wondering. Then he looked back down at the women.
Looking embarrassed, the blonde roughly shoved her friend up the path before turning an apologetic smile up to Dagonet. “Ho, knights. Lovely day.”
“It would be,” Bors rumbled back, still sounding uncharacteristically discontented. But he was already calming down, returning to his cheese and bread. “Peaceful town you have here.”
“Just as long as you didn’t bring the fighting with you.” The brown-haired woman apparently had quite a temper and refused to be shuffled away. “That wall’s worn down for a reason.”
Her friend turned on her and snarled with a startling, hideous vehemence that took both Dagonet and the woman aback. But then the blonde one was sunny again, showing off a rare set of white teeth. “Oh, I’m sure the reason they’re repairing it is so the fighting stays away. Good day, sirs.”
She made a pretty curtsey that promised glimpses of breasts, which immediately drew Bors’ eye. Dagonet, however, found himself watching the other woman, who huffed and stalked away. Even when her friend ran after her and tried to tease her out of it, she refused to be placated. The last he saw of her was when she disappeared in the bustle that constantly surrounded the gate, the line of her back still stiff with anger.
“Well, well, Urien’s got himself a sweet one,” Bors laughed. He saw Dagonet’s confused look and slapped a hand on Dagonet’s shoulder. “No one’s told you? Urien’s been chasing that one—name’s Brangaine—for months, Dag. Finally talked her into his bed—‘s why he goes around now like he’s got his own private sun.”
“What about the other one?” She’d not looked so much angry as defensive at first, Dagonet decided. As if she were an ewe keeping an eye on a wolf circling the herd.
The other man shrugged, stuffing the rest of his cheese into his mouth. He garbled out an answer. “Some relative of hers. This is their home…heard Arthur was asking for suggestions about good places to take leave and Urien jumped at the chance to get closer to his little honeycake.”
That sounded like Urien, who was a decent officer but whose few weak spots were soft as rotten fruit. Though it didn’t sound quite like Arthur to select a place on such merits; he might issue a day pass for Urien to go visiting, but he wouldn’t shift his troops just to satisfy one man. “How’d he talk him into it?”
Bors shrugged. “Don’t need to talk—this is a nice place. Great big field over there, snug fort here even if it’s a bit chipped up…this used to be the frontier not so long ago. Gorlois—you remember him?—started out here with Arthur’s father. Man used to go on and on about Uther and how every day they’d kill fifty Woads before breakfast—hah! No disrespect to Arthur, but that’s horseshit.”
The part about the idealness of the location was true enough; the only real drawback that Dagonet could see was that it was a little ways from the main thoroughfares. No important roads ran within half-a-day’s march, and the nearest river big enough for sizable boats was even farther away. Its isolation both protected it from and bared it to attack.
“Not that I’d know for sure, but I’d bet Lancelot knew why Urien wanted it so badly and didn’t say a word because he thought it was funny. Got a bit of a nasty streak, him.” On that note, Bors chomped up the last bits of his meal. Then he sucked his thumb and each finger clean, popping them out of his mouth.
Dagonet suppressed a slight feeling of disgust and concentrated on his own food. To each his own, but something about that blonde woman raised his hackles. He much preferred the other one, since anger and fear were clear and understandable. “Maybe he wanted to make sure no one would bother Arthur. He can order Gawain around, and if Urien’s—”
Bors laughed. A few bits of bread flew from his mouth as he did, but then he was grinning like a small boy at Dagonet and squeezing Dagonet’s arm in shared amusement, and Dagonet forgot about being revolted. His friend was how he was, and that was all Bors needed to be.
* * *
“I still don’t like it.” Geraint bounced the piece of wood between his hands, then pointed the broken end at Gawain. He ran a nail along its edges. “See? The break’s still fresh. And this isn’t a regular hunting arrow. The shaft’s too thick.”
It did look like a crossbow bolt, and no one used those for anything but war. On the other hand, the Woads didn’t like using crossbows even in battle. It was a weapon for ranges shorter than ambushes, and it was too easily tangled in thick foliage. When they used arrows, they used regular bows. “Maybe it’s one of ours. Someone messing around, practicing their aim.”
“Since when did we have a knight using a crossbow?” Geraint snorted. Then he remembered who ranked and ducked his head, face flushing.
He shouldn’t have worried, since it was a stupid comment and Gawain had been regretting it the moment it’d left his mouth. Crossbows were a foot-soldier’s weapon, and the nearest legionaries were a day and a half’s hard march away. So either the arrow belonged to the knights, the villagers, or…there were Woads in the woods.
The day was sunny and hot enough to have gotten Gawain stripped to his waist, but nevertheless his gut managed to go icy. He took the fragment from Geraint and looked it over again, desperately searching for another explanation. They didn’t need this. They’d just finished recovering from their last campaign and they were heading into another one as soon as they returned to the garrison, and the last thing they needed was a fight in between those. They didn’t need this, and he didn’t want to see it.
And Galahad was in the woods with Tristan.
Gawain made himself stop and dragged his attention back to the matter at hand. “The head’s not right.”
“No. It looks like they’ve put a regular head on a bolt. But that’d be awkward to shoot…” Geraint frowned and thought, fiddling with the hair bracelet around his wrist. His girl had finally agreed to a marriage, but they’d forgone gold pledge-jewelry in favor of ones made out of their own locks to spare more money for a home. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever they do with it, it can’t mean well for us.”
“But you and your men, plus Tristan, have been going out every day. Shouldn’t you have seen more signs if there’s an army in the area?” Hopefully it didn’t sound as if Gawain was accusing, because he wasn’t. He was merely confused; the Woads were excellent fighters and on their home ground no matter where the fighting was, but no matter how quiet people were, the movement of an army left traces. And it wasn’t as if the knights hadn’t learned what to look by now.
The other man looked troubled and didn’t immediately answer. When he did, it was in a slow, hesitant voice that did nothing to sooth Gawain’s nerves. “We…haven’t been looking. We’re so far behind the Wall…one of my men found this when he missed a shot at a deer and went to retrieve his arrow.”
They hadn’t been looking. Well, of course they hadn’t, said Gawain’s voice of reason. They hadn’t had any reason to, no one had had any reason to expect them or ask them to, and so they were just lucky they were finding out now instead of, say, when their throats were being cut.
Gawain’s little flare of irritation turned in on itself and he reminded himself that hysterics weren’t going to help. It was edging on to evening and if they were going to do anything, they had to move quickly. “Where are your men now?”
“I sent most of them back here, but detailed a few to go circling in pairs. Three have come in so far and said they’d seen nothing. That leaves two pairs—one towards Arthur’s group and one towards where…Tristan said he’d be.” Geraint twisted his mouth a little around his last few words, as if to say he couldn’t guarantee the last one and Gawain knew why.
Which Gawain did, and that had been why he’d made Galahad partner up with Tristan. He didn’t doubt Tristan’s abilities or his intelligence, but the other man had a worrying tendency to go his own way without telling anyone. And since technically Gawain was Tristan’s troop leader and therefore was responsible for him, it was important to make certain he knew where to find the man.
If he was more specific with his honesty, he’d add that he was also still worried about Tristan’s habit of skirting the very edge of danger. He hadn’t known much of Tristan before Dinidan’s death had ripped out a whole side of the man, but somehow Tristan didn’t give the impression of being naturally reckless. He certainly had more than his share of iron nerves, but he was clear-sighted enough to know when to pay attention to the cost.
“Well, we have to wait for Arthur to get back, at least,” Gawain muttered. The point of sending Galahad along was to ensure that Tristan couldn’t wander too far. Maybe it was unkind of Gawain to be thinking of Galahad as a brake right now, but that didn’t diminish the truth in that image. So those two should be easy enough to reach. They’d be back in good time.
Gawain was fretting again. For the last time, he willed himself to stop. There might not even be anything worth worrying over.
“Where’s Lancelot?” Geraint asked, looking about. “Shouldn’t we mention this to him?”
“He’s been strengthening the fort walls.” The irony hung in the air between them like a leaden veil. So did the unspoken knowledge that, no matter how the situation turned out, Lancelot wasn’t going to take this news well. His idea of dealing with concern was to lash it out of himself and over the backs of whoever was nearest.
Maybe Arthur would come in before anyone could get to Lancelot, and then Gawain wouldn’t have that hanging over his head.
“I wish Tristan would remember we’re not all dead.” Geraint scuffed his boot in the ground, then savagely knocked out a clod with his heel. The fingers of one hand were curled over his sweetheart’s bracelet and they were slowly going white-knuckled. “He still has tribesmen around, even if he chooses not to bother noticing them.”
“Arthur keeps him busy—he’s constantly borrowing him from me,” Gawain said, voice a touch reproachful. There were many reasons why Tristan would want to act in such a way, and Geraint should know them better than Gawain did.
The other man obviously did, but frustration blinded him and kept his tongue loose. “Fine, fine, he’s preoccupied. But damn him, he can follow a trail better than—” Geraint cut himself off and stared with tired eyes at the broken arrow Gawain was still holding. “He should be doing this, talking to you. Not me. I’m not an officer—I never wanted to be.”
“I don’t think any good officer really wants to be one; they just end up doing it because they want to make certain it’s done right.” Irritation forgotten, Gawain cast a sympathetic look on the other man. If that was the problem, then he wasn’t in any position to criticize Geraint. And for that matter, he’d also feel better if he were discussing the matter with Tristan, who never seemed to be unsure of his tracking and who never was wrong about it, either.
Gawain turned around and looked at the fort gates, which were wide open. Beyond them was the small collection of houses that formed the village, and then there was a thin dirt path leading down to the dark green woods. The sun had just begun to dip beneath the tops of the trees, turning everything red-gold. It was going to be a clear night, he thought. Lots of light from the moon and stars, so not quite ideal conditions for an ambush. But the odds were still not in their favor.
“I’ll go find Lancelot,” Gawain finally said. “You get Urien, and start quietly shifting people in here. Food, animals, the like. Tell them it’s a drill. And keep an eye out for the others—let me know the moment Galahad and Tristan or Arthur come in. Also get someone ready to ride for reinforcements.”
He started to turn, but stopped when Geraint grabbed his arm. The other man jabbed a finger upward. “Look!”
Gawain looked. It was Tristan’s hawk. And when it landed on his arm, its weight was nothing to the one that had suddenly filled him. He handed the animal to Geraint and went for Lancelot without any more hesitation.
* * *
Tristan had long since passed into a haze of pain and dizziness and spotty darkness, so when he started seeing the dead, he wasn’t entirely surprised. They started out as whispers in the rattling branches of leafless trees, little half-heard words clipped off sharp steppes, but soon they were full-blown shades. Woads he’d killed: a long double line of them, heads bowed and feet dragging. Then came riding the knights, some of which had been friendly acquaintances, some brothers, and some enemies. Percival straightened to look haughtily down his nose as his charger wafted by, and Agravaine grimaced around some soundless insult as he drunkenly lolled in the saddle. Then he smiled, showing yellowed teeth, and raised his cup in a curse at Tristan.
After him came two horses, only one of which had a rider, who was wrapped so thickly in grey and black that Tristan couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman. Only the hand grasping the reins of the other horse showed; it was large but so thin as to be nearly bones. As Tristan stared at it, something soft and white dropped off the back.
He found himself drifting forward between the horses, who obligingly moved to let him bend down. It was a maggot.
Tristan looked up to find that the rider had circled around and was now facing him. The veils dropped and Dinidan—but it wasn’t Dinidan, for one eye had been eaten out and the other one had a baleful red cast to it, as if accusing, and Dinidan would have never—it was reaching out its hand and the horse without a saddle was moving forward, an invitation to mount. When Tristan shook his head and tried to say not yet, the hand didn’t stop. There was another fat white worm on the fingertip and it was going to fall on his nose—
--“Shut up!” a voice hissed. Something rough and firm and smelling of leather and sweat slapped over Tristan’s mouth. It jarred his head and his eyes flew open; he bit his tongue trying not to gasp.
Galahad’s wide, bright, strained eyes stared back at him from less than an inch away. They were lying down, crammed together in a…some kind of shallow hillside crevice. Over Galahad’s shoulder were bunches of dark stripes that, after a moment of squinting, turned into grass. Which rustled right by Galahad’s head as someone walked past them, tread light and wary. Even breathing through Galahad’s fingers, Tristan could smell the stench of the woad paint.
The Briton continued on, then drifted back to stand right in front of them. It must have been near night now, judging by the lack of light. Tristan couldn’t even see Galahad anymore, though he could hear perfectly well the minute hitches in the other man’s breath whenever the Woad moved. Galahad should have backed in the other way around, so if he needed to, he could swipe out with a knife…
No, that was a side of a knee Galahad had shoved against Tristan’s shin. So the other man had been turned the right way, but he’d had to twist about the last second to…keep Tristan from giving them away. Tristan silently cursed himself, and blessed the dark for hiding his expression.
Someone called to the Woad and he called back. And then there was the sound of…trickling water. The terror emanating from Galahad suddenly switched to incredulity so thick Tristan could almost smell it as well as he could the Woad’s urine. He hoped that Galahad wouldn’t be an idiot and break into panicky snickering.
The Woad stayed a little longer to do something, then wandered off. On the count of twenty, Galahad began to relax. At thirty, he risked a snort. Tristan started to work up his arm, but a ripping pain in his side put that to a stop. Instead he shook his head, hoping that Galahad would feel that through his hand and get the point.
Galahad did. After Tristan had made it to a hundred without hearing anything, he deemed it safe and bit Galahad’s palm.
“Son of a bitch,” Galahad snarled. He awkwardly levered out of the small space and stopped to look about. Then he ducked back in to pry out first the saddlebags, which were cushioning Tristan’s head, and then Tristan. “I keep you from getting us killed, so you bite me. What the hell was that, anyway?”
“What was what?” Tristan’s side periodically twinged, but the pain there was manageable as long as he didn’t overstress it. His leg, however, was still bad enough to make him collapse when he merely tried to get up on his knees. He ended up falling heavily against Galahad’s legs.
The other man dropped down and grabbed for Tristan, but in doing so, he let the saddlebags slide off his shoulder. One of them slammed into Tristan’s side and then it was brilliant burning stars.
When Tristan had finished blinking away those, he found himself staring at Galahad’s back. “You can’t carry me for that long.”
“No, I definitely can’t. So tell me that—” Galahad shifted his grip on Tristan’s legs “—we’re near a cave.”
They were, but if there were Woads wandering around here, then Tristan wanted to be further away. Ideally, they would aim for…his mind briefly went disjointed and he had to force it back into a train of thought. Galahad was shaking with exhaustion, and Tristan needed to get his wounds properly seen to. They’d have to make do.
Tristan blinked hard and craned his head around, trying to make out the landscape in the dark. After a moment, he spotted a marker he’d left a few days before. “Another thirty yards. There should be a lightning-blasted tree—”
“Got it,” Galahad grunted.
They went the rest of the way in silence. The cave was more of an overhang than anything, but that was probably better in their case. Some judicious rearranging of broken branches around the front, and it’d just look like another jumble of half-rotted trees and tangled shrubbery.
When Galahad put Tristan down, he did so with an impressive amount of care. Then he flopped onto his side and lay wheezing for a disturbingly long time. His eyes fluttered shut so the sweat dripping off his forehead caught in his lashes.
“Are you hurt?” Tristan asked, trying to look over him.
“No. But I want to pass out.” It was a measure of how tired Galahad was that he didn’t add on any sarcasm to that statement. He heaved himself up and tossed the saddlebags in the corner, then crawled over to Tristan. “You say odd things when you’re half-conscious. Turn over. I’m going to take off the bandages, rip up new ones, and try to stitch that cut.”
His sewing usually looked like a small child had doodled the thread onto whatever he’d been mending. One of Tristan’s favorite pastimes was guessing how long Gawain could watch Galahad mangle something with a needle before he finally took over and did it for the man.
Galahad had already gotten the strips unraveled from Tristan and was now creeping towards the stream that was running somewhere nearby. “Don’t look at me like that unless you want to sew up yourself.”
As it turned out, Tristan was able to reach half of it, and only had to leave the last inch and a half to Galahad. By then his vision was too blurry anyway to keep going, and he had ground his teeth through two thin sticks of wood. Eventually he’d gone deep enough into shock for it to mostly stop hurting, but Tristan tried to fight that because he wanted to stay capable of thinking.
“Done,” Galahad groaned, sounding as if he was the one who’d just had stitches. He rewrapped Tristan with the last of his undershirt before flopping onto his back again.
“We can’t have a fire,” Tristan quietly said. He pressed his forehead against the cool ground, feeling how quickly it leached the heat from him. It was summer so the night shouldn’t be too cold, but occasionally British weather produced a nasty surprise. “You need to get some large branches—ones still with leaves on them—and use them to screen the front.”
The other man turned to look at him, then frowned. But whatever Galahad was going to say never made it out before he dragged himself up and did as Tristan said. Then he reset Tristan’s leg, waited till Tristan woke up from that faint, and got them settled for the night.
The hollow was little more than a yard deep and they ended up having to curl together against the back. Galahad had gotten one of the bedrolls and they were lying on that with the saddlebags as pillows and their swords piled up between them and the entrance. Because of the screen, the air was stifling and stale, full of dried blood and filth and the sweet-sour smell that Tristan usually assigned to dread.
“You heard what that Woad said,” Galahad suddenly murmured. “Someone called a retreat into the fort. So they’re warned anyway. Good thing.”
“Luck, since otherwise it would’ve been up to you.” Tristan stared at the pitch-black around him, which was so like and unlike the blackness that appeared when he closed his eyes. If he concentrated hard enough, perhaps he could fool his body into thinking he had shut his eyes.
Growl in his ear. “Stop trying to guilt me, you jackass. No, it wouldn’t have—you think I could have gotten through them on foot if I’d left you? I just spent the better part of two hours shoving us in and out of bushes to keep from being found, and that was only creeping on the margins of them. They’re thicker closer to the fort.”
Galahad had an arm over Tristan so he could keep his sword in hand. It moved, bumped against Tristan’s arm and followed it to find Tristan’s fingers digging into the ground. Satisfied, it crawled away. The silence filled with Galahad’s question.
Which Tristan answered with his own question. “What was I saying?”
“I don’t know. You weren’t speaking my dialect.” The other man hesitated before going on, which was odd for him. “But you said ‘Dinidan’ a lot.”
* * *
When Gawain found him, Lancelot had just been about to call it a day. The fort was in surprisingly good condition and had only needed a few spot-fixes, which meant Arthur wouldn’t have any excuse to not have free time. No villagers had pestered him with arguments to adjudicate in Arthur’s absence, which boded well for lack of that distraction. And it looked as if it wouldn’t be a rainy night, so fine weather as well.
Then Gawain walked into Arthur’s room, and his face said it was going to storm anyway. Lancelot went still. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” Gawain winced and shook his head, muttering to himself. Normally he wasn’t the fidgeting type, but now he couldn’t seem to stop moving around the room. “I mean, nothing yet. But one of Geraint’s men found something odd…”
He produced a thin bit of wood and handed it to Lancelot. At first glance, it looked like a snapped-off head of an arrow, but its shaft was unusually thick.
“Never seen anything like—”
“You wouldn’t have. They gave these up decades ago.” Lancelot watched his hand tighten on the shaft till he could hear the wood creaking beneath the strain, could see the blood fleeing his fingers. Then he let go and quickly passed it back to Gawain. “The only reason I know is because Arthur’s told me, and he had it from his father and Gorlois. The Woads tried thicker arrows and stiffer bows to punch through Sarmatian armor, but you can’t shoot as quickly. Uther figured out ways to engage before the Woads could let off a flight.”
But this one wasn’t decades-old, and that was the fear reflected in Gawain’s eyes. Desperate hope was there as well, but it was fading with the sun. “It’s the only sign—well, except for Tristan’s hawk coming back without him. Geraint’s sent out men to check again, and none of them say—well, no. There’s still two pairs that aren’t in yet. The one after Tristan and Galahad, and…”
“The one going after Arthur,” Lancelot finished, since it didn’t look as if Gawain was going to. He tasted phantoms of bitter blood in the back of his throat and felt them curdle before he swallowed them down.
It’d been four days. They should have had another three, but it looked as if they would have to say farewell to those. Though Lancelot was used to that, it still clenched his jaw and twisted his insides to do it. It’d been so long since they’d gotten time off, and it’d be so long before they got it again, and Arthur had actually begun to unbend…Arthur wasn’t back yet.
“I told Urien and Geraint to start moving people inside, just in case.” Gawain spun the arrow fragment between his fingers, then glanced out the unshuttered window. For a moment, the dusky red light painted his face in fierce worry. “It should be another quarter-hour.”
“We’re not supposed to order that unless Arthur does it. You owe me if he throws a fit.” There wasn’t any reason for Gawain to look grateful about that. Even if Lancelot hadn’t claimed responsibility for the slight overstepping of boundaries, he’d still get a share since whenever Arthur was gone, he was temporary commander. And he’d be the only one with the balls to argue with Arthur instead of seethe in quiet.
Not that Arthur was likely to object, given how he preferred to err on the side of caution when it came to protecting people. Of course, then the overall effect was to increase the danger, because he always overstretched himself.
“Lancelot? Lancelot—” Urien ducked in the room and checked himself when he saw Gawain. Then he shrugged and barged in anyway. “So you’ve heard? Listen, the village elders are getting upset, and they aren’t buying the ‘it’s a drill’ story. They want to talk to Arthur.”
“Well, they’re going to get me. Arthur’s not here yet, damn him.” And until he was, Lancelot had to sit tight and handle things. As much as he wanted to go out and see for himself, he couldn’t leave the fort with no commanding officers. Urien had trouble just keeping his troop in control, the other knights barely accepted Geraint and his men, and Gawain didn’t have a tactical mind.
Arthur had better come back soon, Lancelot snarled to himself. And for the last time, he needed to make certain the idiot didn’t go out without him.
All right, blaming Arthur for the Woads was unfair, since no one knew they were even around. But Lancelot was going to do it anyway because being irritated drowned out the increasing shake of his nerves. He pushed past Urien and headed out to the fortress gate, where he immediately spotted the disgruntled elders.
Only one of them was actually white-haired enough to qualify as an elder; the other two were a middle-aged man with a clubfoot, which explained why he hadn’t been drafted into the legions, and a hawkish, harsh-looking woman. The elder identified himself as Bran, and the younger pair as his stepson and his daughter, Gromer and Branwen. “We’ve been uprooted from our village and roughly pushed about by your knights. For the span of my life, we’ve been nothing but faithful to Rome, so why are we being treated in such a fashion?”
Jols happened to be going by with Arthur’s spare horses and Lancelot just glimpsed him rolling his eyes. Rightly so, since this village had been passively resistant about sending supplies at least once in Lancelot’s memory, and the distance that they were moving now was a hundred yards at most. They probably did this every winter anyway. “I…apologize if there’s been needless offense,” Lancelot carefully said. Hopefully, he wouldn’t choke too obviously on his words. “But it’s for your protection—there might be a threat nearby. The more you cooperate, the easier it’ll go.”
“That’s what they say about rape,” muttered Branwen. Once Arthur had dragged Lancelot into some broken-down temple and spent an hour talking about the Greco-Roman myths carved into its stones; up until now, the sex against the altar had been the most memorable part. But Branwen strongly reminded Lancelot of the harpy relief.
Her father and stepbrother both looked horrified at her words, the former quickly apologizing and the latter dragging her off for a tonguelashing. That wasn’t going to work, considering the amount of steel in her expression.
“I just want to reassure my people,” Bran told Lancelot. “We haven’t had a battle near us in years.”
“Better pray that your countrymen don’t force one, then. Stay inside the fort and keep out of our way.” Out of the corner of his eye, Lancelot could see a billow of dust envelop a sudden burst of shouting at the gate. He started to lope towards it, but Bran had a surprisingly strong grip.
The other man had grabbed Lancelot’s elbow, and now was peering at him with eyes that were still formidable beneath the rheumy age veiling them. “All we want is peace. We’ve no quarrel with anyone.”
“No, which is why we’ve made a specialty of dying in other men’s places.” Lancelot shook him off and flapped a hand towards the inner fort. “Go see to your people. I’ve got to see to mine, and I’ve no time for this.”
This time, Bran didn’t stop him. But the other man did betray a flash of—pity? It’d better not be that, or diplomatic necessity notwithstanding, Lancelot was going to introduce him to a steel point. The knights might be cast as pawns in Rome’s game, but they weren’t broken to the mold yet.
Through the swirls of dust and the grabbing hands, Lancelot glimpsed patches of dusty red. His mouth started to curve up, but then the cloud cleared further and he could see that it wasn’t Arthur. It was one of Geraint’s men, and he was covered in blood. “Attacked—they were down when I got there. Barely outran the Woads.”
Gawain came running from nowhere to seize the reins to the man’s horse. He jerked down the skittish horse’s head and, by all appearances, willed the beast into dropping its head between its knees and quivering still. Its rider slid clumsily out of the saddle and wiped flecks of horse-lather out of his face; he had another one of those odd-looking arrows sticking from his shoulder.
“Who was down?” Lancelot demanded. He shoved his way through the mass of questioners and grabbed for the knight. “Who was down? Who?”
“Stop shaking him.” Geraint elbowed Lancelot to the side and tried to interpose himself between his knight and the rest.
Understandable reaction for him to have, but Lancelot wasn’t in the mood. He snatched Geraint aside and suppressed the whirling snarl of fear inside of himself just enough for speech. “Who?”
“Who’d you go after?” Gawain interrupted. He clapped a hand on Lancelot’s shoulder and used that to push himself into view. When Lancelot flicked a warning glance over, the other man looked so murderous that it actually shocked Lancelot into letting Gawain be. “Tristan and Galahad, or Arthur?”
“Arthur.” The knight gasped and slumped against his horse, clutching at his wounded shoulder. “Arthur. The other two—I don’t know where they are. I didn’t see who--but the Woads are thicker than fleas in there.”
Lancelot’s hand went for the saddlehorn, but found that someone else had gotten there first. He blinked, saw the world waver from its heat-ripples to straight. Breathed and felt his mind unwillingly click into place, heard the men asking for orders, saw Gawain lifting his foot towards the stirrup. No. They couldn’t.
“Get down!” Lancelot snapped, yanking Gawain back. “You can’t—Urien! Is everyone inside? Close—close--”
“But they’re still out there!” Gawain ripped himself free of Lancelot’s grip and rounded on him, eyes like bonfires. “If we—fuck, you can’t even say it! Arthur’s out there and you can’t—”
No, Lancelot couldn’t. It was what had to be done, and he always could do that, but not this time. Arthur was supposed to be the one who made the choices that rent hearts and spirits. He was the one who was supposed to feel the circumstances like a noose around his throat, and Lancelot was the one who was supposed to show him that the knot could be undone.
But if the gates were left open, they’d all die. And Arthur would kill him—Lancelot’s mistake would be Arthur’s guilt, and it’d strangle him too fast for anyone to save him, and then the rope might as well be around Lancelot’s neck as well.
“Close the gates.” The words came out so mangled that even Lancelot didn’t understand himself. He couldn’t stand to look at Gawain, so he pivoted and shouted at Urien, who was frozen in place by the gears. “Close the damned gates! Didn’t you hear me?”
“You think they’re dead,” hissed Gawain.
They’d been arguing in a dialect none of the other knights understood very well, but they’d still been saying too much. The words were cramming up in the top of Lancelot’s throat and compacting all the way into his lungs, making them burn—and they’d just have to burn. “No, I don’t. But someone’s got to be around to open the gates for them. So shut up.”
The gates whined, dropped into a groan and finally crashed shut. Urien bent over the lever that worked the doors and wheezed a few times. He was staring from Lancelot to Gawain and back again, as if they were the first tumbling rocks of what might be an avalanche. Geraint had snatched his knight out of the way the moment Lancelot had let go and sent him packing to the surgeons, but had remained himself to watch them with fretful eyes.
Gawain wasn’t yet done; he had clamped his hands on Lancelot’s shoulders and seemed to be trying to snap the bones with his grip. All the color in his face had concentrated in his eyes, which were half-mad and ready to go farther in it. “You were going to go out. You were going to fight me for the horse.”
“And if I’d done it, you could bury me as a fool and I wouldn’t complain. If we leave the gates open, we’re inviting in the Woads and then we’ll all be dead anyway. If we leave by ourselves, that terrifies the men.” Lancelot saw the next insult rising in Gawain’s eyes and felt his temper snap. “Damn you, if I weren’t being rational about this, you’d be on the ground with my sword in your belly and I’d be on that fucking horse! Do you want me to kill you?”
“No, I want you to—” The other man slumped back and looked away, hand coming up to press knuckles hard against his mouth. Then Gawain nodded. Kept nodding, though he still wasn’t meeting Lancelot’s eyes. “All right. All right. I’ll get watches up.”
Instead of watching him leave, Lancelot stared at the sky. It was deep purple, and stars were beginning to emerge. It would’ve been beautiful any other time, but now it just made him want to vomit.
“Urien, make sure those Britons are doing as they’re told. Geraint, pick out your sharpest-eyed men to man the gate.” With that, Lancelot spun on his heel and went to go find Arthur’s maps.
He was only a few yards from the room to Arthur’s door when his stomach pushed too hard and he had to skid on his knees to an empty basin. In a few moments, Lancelot had coughed up every single thing he’d eaten in the past day. He closed his eyes and wiped half-heartedly at his mouth. Rested the side of his head against the wall. “Arthur, I swear, if you’re dead then I’m going to…you’d better not be. You damned well can’t be.”
Then Lancelot got up and, moving like an old man, reached for the rolls of vellum.
* * *
Dagonet was on his way to the outer walls when he spotted the shadow. It froze, then broke into the dim lopsided circles of torchlight. That brown-haired woman.
He jogged around the spear-stack and easily intercepted her. She hissed and slapped at him, so he caught that wrist and dragged them both down. For several long moments, she did nothing but twist and spit words at him that he didn’t know—it sounded a little like Vanora’s tongue, but not enough to be intelligible. He waited it out. When she had exhausted herself and was nothing but a pair of snarling eyes, he let go. “You’re not supposed to be beyond the inner walls.”
“You’re not supposed to be here at all. It was calm here—no blood and no fighting. Then you show up, and between you and the Woads, our homes are going to be trampled.” She wrapped her arms around herself and swayed back a few paces. Her chin lifted. “I was going to find my stepbrother. Your officers drafted him for a watch.”
“We had to. We’re short of men.” He walked around her and stared up at the small figures on the walls. “Do you know where he is?”
The woman was quiet for a heartbeat. Then, a little confused: “Over there, I think.”
She pointed at Urien’s stretch of the wall, which was closest to the inner fort and had the safest posts. Dagonet nodded. “That watch comes off now anyway. You’d do better to catch him at the inner gate; if you go up to the wall, they’ll think you’re a whore trying to make some money.”
He walked a few yards, then turned around to check. The woman was still standing there, staring at him, but when she saw him looking back she swiftly slipped off in the direction of the inner gate.
When Dagonet reached his assigned position, the first thing he saw was another woman: Urien’s Brangaine. She was laughing amidst a group of three knights that had just ended their shift, her hair a dreamy treasure in the low light. Beside her was a proud, jealous Urien who constantly kept one hand on her shoulder or waist.
“Well, hello from this morning,” caroled Brangaine. She waved and flashed her pretty smile.
It still unsettled Dagonet, but he knew better than to insult an officer’s girl. He made the briefest smile he could and didn’t stop walking. Behind him, he could hear the usual comments about cold backs and strange quiet ones, but for once he was grateful for that reputation.
Walking along the wall was Lancelot, and when he saw the activity below he let loose with a torrent of abuse long enough to touch the sky and vitriolic enough to eat a man alive. Urien hustled off Brangaine, shooting a dirty look back at Lancelot, while the other knights quickly beat a retreat to the inner fort.
Dagonet blinked, then looked again. For a moment, Brangaine’s face had been the face of a monster, vengefully eying Lancelot. But she’d almost immediately draped herself over Urien’s shoulder, and judging by the sound of things, was urging him towards the nearest secluded spot.
“Urien and his?” Gawain had come up the steps behind Dagonet, and he addressed his question to Lancelot. Both men had gone gaunt and feverish, the bones of their faces standing out beneath their skin as if they were burning from inside out. “Those fucking jackasses…as if this was still a pleasure-outing.”
“I’d make him stand guard at the gate all night, but he’d probably have his eyes more on the bitch sucking his prick than on outside,” Lancelot snarled, leaning over the wall. He dropped his head between his hands and roughly raked fingers through his hair, then pressed his palms to his temples. “Dagonet? Anything so far?”
Startled, Dagonet almost blurted out something about the other woman. But she’d gone back inside, so he decided against it. “No. Is…excuse me, sir, but do we know where Arthur is?”
Lancelot’s back went stiff. “No,” he curtly replied. “Why?”
Behind him, Gawain was making warning gestures and trying to stare a message at Dagonet, but it wasn’t quite making sense. Dagonet regretted not having asked Bors more about the so-called gossip concerning the officers, since clearly he was out of his depth here. What he did know, however, was that an already angry Lancelot was not a man to whom one refused answers.
He ended up telling the truth. Lies stank too strongly for him to have ever learned how to tell them. “The men are asking. They’re worried. They were…there’s some others who didn’t ride in either, and all we’ve heard is that there are Woads in the woods.”
“I don’t even want to think about what the rumors are like by now,” Gawain muttered. He rubbed at his eyes and sighed, then stared down the hill at the forest as if he were trying to will something out of them. “We’ll have to say something.”
“Maybe thank you for actually noticing, as opposed to those whoreson fools.” Something that was too mauled to be a laugh came from Lancelot, still hunched over. “Tomorrow at first light, we can send out search parties. And another messenger if we don’t see anyone coming from the other garrison. I don’t think we have to say anything till th—”
The whoop was too full of violence to be from an animal throat. All along the wall came answers in the form of clinking metal, whining bowstrings, soft muffled clattering of arrows in quivers. Lancelot was up and staring over a nocked arrow a heartbeat before Gawain smashed himself against the wall, squinting at the dark.
Dagonet had his own arrow ready, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t see anything in the black fringe that was the forest. The space between it and the fort was wide and clear in the bright moonlight, but where field met trees was a sharp line and beyond it, nothing was apparent.
He glanced to his right and saw men standing ready with drawn bows, glanced left and saw the same, plus one man staring back at him. The whites of the knight’s eyes gleamed and widened; the man hurriedly turned away. There was no sound now except for the harsh, tense breathing of the knights on the wall.
And then there was light: flaring red and settling to lurid orange. It revealed a clump of broad oak trunks, and pegged to them were limp lolling things. Somewhere on Dagonet’s right, a knight cried out and was hastily stifled by those around him.
“Lamorack,” Lancelot muttered.
“Alymere and Cei are the other two. Damn.” The knights were from Gawain’s troop, and their loss bowed the man for a long breath. Then he exhaled and straightened, jaw firming. “We can’t make the shot from here. No point in wasting arrows.”
Lancelot jerked his head in agreement and stepped back to lower his bow. He turned, probably to give the order, and as he did, another torch blossomed by the treeline, highlighting something bulky and flapping. It looked like a body.
The sound that came from Gawain was high and desperate, and the only thing that saved him from throwing himself blindly over the wall was Lancelot seizing his arm. Something hit Dagonet’s foot—Lancelot’s bow and unused arrow—but he ignored that in favor of helping Lancelot drag Gawain back.
“It’s just the saddle!” Lancelot was saying over and over again, shaking Gawain. “The saddle!”
But no knight was ever willingly parted from his tack. That and his weapon were all that stood between him and a gory miserable end; he cared for them, adapted them to his needs, made them his own. If the Woads had Galahad’s saddle, then at the very least, he’d had a disastrous run-in with them.
“They would show the body if there was one.” Dagonet dropped his own bow and took a firmer grip on Gawain’s arm. The other man was still struggling, but less so, and he soon stopped.
He was still staring over the wall. “But what did they wrap around it? The red—I thought it was strips of flesh…”
“Arthur’s cloak.” Limp as a rag, Lancelot fell against the wall and gazed blindly across the field. He started to raise a hand, saw that it was trembling and slapped it against his thigh, rubbing hard as if that way he could smooth out his nerves. His mouth continued moving without letting out any sound. Either curses or prayers could have fit the shaping of his lips.
“Stand down,” Gawain whispered. He cleared his throat and somehow choked himself so he had to do it again. Then he raised his voice so everyone could hear. “Stand down! Don’t—don’t waste your arrows!”
Very quietly, Dagonet let go of Gawain. The other man still noticed, but he only glanced at Dagonet before stumbling off. And his eyes were black in the night, but rawer than fresh meat.