|Humanity II: Rage
Author: Guede Mazaka
What little sleep Galahad got was fitful and full of unease, wearing him out faster than staying awake did. When he finally gave up, the angle of the one stray moonbeam filtering through the screen told him it was still well into the night.
Tristan was so still that at first Galahad thought he was dead, but when he held a hand over the other man’s mouth, warm breath moistened it. He sighed, so relieved that he forgot about the low ceiling when he tried to sit up. “Ow! Fuck!”
“Quiet.” Fingers dug hard into Galahad’s shoulder and dragged him back down.
He had been twisting around towards the front, intending to get some fresh air, so he ended up landing across Tristan. His one elbow cracked on the rock and curses snagged in his teeth, but Galahad clamped his lips together and listened. Then he remembered Tristan’s wound and tried to slide back, but Tristan tightened his grip and wouldn’t let Galahad.
Cold bastard—he wasn’t nearly as impervious to things as he liked to pretend he was. His breathing was irregular and, even if it hadn’t had that edge of pain to it, would’ve told Galahad something was wrong just by dint of it being audible.
Above them came a muffled pattering of something fairly large—it sounded like four feet instead of two, but Galahad couldn’t tell for certain. He strained his hearing and his sight, trying to make out something in the faint shifting shadows beyond the screen. It wasn’t till his head began to spin that he realized he’d stopped breathing and was on the verge of passing out. Galahad sucked in a long breath as quietly as he could, but the noise he couldn’t help making was still dangerously loud to his ears. Tristan’s thumb jabbed hard into Galahad’s shoulderblade.
The footsteps, whatever they were, moved on. But Galahad didn’t relax till he felt the hold on his shoulder loosen and fall away. He felt around till he found the ground and pushed off of Tristan—promptly forgot the ceiling again—to hunch over the other man. Rubbing his head, Galahad whuffed the air. “Are you bleeding again?”
“I don’t think so.” Something spidery crawled between Galahad and Tristan; it took a moment for Galahad to realize it was Tristan’s hand feeling at the wound. They were too closely pressed together and Tristan couldn’t quite squeeze it down.
Galahad squirmed back, but got his knee and foot trapped against some irregularity in the cave’s sides and had to stop. He put down an elbow, accidentally hit Tristan’s chest, and moved it till he could prop himself up. Then he wiggled an arm back to try and figure out how to move his leg. “Sorry about that. Fucking lousy cave you found us.”
The laugh that ruffled Galahad’s hair was raspy, but amused. “Next time I’ll look for one with a bath and a bed.”
“Oh, shut up.” Though Galahad was actually relieved to hear Tristan being a teasing bastard again. As irritating as he was, at least then he wasn’t scaring Galahad with his silence.
After Galahad had said that name, Tristan had clammed up so tightly that he hadn’t even reacted when Galahad had accidentally jostled him. It had been rough on Galahad’s already raw nerves, and there really hadn’t been any way to fix things short of waiting it out and hoping Tristan would…well, he’d never forget, but maybe he’d shove it out of his mind. He’d better; they had more important things to worry about besides nightmares or ghosts or whatever had been nagging at Tristan, as cruel as that sounded.
“Gawain’s probably half-mad by now,” Tristan suddenly murmured. He turned away as Galahad finally yanked his leg free, then rolled back so his eyes were a pair of gleaming slivers. “We left the saddles. The Woads would’ve used them to make the others think we’re dead.”
“Saddles, not our bodies. Gawain’s not that stupid. He’d know the difference.” Galahad’s voice started out firm, but by the last word it was wavering just a little. The last thing he’d needed was something else to worry about, and now here Tristan was, adding a bit on. “And he’s not the kind of man to go insane. Lancelot, maybe—his temper’s going to get him someday—but not Gawain.”
Not him. He was steady and dependable and he almost never lost his temper. Sometimes Gawain might get annoyed and snappish, but that wasn’t the same as the total rage that enveloped Lancelot whenever he came storming from an argument with Arthur. And even irritating Gawain took a lot more than it would for any other man. Inside the fort, shut behind those thick walls, he’d be safe and would have plenty to do to keep himself distracted. He wouldn’t go mad.
Tristan was still looking at Galahad, and now he was slowly rocking about, shifting his broken leg by inches. If he really hadn’t moved since Galahad had starting dozing, then he probably had some horrific cramping. “What if you were in his place, and he was here?”
“I’d probably be more worried about what you might be doing to him. You two are awfully close—he’s constantly fretting about you,” Galahad snarled, hoping that’d end the discussion. He didn’t want to think about Gawain right now, since all that did was remind him of exactly how much was at risk here. The slightest mistake and the Woads would be on them, and they’d be dead in this damned foreign land and he’d never get to see Gawain again.
Thinking about that made Galahad’s hands start to twitch, made his mouth go dry and his mind blurry with all the nasty what-ifs. And he needed to concentrate, not panic.
“You’re jealous?” Wonder of wonders, Tristan sounded shocked.
“I was being sarcastic. It was a bad joke.” Having a Woad come by was suddenly sounding like an attractive option, since then they’d have to stop talking. Galahad listened hard, but he didn’t hear anything except the low buzz of insects and the occasional passing wildlife.
And Tristan was still prodding at him, so there definitely wasn’t a hope of a distraction soon. “Odd joke to make.”
“Then I’m sorry I made it, all right? I’m sorry I brought up Din—that other bit, and I’m sorry I’m not having the reaction you think I should be. But what am I supposed to do? I’m here and Gawain’s in there, and what good is it going to do to think about how worried he is?” Galahad started to flip around so he was facing the other way, but there wasn’t enough room and he had to turn back. His legs were being crowded because he’d let Tristan have the longest patch so the man could stretch out his broken leg and his head was aching from the hard bumpy saddlebags. There were a thousand hurts and twinges making themselves known throughout his body and there was an army of Woads between him and Gawain, and the only reason Galahad wasn’t going mad was by pretending that everything was fine behind the fort walls. All he had to do was get him and Tristan in there.
They weren’t going to make it. Two men, one who couldn’t walk and one who was too damned tired, against a mob of Woads. The damned Britons didn’t need food and water, Galahad sometimes thought. They could live off their hatred, and Galahad could never match it because he had to spend part of his energy hating Rome for putting him here. In this fucking airless cave that was so dark he couldn’t see the ceiling, so for all he knew the earth was about to collapse on top of him and then he’d die.
“He thinks I still want to die.” For once, Tristan was distracting Galahad at the right time. Even if his voice was quiet in that way that made Galahad’s blood creep softly as a mouse, and his words were even more terrifying.
Galahad found himself talking louder to break the stillness that had frozen around them. “Gawain doesn’t know what you want to do. You don’t talk. Aside from how many Woads over the hill and what an idiot I am, you don’t say a damn thing.”
“What good would talking do? I’m here and he’s not.” Tristan didn’t stutter over the mention, because stuttering probably didn’t even exist in his world. It wasn’t quite a pause either, but an interruption in speech that told more of present pain than absence, or lack. “Which isn’t the same as you and Gawain.”
“No,” Galahad admitted. He shivered even though he wasn’t cold. “I hope it never is.” It was too dark and he’d never liked that anyway; it’d still been night when the Romans had ridden into his village, and he hadn’t been able to remember anything besides the blurry white face of his mother because of the darkness. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be dragging you around, or jumping every time I hear something outside. I think about Gawain and I start to fucking panic as if that’ll help, but I’m not taking it out on you, am I?”
He had the impression that Tristan was staring at him, but it was impossible to tell for certain. As usual, the other man wasn’t giving any cues with voice or movement that’d help Galahad figure out whether he’d just mortally insulted Tristan or given him something else to laugh about. If Tristan was in anything like a laughing mood.
“Aren’t you?” Tristan finally said, a trace of teasing in his voice.
“I’m complaining. There’s a difference.” Galahad prayed that Tristan wouldn’t ask what it was, because he wasn’t in any condition to explain. He just knew there was one. “Just…sleep, all right?”
Something rustled, and then soft things touched at Galahad’s face. They disappeared and resurfaced to poke at his arm, then squeezed it. “If I go to sleep, I think I’m dead. And I don’t want to be.”
Whatever he meant by that, Galahad had no idea, but it was clear Tristan felt strongly about it. And the things that Tristan let people know he felt strongly about could be counted on one hand. “Cave’s too damned small,” Galahad eventually muttered; he did agree with Tristan about that. It was too much like a grave. “Fine, stay awake with the living. But don’t whine about the company you get.”
“I could have worse.” Tristan spoke too softly for Galahad to tell whether or not he was being sarcastic.
Someone crunched grass by the mouth of the cave. They both froze.
* * *
Over the years, Gawain had had some long nights. The one before his first battle, shivering sleepless in his bedroll and staring at his sword and wondering if he was going to piss himself before or after he had to swing it for the first real time. Various sieges—the night when Arthur had been hovering near death and they’d almost lost the only man they’d ever freely acknowledged as commander had been one of the worst. One humid summer week where the fevers had risen from the swamps and swept through the countryside, and he’d had to sit and watch Galahad lie too limp to even hang his head over the side of the bed to vomit.
But this night was by far the worst.
After the Woads had displayed their trophies, Gawain had forced himself to go among the knights and make certain that none of them would act rashly. He spent the most time seeing to his men, who were the angriest because they’d lost friends, comrades, and in one case, someone to curl around at night. At first he thought it would be unbearable to listen to, but to his surprise, it was…comforting. He couldn’t be fearful because that would lead to collapse and too many people were counting on him, couldn’t be enraged because then he wouldn’t be able to stop, but he could let other people do it and it was as if they were excising the thoughts that clouded his mind and constricted his throat.
Eventually he ran out of knights to see and so he took himself to check on Lancelot, whose temper was never particularly restrained in the best of times and who’d nearly incinerated himself with anger and worry the last time Arthur’s life had been in such danger. Gawain found him on the highest part of the wall, staring over the woods.
“Geraint sent out a man. If the Woads didn’t get him, and if he rides his horse into the ground, he should’ve made the other garrison by now.” Lancelot nodded in the direction of the nearest Roman troops. The muscle in his jaw looked as if it’d snapped tight and then gotten stuck that way, and his eyes were ringed in dark circles that made them look obscenely huge and worn. “Magnus Maximus holds it—he’s one of Paullus’ more competent underlings. He’d know better than to light a signal bonfire for the whole countryside to see.”
“So we’d have no way to tell if Geraint’s man got through.” Odds were not too bad that he had, but still, Gawain knew better than to pin his hopes on a perhaps. The Woads were reviving old tactics, stealing ones from the Romans—someone had a firm grip on them and for the first time in Gawain’s memory, using them to wage war and not to just win battles.
From below came a high, girlish titter that was almost a scream. But Gawain had been around enough whores to know what a real refusal sounded like and what a fake one masking a come-hither call did. He gritted his teeth and wondered how easily Urien’s neck might snap. Maybe the bastard hadn’t lost any men and maybe his girl really was the love of his life, but that should only have made it more obvious to him why he shouldn’t flaunt her about. Especially right now.
The curl of Lancelot’s lip as he looked in the direction of the laugh could have cut steel. He pressed his hands against the stone, then abruptly shoved away from the balustrade and whirled down the stairs. Though he didn’t make any gestures to that effect, it was plain he expected Gawain to follow. “We don’t have any food stockpiled. Come morning, if they’re still dancing around out there, we’ll light a bonfire and give Maximus a day. Then we’ll have to just try and crash the Woad lines if he doesn’t come.”
“There’s got to be a better way,” Gawain protested. “And what about any men the Woads might—might be holding?”
Lancelot paused with one foot raised. Then he shook himself hard and continued downwards, back and shoulders even more tense. “Gawain, I know. But I also know, and so do you, that if we’ve—we’ve no sign in three days, or if the Woads don’t show any, then there’s no chance. And we need to get out, or starve.”
“But crashing the lines—”
“Well, do you have any better ideas?” The other man stopped again and whirled around to back Gawain against the wall. “I spent two hours staring at Arthur’s maps, and then another two up there, trying to see another way—but I can’t.”
Going unspoken was the knowledge that Lancelot’s strengths didn’t lie in strategizing for groups larger than a troop, or for longer periods of time than the flash-seconds during battle when the initial plan went to pieces. He could understand strategy far better than Gawain, and he could point out practical flaws in Arthur’s ideas without even thinking about it, but somehow he couldn’t make the leap Arthur could and see not only the cracks in the solid wall, but the way to get a full-grown horse through them. And it was hurting him, frustration layered in his eyes on top of the desperate wish that he didn’t have to think about this.
“I can’t,” Gawain admitted. But they both knew that didn’t mean much; Gawain’s idea of tactics had never gotten beyond how to keep Galahad alive without getting killed himself. What they needed was Arthur.
Brangaine laughed again, so bright and cheerful that Gawain imagined ripping her golden hair out by the roots and suffocating her with it, and to his faint horror, he found himself relishing that image. The disgust was faint because most of his mind was preoccupied with wondering, now that he had allowed himself a moment to think about it, how badly hurt Galahad was. Whether the Woads did have him and were saving him for the next night, or whether he was still at large in the woods. Abandoning his saddle meant that, at the very least, he thought he was too weak to carry it with him.
“Tristan’s with him,” Lancelot suddenly said. If it wasn’t such an impossible emotion for the man, Gawain would’ve thought that Lancelot looked sympathetic. “That one…he’s probably having fun sneaking up on Woads and cutting their throats.”
In all honesty, Gawain had forgotten about Tristan since he’d seen Galahad’s saddle. Now the new worry rushed in and scraped another layer off his nerves just in time for the guilt to sting them. He pressed his hands against his face and tried his best to make himself calm down, but he didn’t manage very well. “If I knew that that was why Tristan is how he is, I wouldn’t have sent Galahad along with him.”
“Scared of what he’d do to Galahad?” Lancelot’s tone indicated that he was back to being a sharp-tongued bastard, but something about how he rushed his words told Gawain that it wasn’t quite that. The man was trying to distract himself.
And for that matter, Gawain was doing the same thing, so he was grateful instead of annoyed. “No. If Tristan were like that, then I wouldn’t even bother with him. It’s…I just hate seeing needless death. We have to look at enough of the other kind without adding that.”
“So what’s wrong with hi—damn it, if Urien doesn’t shut her up, I will. What the fuck is there to laugh about?” Lancelot snarled, turning towards the sounds of merriment. His fists beat a fast brutal tattoo against his hips, then slowly uncurled. “You know, I regret ever letting Urien have a say in picking this spot. He should have to snatch moments like everyone else in this damned army.”
“That’s a selfish thing to say,” Gawain observed.
Which earned him an arched eyebrow and a stare that glittered like a swordpoint. “Tell me you don’t feel the same.”
The silence was sour. When Gawain parted his mouth to suck in a breath, having forgotten to breath for a moment, it swept in and curdled on his lips so his tongue burned.
He’d expected Lancelot to pounce and follow up with more barbed words, but instead the other man closed his eyes as if the dark pained him. Then he opened them, showing a hollow pain that echoed too strongly in Gawain, and pushed by to walk towards the gate.
* * *
Tristan breathed as shallowly as he could, one hand stealing across the cave floor to find a handle. The shape of the hilt wasn’t one of his, but in this situation he wasn’t going to be picky about what he used to defend himself. Over his side crept Galahad’s hand, going for the same pile of weapons; thankfully, the other man didn’t jar anything.
The steps had stopped right beside their cave, blocking out the trace of moonlight that had been all that illuminated the hollow. That had been forty-three counts ago, and the Woad still hadn’t moved. He wasn’t looking around, or talking to anyone else, or even taking a piss, and it was that lack of movement that worried Tristan. The deliberateness, as if he knew they were there and was trying to work on their nerves till they betrayed themselves.
An owl hooted. At least, it was very like an owl. But no bird-call Tristan knew of had that pattern, so it was probably a Woad scout. The one by their cave shifted his weight a little, as if hearkening to it. Galahad’s mouth was pressed against Tristan’s neck and it was moving. Praying, perhaps. A few times the tongue accidentally flickered out to touch his skin. Once it was Galahad’s teeth. It was then that Tristan realized he was biting down on his lip so hard he was drawing blood.
Grass rustled and sticks crackled as the Woad finally decided to move on. A relieved, almost noiseless breath ghosted down Tristan’s nape, and Galahad pressed his forehead against Tristan’s back in a gesture of such familiarity that it was obvious the man had forgotten who else was with him.
Fortunately for him, since if Galahad had done it on purpose, Tristan would have had to kill him. Even though he was, surprisingly enough, developing a liking for Galahad’s blunt, unconscious intelligence. Because that simple gesture called up sense-memories and feelings that only ended in a great gaping rent, and it hurt. Tristan did want to live, and he had accepted the fact that Dinidan was dead and he wasn’t, but that didn’t mean he’d yet adapted to living with it. One couldn’t rewrite memory and reflex to just cut out the warm body and the ready laugh that had been woven around Tristan over the span of years.
Galahad suddenly noticed what he was doing and jerked back. Then he made an embarrassed, defensive sound. “Ah…are they gone?”
“I think so. But they’ve been coming by too often. We must be too close to their night camp.” Tristan pried his hand off of Galahad’s sword and very carefully tried to roll over. His side immediately complained, but he ignored that and kept twisting. If his leg didn’t start to hurt more than it already did, then he should be fine.
Halfway through the turn, Galahad caught on. Hands cradled Tristan’s ankle, lifted it and rolled it with him before setting it down. “So we’ve got to go? Is there another cave nearby?”
“Yes, but I don’t know…you should go check it before we move everything. It’s a hundred yards south—just follow the stream. There’s a…” Tristan struggled to remember “…large oak tree hanging over it. Looks like Bors throwing up.”
A strained chuckle escaped Galahad, as if he’d temporarily forgotten how to be amused. Then he let out a full-blown laugh and crawled past Tristan to peek through the branches of the screen. “Sometimes I see why Gawain likes you.”
“Likewise,” Tristan dryly replied. He curled himself against the side of the cave so Galahad had more room.
After a few moments of tentative poking, Galahad finally risked pushing aside a branch. Then he moved a few more until he had a space big enough to squeeze through, and went out with sword in hand. He stopped with his legs still inside to take another look around the area before he finally pulled himself completely out of the cave. Tristan was a little impressed by the man’s care.
“I’m going to put the branches back now. Shouldn’t take more than a half-hour—if I’m not back by then—well, you probably wouldn’t go after me anyway, seeing as that’s stupid.” Galahad was talking a little faster than normal, but he didn’t sound rattled enough for that to be a concern. It was more like he needed to mutter to ground himself. “Try not to bleed to death while I’m out. Or do anything idiotic.”
“I won’t,” Tristan snorted. He found his own sword and dragged it towards him before the light was cut off again.
It was dark, but there was the sound of Galahad fussing with the branches, and then the receding tramp of Galahad’s boots. Hopefully he was capable of being a little quieter than that.
But then even that vanished, and it was only Tristan. He tried to concentrate on the sound of his breathing, but it didn’t echo correctly—it wasn’t paired with someone else’s, and it was very dark. Like being buried. And what noises there were outside weren’t of man; with how the leaves and the earth muffled them, they barely sounded like living creatures.
Galahad was coming back, Tristan told himself. And neither of them were dead. He was breathing. As long as he could hear that, he knew what he was and where he was. He might be wounded, but he had his sword and he could stay here till Galahad returned for him.
He would go after Galahad if he had to, he thought. He needed to know there was something outside of the pain and the musty air and the dark with its stubborn phantoms.
* * *
Lancelot knew he should be trying to get some sleep—light napping at least—but whenever he tried, his mind would fool him into thinking that he heard Arthur calling, or just glimpsed the other man passing him. And then he’d wake and the knot in his chest would prove once again that no, there wasn’t a bottom to pain. Not this kind, anyway; if it’d been an arrow or a edge-wound, then he could happily drift into shock and sleep through it.
So he loitered about the wall, annoying the sentries with his constant pacing and frightening them with his expression. He didn’t care. By now they should be used to it, and if they had any comments, he’d be happy to argue the point with his swords. That might work off some of the energy that erratically surged through him, leaving him drained at one moment and nearly ready to leap hilltops the next.
He ended up staying near Bors, who was concerned and respectful enough to keep his voice low, but who managed to babble about petty daily details in a way that distracted without irritating. Lancelot even made himself crack a few salacious remarks about Vanora, which should’ve put the wind up Bors’ back, but instead just made the other man look…relieved.
The night wore on. Dagonet came to replace Bors; the two friends spent a few moments chatting quietly before Bors took his leave with a hearty, “And somebody better wake me if there’s fighting!”
The whole wall laughed, some with nervous girlish titters and some with the full-throated bellow of a soldier who’d been through too many battles to feel much anymore. Even Dagonet smiled, which was a rare event.
“Weren’t you up here before?” Lancelot asked. He tried to straighten out his memory and gave himself a headache, which was ridiculous. In other campaigns he’d had to be on his feet without sleep for far longer than this, and his mind had worked fine then.
Except then he’d at least known where Arthur was. Even during the mess with Lucius, he’d known that Arthur was injured badly enough to attract death’s attention. Kneeling by that bed and looking at Arthur’s unconscious form had been a terrified haze that still chilled Lancelot to remember, but at least he’d known. Now he was working blind—he didn’t even know what had happened, aside from attacking Woads. Had they followed the knights from the wall? Had they been waiting ever since the Sarmatians had arrived? What were they doing here? How’d they know where to go?
Where was Arthur? Was he dead?
“I was, sir, but for an early shift. I volunteered to go again so we wouldn’t have to pull as many villagers.” Dagonet propped his ax against the balustrade and stood his quiver beside it. He started to feather his fingers between the ends, making certain that the arrows weren’t tangled together and could be grabbed without snarling each other.
“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ Just follow my orders and that’s all the show of respect I need. I’m not a stuck-up Roman.” It could even be another attempt on Arthur’s life, courtesy of that Merlin they’d been hearing about. Some Briton who’d done the impossible and had managed to impose order and discipline on the various rebel factions, and of course he and Arthur would have some mysterious grudge. Arthur wouldn’t be Arthur if he didn’t have a personal stake in everything he did. For every loyal dog like Jols that he got, he made two enemies.
If he thought it wouldn’t come out absolutely terrifying, Lancelot would’ve laughed at himself. He wasn’t in a position to comment on dogs. He just wanted—he bit on his lip till that pain overwhelmed the other one.
It was still dark, but the faintest glimmer of light could be seen on the horizon. The best time for an attack—when men’s courage was down for the rest it needed to meet another day, and when their reflexes were slowest. But so far it didn’t look as if there was any movement. Anyway, whoever had built this fortress had known what they’d been doing. The checking Lancelot had done earlier had shown him that: even after some years of neglect, the only repairs needed were more cosmetic than anything. If the Woads wanted in, they’d need nothing short of siegecraft, and if they’d had that they would’ve already brought it out.
It was Urien, of all people. Lancelot reminded himself that killing the man meant dickering about to find a new troop leader, and that the last thing he needed right now was another crisis of leadership. Then he went down the steps to deal with whatever the jackass wanted. “What?”
Urien’s right eye was closed a little further than his left and his lips had a strained look to them, as if he were trying very hard not to wince. His breath reeked of alcohol he shouldn’t have had, but his eyes were almost too clear. Hangover. “Sir, I…I wanted to apologize for earlier. It wasn’t appropriate of me to…”
This time, Lancelot didn’t correct the use of ‘sir.’ Bastard didn’t deserve it. “No, it wasn’t. Don’t make me list how many regulations you broke. The only reason you weren’t punished at the time was because we were busy dealing with the Woads.”
Arthur would smile, a little amused and mostly sad, if he could hear this. As if Lancelot didn’t break all sorts of regulations…but at least when he did it, he didn’t increase the likelihood that they’d be killed. Whereas every time Brangaine flipped up her skirts, a whole nation of Woads could pass by and no one would notice.
“I’m sorry. I know—it’s only that Brangaine finally said she’d marry me, and I…I…” The other man shuffled his feet and ducked his head. One hand stole up to rub at his temple.
Hopefully it was one bitch of a headache, Lancelot vengefully thought. He wanted to excoriate Urien some more, flay him with words with all the sentries as an audience, but he couldn’t, damn it. They were too short of men. If Urien was really and willing to act like a knight, then Lancelot had no choice but to take him. “You’ve got watch till dawn. And I swear on my sword and saddle that if anything goes wrong, it’ll be on your head. Let me know immediately if Arthur comes in.”
Dagonet should be near for the whole of Urien’s watch, and he seemed to be loyal to Arthur out of genuine emotion, so he could be a check in case of anything stupid. Given his size, he should be able to handle anything short of a legion on his own, and Lancelot had a feeling the man was considerably more intelligent than Bors was.
A curt nod to Urien, and then Lancelot was off to Arthur’s rooms again to stare at maps. There had to be another way.
* * *
When on sentry duty, some men just shoved their trousers to their hips and pissed over the side of the wall, but Dagonet preferred a little more privacy than that. He didn’t particularly enjoy the kind of ribbing and eyeballing that went on during that kind of display, so he usually climbed down and did his business on the ground. There were always enough wagons and piles of supplies scattered about for him to be able to find a secluded corner.
He’d just redressed himself when the edge of his vision alerted him. “Your stepbrother’s not on the wall now.”
“No.” The woman was leaning against a post, profile turned towards him. She and he were both hidden from sight by the same wagon, but anyone standing directly above them on the wall would be able to see them. And the nearest knight was Urien, who had been a martinet during the past few hours in his efforts to get back in the good graces of the other officers.
“You should go.” Dagonet checked the color of the sky—it was a dark gray backlit by eerie green. The sun would be up in another hour and then they’d all be busy.
She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. “So should you. I’m Branwen.”
“Dagonet. We would have left in a few days anyway. But the Woads showed up, and now I don’t know.” He glanced upwards and didn’t see Urien, so he chanced stepping a little closer. Her shoulder hunched up in defense, but she didn’t move.
Branwen was older than he’d thought at first, with a few deep wrinkles around her mouth and a constellation of fine ones around her eyes. A thin white scar crossed one cheek and drew up her lip so even when she wasn’t trying to, she looked as if she were scowling. “My mother got herself and my brother killed fighting you and the Romans. I’m just sick of it. My father and I have worked all our lives to keep the battles away—we make whatever deal we need to, and maybe that makes us less true than others, but it keeps us alive.”
“My grandfather refused to let the Romans draft my elder brother and they cut out his eyes. When they came for me, he was going to let them kill him, but I went because my younger sister still needed him.” Because of that, Dagonet would never be able to go home, but at least he knew the rest of his family would stay together. It’d stopped hurting a few years ago, and now he had Bors’ family to slowly start filling in the holes. “We didn’t bring the Woads here.”
“I hope whoever did never has a peaceful night of sleep,” Branwen savagely replied, glowering at the lightening sky. “And don’t think I’m forgiving you, either.”
Dagonet hadn’t been, but he murmured an acquiescence to satisfy her burning look. It seemed to puzzle her, but then, it sounded as if she’d been living on the edge of a spinning sword, always on the verge of losing her balance. His life was at least as dangerous, but there were constants in it to which he could and had accustomed himself. He could learn to live it once and then not have to change, whereas she looked like she lived from uncertain deal to deal.
“Not all of you are like I’ve heard.” Now Branwen was grudgingly impressed. She picked up her skirts to get them out of the mud and started to slip away. “I hope you don’t die here, anyway.”
On the end of her comment came a sudden grinding shriek—the gates?
Branwen was a whirl of brown hair and brown dress in the corner of Dagonet’s eye, but he ignored her in favor of running toward the gears. He ducked around the wagon and looked up for Urien, but something splashed him in the eye. When he wiped it off, he saw that it was blood.
“Stop!” he heard Gawain shout. “Urien!”
“He’s dead!” someone on the wall shouted. “He’s—that bitch!”
“Stop!” Gawain said again, ragged and breaking.
At the gears was Brangaine, the front of her dress damply clinging to her lovely figure. The fabric was dark, but Dagonet could smell the fresh blood. She had her hand on the lever—the advantage and disadvantage of good Roman engineering was that the gate-gears could’ve been operated by a determined boy, and Brangaine clearly wasn’t as soft as she seemed. But the gears were old, and they’d gotten stuck so the gate was only open enough for a single man to pass through. Ignoring the men raising arrows and running towards her, she was throwing her weight against the lever in an effort to send the gate rattling open.
“Brangaine! What are you—” And then Branwen snarled into Briton, throwing herself at her relative. She got a hand in Brangaine’s hair and nearly dragged her off before there was the wet thunk of a blade forcing its way into flesh. Eyes wide and shocked, Branwen staggered back and fell to the ground at Dagonet’s feet, clutching at the dagger in her thigh. He nearly tripped over her and had to use a precious moment to right himself.
The other woman hissed a long string of vituperative Briton, rage and bitterness transforming her beautiful face into something terrifying. Then she threw up her head and boldly stared at Gawain. “Your stupid friend put you all in our hands. We’ll kill your great general and then we’ll kill the rest of you.”
“Damn you, there’ll be reprisals!” shouted Branwen. “The Romans will level our village for it, or the Woads will kill us for cooperating for so long!”
“Who’s cooperating? I didn’t—I took that bastard’s prick for the sake of Britain and for the memory of my aunt--your mother.” And with that, Brangaine turned back to the lever.
Gawain raised his sword. “Don’t you—”
She moved and his blade flashed forward; Brangaine’s head whipped through the air to nearly hit the Woad surging through the door. He was screaming and he had his ax raised to cleave Gawain’s skull, but the other man seemed transfixed in place by the sight of Brangaine’s collapsing body.
“Archers!” Lancelot appeared scrambling over the top of a wagon, waving a sword at the petrified sentries. “You fucking morons, turn around and shoot!”
He wasn’t near enough. Dagonet seized a spear from a nearby stack, hefted it, and skewered the Woad. The force of his throw knocked the man, who’d been a hair from killing Gawain, into the next one squeezing through the gates. Outside were chilling screams and the beating of many running feet, but now the knights were shooting down at close range. They’d be killing as fast as they could nock arrows.
Gawain snapped back a step and almost lost his balance, but a charging Woad drew his attention and he turned his fall into a low swing that slashed through the Woad’s thighs. Then he cut the man’s throat and moved to meet a woman that was trying to swing a garrote about his neck. Lancelot whipped a sword through her spine in passing and leaped up the steps to direct the fight there.
The Woads couldn’t send more than two in at a time, but they were still keeping the knights too busy to call for the others. They needed to shut the gate.
Dagonet plucked another spear from the stack and slammed it horizontally forward, catching two Woads in their midriffs. He swung the make-shift staff above his head and brought it down to crack open a skull, then kicked the other one out of his way and into Gawain’s ax. That brought him right up to the lever.
“You bastard!” And somehow Branwen had made it to the lever as well despite her injured thigh. She grabbed the lever and defiantly glared up at him. “Are you going to kill me too?”
If he had to, he—something flickered to the side and Dagonet turned to meet it. He shoved the spearpoint through the Woad’s throat just as hot fluid splattered the back and side of his head. When he turned around, he saw that another one had tried to slash at Branwen and she’d yanked the dagger from her leg to take him in the chest. The Woad was still alive, and he went at Dagonet with maddened eyes that cooled slowly when Dagonet sliced his throat.
Metal wailed and grated. Branwen, sobbing and cursing everyone, dragged down the lever. The gates slammed together, shutting out the Woad ambushers except for a few unlucky Britons. One of them had a bow and whipped it up to aim at Dagonet. Then her head exploded in a mist of red gobbets and chalky bone fragments.
“Dag, damn it. I told you to wake me if anything got started.” Bors stepped over the body with a surprising nimbleness and took care of the other Woads in short measure. Then he hefted his kukri and walked over to clasp Dagonet’s shoulder. “Didn’t get hurt, did you? Looked messy for a bit.”
The noise outside was dying down, and the dawn light painted the knights on the wall in reds and oranges and pinks. A yard away from Dagonet, Branwen was hunched over her cousin’s body, shoulders shaking and hair drawn to hide her face. Blood was soaking her skirt and pooling in the dirt. About three yards beyond her, Gawain was gasping to a stop and staring at Brangaine’s head. “She…”
“Did Urien up pretty badly,” Lancelot called down. His grim tone had an ironic twist to it that made everyone look slantwise at him. “I’m guessing she shoved a knife in his groin to hit the artery and then kissed him so he wouldn’t make a sound.”
“She…” Gawain’s expression was torn between horror, fury, and revulsion.
Bors gave the other man a concerned look. “Gawain? You’ve killed women before…”
“But they don’t look—they all look the same with that woad on them,” Gawain murmured, hollow and confused. Then he shook himself and the rage came simmering to the forefront, though his eyes still remained shadowed. “She was spying for the Woads? And that’s why Galahad—”
“Damn you. And damn her. You’re all the same, woad or no. You do what you have to and don’t care about anything except yourselves.” Branwen sobbed once, the noise muffled because she had her face pressed to Brangaine’s breasts.
Lancelot flinched. Then he squatted down on the edge of the platform, hand draped casually over his knee. The jeering light in his eyes barely covered up the raw fury and fear. “And where’s the difference between that and you? You and your father have your damned village—we’ve got our commander and our brothers-in-arms.”
When Dagonet looked up at him, the strength of the other man’s glare didn’t diminish, but he bit back whatever else he was going to say and returned to giving orders. Dagonet handed his spear to Bors, who gave him a puzzled glance but didn’t say anything, and stooped to pick up Branwen. She curled nails into his neck till he felt drops of blood rise, but didn’t otherwise protest. The blood loss was probably making her feel faint, if she hadn’t already passed out.
“You and you, wrap up her head and her body and take it inside to her family,” he heard Gawain order in a soft voice. “Dagonet?”
“I’ll explain,” he called back.
Bors caught up with him and wriggled his eyebrows, trying to ask without actually asking. But since Dagonet hadn’t yet figured out the answer, he didn’t give one.
“And I thought you liked blondes,” Bors finally sighed. “You’re an odd one, Dag. Here, I’ll get the door and you try not to knock her head on the frame.”
* * *
Galahad swept his sword out in front of him, testing the dimensions of the new cave. It was definitely larger, but the way the oak tree hung roots over it made it almost invisible. He’d had to spend a good ten minutes poking around before he’d found it, and he had known where to look.
The huge old tree actually made Galahad think of crashing rock and cave-ins and no air, but he pushed away his paranoia and acknowledged that the place seemed secure enough. It certainly was more defensible than the other cave.
He carefully backed out of it and scaled down the hill, noting how steep it was. Getting Tristan up there was going to be all kinds of fun, but Galahad thought it might be possible if he tried a few things and if Tristan’s weird tolerance for pain held up. Anyway, no point in worrying about that till he needed to. First was getting back to Tristan, and second was getting Tristan over to this one.
Walking back went better since it was now dawn and Galahad could actually see where he was going. Of course, that meant that it was easier for Woads to see him as well, but he was cautious enough to do Gawain proud and he was fairly sure he hadn’t been followed.
Once he’d reached the old cave, he stooped down and whistled under his breath before he even touched the branches. The last thing he needed was some stupid case of mistaken identity—normally he wouldn’t worry about that with Tristan, but the other man had been…twitchy. Which wasn’t even supposed to be possible with Tristan.
“You make a poor bird,” Tristan grunted, pulling himself out with his elbows and one good knee. He shoved their things ahead of him, then waited for Galahad to clear them out of the way. “Did you find it?”
“Moldy, but it’s roomier than this one.” Galahad wrapped everything into a bundle and strapped it to his back. He was reaching for Tristan’s arm when a twig snapped.
His hand flashed back to his sword and he stared wildly about, while beside him Tristan was scanning the area more deliberately, but with no less intensity. The forest around them was full of morning mist that turned the light grey and pallid, as if they were moving in a land of the dead. But there were birds singing somewhere, and the lingering smell of boars that had passed by earlier in the night, so it wasn’t completely depressing.
“Nothing?” Galahad whispered.
Tristan’s hand had clamped to his side. The line of his mouth was slightly twisted by pain. “No. We can…” He cocked his head, eyes going unfocused.
Galahad didn’t even see it coming. One moment he was staring at Tristan, the next he was tumbling down the hill—with a drawn sword—gasping from the hard elbow in the gut and praying that he didn’t slice himself. His flailing hand caught on something and he yanked himself to a stop, then flung himself about to look up. “What the fuck—”
Woads. One was falling backward with Tristan’s dagger in his throat. More were dropping from the trees, and they were swiftly ringing the two knights. But in their hands were staffs, not bows or swords or…oh, fuck. No. No.
The feel of the air behind Galahad changed—a breeze. He automatically threw himself down. Ate dirt and reared up to spit it at the Woad swinging at him. Then he slashed out with his sword, felt the tip catch and knocked the man further down the hill. The blow hadn’t wounded too deeply, but it should take him out of the fight for a little while.
Above him, Tristan had surged to his feet; the effort and the pain he had to be feeling made his face white and corpse-like, but he cut past the first staff aimed at his head and gutted that Woad. Another one struck at him from behind and he parried it—almost parried it, because his leg gave out and he slumped forward. Almost at the same moment, a staff slammed into his shoulder and sent him rolling towards Galahad. He knocked aside two Woads, which would’ve helped if he’d been able to get up afterward. But instead Tristan went frighteningly limp against a tree-stump.
“Shit—” Galahad clawed upward while trying to look backward and forward at the same time. Blue blurs all below, blue blurs around and up…no way out. Brown blur coming at his left. He dug one heel into the ground and forced himself into a desperate spin to avoid the staff.
And he did, but there had been one coming from his other side that he hadn’t seen and it knocked the wind out of him. He staggered, saw an ankle and cut at it. Blood splattered his face and into his mouth, which he hadn’t realized was open. He gasped and then it hurt, back and ribs exploding with pain that made lights dance before him so he couldn’t see where his attackers were. Instinct got him scuffling backward, away from the Woad he knew was still there; his hand slapped a shin and he was throwing himself sideways before he even thought about it. A stone smashed into his hand and scraped it raw, while a pole-butt smacked into the ground where his temple had been a moment before.
There weren’t any bluish shapes to his left, so he scrambled that way till his hand landed on another hand: Tristan. Galahad whipped about to see who was behind him and overbalanced so his feet slipped out from under him; he stabbed down with his sword and barely kept from sliding, but then he couldn’t block the blow coming at him.
So Tristan did it. He still had his sword and he threw it so it took root right between the Woad’s eyes. “You should’ve gone!”
“There wasn’t a way!” Damned bastard. Gawain had better appreciate all the trouble Galahad was going through to keep Tristan—a Woad whirled a heavy staff high above them.
Galahad’s sword was stuck in the ground, and he didn’t have any other weapons he could grab. Not that any of those realizations consciously crossed his mind. All he knew was wondering why the fuck he’d just thrown himself over Tristan, and then his head smashing into blackness.
* * *
After they’d carried off Urien’s body, Lancelot saw to the sentries at the gate himself. He didn’t think there were any other men involved with Briton women—most usually went for half-Sarmatian bastards or, if they had some rank, the daughter of a knight who’d settled in Britain—but he wasn’t about to risk another Woad trick. They’d already surprised him with too many.
“I have killed women before.” Haggard and drained, Gawain dragged himself besides Lancelot. He rubbed at his eyes, then looked at the stain Urien had left; there wouldn’t be time to wash the stones till later. “Never had a problem with it.”
“Because usually they’re trying to kill you at the same time. If there’s a sword coming at you, you don’t give a shit who’s holding it—you just want to live and them to die.” And also in the morning, Lancelot would have to deal with those damned villagers. Bors had gone off with Dagonet, so there wasn’t any danger of knights being lynched, but passive hatred could be just as bad. It certainly lasted longer, and he knew that from firsthand experience. “Imagine her stripped and slathered with Woad and there wouldn’t be a problem. She happened to be dressed as the kind of woman that we haven’t been ordered to kill yet. That’s all.”
The other man shot a fierce, revolted look at Lancelot that almost immediately turned pensive. Then Gawain sighed and pulled at his shoulders. “The things you say are so damned cold. Do you really think you’re like that?”
“It’d be nice not to care, wouldn’t it?” Lancelot squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to force away the fatigue. “Get the—”
Something thin and frail came soaring over the wall. An arrow. And when a sentry handed it to Lancelot, he saw that there was a piece of parchment wrapped about it.
* * *
One of the knights had been trying to train a new horse and he’d been having so much trouble that Arthur had finally traded his for it in order to try his hand. Such a little thing, yet it’d saved him. At the first Woad yell, the green stallion had panicked and bolted, plunging into the woods and crashing past the Woads through sheer terror.
Though Arthur hadn’t remembered any, they had to have shot arrows at him because later he found one stuck in his chainmail sleeve, and a graze from another tracked its way over his horse’s flank. That had been probably what had sent it into a new tangent, blindly charging a tree and just swerving at the last moment. But not soon enough to keep Arthur’s cloak from tangling in the branches and ripping him backwards; the fabric had ripped free, but by then he’d had his head bashed into a thick branch. The world had gone hazy and it’d been all he could do to remember to cling to the saddle, let alone try to think about what had happened.
Eventually the horse had begun to tire, but just before it had calmed, some small animal ran across its path. It reared and bucked, and this time Arthur’s grip wouldn’t hold. He was tossed from the saddle and landed on his head and shoulder and hip. It’d knocked him out for most of the night.
When he finally woke, it was nearly dawn and a Woad was turning him over. But what Arthur’s disoriented, dizzy eyes saw first was the metallic gleam in the other hand.
He lashed out with his feet and slammed the Woad’s knees out from under her, then seized the hand with the knife. Her mouth was wide and red, and in a moment she would be screaming—so he twisted her arm, still slack with shock, and cut her throat. Her knife dropped, and then she did because he’d flung her back. Hot coppery stuff dripped over his face and neck and stung his tongue, and more made his fingers sticky when he pressed them to his temples and tried to understand what had happened.
In the weak light, the woad covering her skin took on an angelic sheen, like highly-polished marble. Her breasts lolled, full and shapely, and her throat was a gaping red ruin. Then it was Lancelot there, eyes open and dull in comparison to the bright red blood.
Arthur threw up. He vomited hard enough so that he had to put down a hand to support himself, and that was how he remembered the knife that she’d been pointing at his throat. His fingers curled around it and that was how he remembered the twang of bowstrings, the hard crash of knights falling to the ground, the way his desperate denying call had ripped at his throat.
Breathed in, and his mind cleared a little beyond the gore. They’d been ambushed—the knights that had been with him. Tristan and Galahad, also in the forest. The village and the fort—Lancelot. How bad was it? Had they all been killed?
He stared at the Woad’s corpse and watched Lancelot’s face flash over hers once again. The coldness started in Arthur’s gut and quickly spread outward to turn him into moving ice. A river of it as from Gorlois’ stories, grinding and creaking as Arthur stood up.
The leaves rustled. Such a small sound, but it cracked through him and suddenly hot rage was surging through the fractures. He didn’t even feel the knife leaving his hand, but it did and the Woad fell from the tree. Arthur was over to him in two long steps and slapping the sword from the man’s hand, seizing his arms and slamming him up against the tree. “What did you do? What did you do?”
The man smiled. So the heel of Arthur’s hand rammed against the dagger in the Woad’s shoulder hard enough to crack the collarbone. The man tried to scream instead and Arthur shoved his gauntlet across the Woad’s mouth to stifle it.
The rage and the grief boiled and seethed into a crystalline thought. Arthur breathed again and watched his sight go flat and gray. When he asked a second time, he did so in a very low voice and he did so while applying precise pressure to the break in the Woad’s collarbone. “What are you doing here?”
“We were invited.” Though the uptilt of the Woad’s chin made it clear he was telling Arthur as a taunt, his voice shook and his eyes were wide with fear.
“Who do you have and what did you do with them?” He wasn’t here, Arthur thought. He shouldn’t be here anyway. He should be back with his knights, scratching out maneuvers in the dirt with a stick and looking forward to getting apples for Lancelot. It didn’t feel like he was here.
It felt like broken ends of bone just beneath the skin, and if he moved his hand that way, the Woad’s mouth opened. “Killed the knights with you,” the man gasped, trying to spit the words at Arthur and getting cut off by the pain. “Showed their bodies, your cloak to the rest of your men. Someone screamed for you.” Nasty smile that Arthur stopped by simply snapping his fingers against the break. “Have more. We almost got in once—this time we’ll be pushing your knights ahead of us and they’ll open the doors wide for our swords. Now!”
Except Arthur had heard the soft footfall and was already dropping to the ground. More blood splattered his back as the second Woad killed his comrade. He didn’t have time to be horrified because Arthur hooked hands around the backs of his knees, then flipped him over and grabbed his sword-arm with one hand and his hair with the other. Arthur yanked and there was a wet snap. The Woad gurgled and spasmed while the air filled with the fetid stench of his emptying bowels.
This one had found Arthur’s sword from wherever it’d fallen when the scabbard straps had given way. After freeing it from the Woad, Arthur checked the blade: freshly sharpened, cold, good for little but killing. It suited his current mood.
A stray beam of light filtered through the mist miraculously unblurred and made a small pool of gold on the ground. Its edge just touched the edge of the blood flowing sluggishly from the two Woads. For a moment, Arthur remembered himself.
“God, I commend to thee Lamorack, Alymere and Cei, as well as any other knight that has fallen. Though they be not Christians, treat them according to their merits, which are—were—great, and forgive me for failing to send them home.”
The mist shifted and the light faded. It didn’t disappear, but rather lost all its strength. And Arthur forgot himself in remembering his vision of Lancelot with a cut throat.
“And if you cannot protect, then turn a blind eye,” he finished, feeling the words grate out of his throat. He looked about to orient himself, letting the cold anger click his observations and hunches about the Woad movements into a coherent strategy. Then he set off in the direction of what had to be the main Woad camp.