|Humanity III: Misery
Author: Guede Mazaka
Relatively speaking, they’d been treated fairly well. When the Woads had figured out that Tristan’s leg was broken, they had redone the splint. They had also refrained from further injuring him and Galahad, aside from a few vengeful cuffs and kicks. But it was obvious from the way they glowered and curled fingers towards daggers that they weren’t behaving so of their own free will. Someone had given them orders, and had done in such a way as to frighten them out of disobeying.
The Woads were camped well behind the treeline, but with several clear lines of sight to the fort. If Tristan laid on his side and stared long enough, he thought he could even make out faint movement along the tops of the walls.
Galahad was crumpled against his back and only now waking, groaning and cursing as he wriggled around. Tristan could tell when the other man realized they were bound by how Galahad stiffened. “We’re against a tree. Hands tied to one root, and I think your feet to another.”
“Great. Fucking great.” The shake in Galahad’s voice was like after they’d first been attacked. He tried to sit up, failed and cursed so loudly that the Woads detailed to watch over them started to come towards them. “My feet are tied.”
“So I guessed right.” Hopefully irritating him would give him something to focus on and calm him down. Because between the dull throb in his side and the sharper one in his leg, Tristan wasn’t capable of doing anything. If they got a chance, it’d have to be Galahad taking it.
Snarling, Galahad laid back down. After another moment of hungry eying, the Woads retreated to the other side of the clearing and squatted down. At first they’d done nothing but stare at Tristan, but eventually they had found that too unnerving and had switched to staring at the fort. Now boredom was beginning to settle in; one of them had produced what Tristan thought were sheep’s knuckles and the Woads had been dicing with them ever since.
“What time is it?” Galahad asked. He sounded a little less jumpy, but he was still moving around, testing the strength of the ropes. His knee jabbed Tristan in the thigh and jarred Tristan’s leg badly enough to make him hiss. “Sorry.”
“Stop moving. And it’s a little past midday.” It felt as if Galahad had somehow managed to twist himself onto his side. Hot breath ghosted over Tristan’s ear and part of a leg pressed against the back of his. He started to close his eyes in irritation, but that made it too easy to pretend that it was a different body so he opened them. Counted to fifteen. “Galahad. Lie down. You can’t see anything useful. The knots won’t give.”
The other man did, with an annoyed whuff and a hard thump against the trunk that, once again, drew the attention of the Woads. “Are you going to be depressing again? Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not dying where the Woads can get to my body.”
“There’s a difference between being depressing and being realistic. I’m trying to think.” The only Woads Tristan could currently see were their guards, but the whisper of leaves and the occasional drift of voices told him there were far more around the area. Whatever they were planning to do, they obviously meant to use Tristan and Galahad for it, and so it wasn’t likely that they’d be careless.
Although the fort was within sight, it might as well have been on the other side of the world. Actually, it might have been better if it had been, since then its deceptive nearness couldn’t make the inside of Tristan’s mouth sour, or put that faint agonized undertone in Galahad’s voice. If they got loose and cleared the forest, then there was still the matter of crossing the great field between it and the fort. Perhaps Galahad could do it and outrun the Woad arrows, but Tristan couldn’t. And therefore Galahad wouldn’t, as he’d made clear.
He was an idiot, even if a tiny bit of Tristan was relieved to have company and was also…grateful to be so obviously valued. That bit was also an idiot.
Since Tristan’s leg was broken, the Woads had assumed—rightly, however much he hated to admit it—that he wasn’t going anywhere. They hadn’t bound his ankles. Keeping one eye on the guards, Tristan used his arms to pull himself up into a semi-sitting position. Muscles in his back suddenly uncramped in a series of bursts that gritted his teeth together. His leg also decided to twinge a little, and his stomach alerted him to the fact that it’d been empty since yesterday. Thankfully, Galahad had had a water-flask so thirst wasn’t a problem as well.
“Tristan?” Galahad sounded oddly nervous. Almost afraid, and in a way men usually outgrew after they’d killed their first man. “How do you think—how do you think they found us?”
If Tristan had to take a guess, he’d say that one Woad that had stood by their cave for so long; perhaps the man had seen traces of them and had went off to get others to return at dawn. But he really had no firm idea, and anyway, he was trying not to think about it. Yes, it ground on him to know he’d been outdone by some Britons—even if he had had a broken leg and had been mostly relying on Galahad—but at this point, knowing what he’d done wrong didn’t help him get free. Later, maybe, it might be useful in avoiding the same kind of situation, but that was later.
For that matter, that should be what Galahad was thinking, and not whatever it was that made him look as if he’d let down someone. Except for Gawain, and to a much lesser extent, Arthur, he never showed any signs of caring about other people’s expectations of him.
Unless, Tristan suddenly thought, he was blaming himself for their capture. “I don’t think it was you,” he tried, listening carefully since he couldn’t see Galahad.
If that was it, Galahad should still be sounding defensive instead of almost…guilty. Then again, maybe he wasn’t thinking about it as being outmaneuvered by the Woads, but as reducing his chances of getting back to Gawain. Though Tristan was no longer in a position to have that worry, he still remembered how cleverly and deeply it could strike.
“So what do we do?” Galahad’s reply completely avoided the issue, but the tiny hint of relief in his voice confirmed Tristan’s guess.
Tristan kept watching the Woad guards. He still hadn’t come up with a likely way to move them both from here to the fort, but now the thought of staying behind—or being left behind—made him flinch.
When he’d first realized he couldn’t even stand, his stomach had turned icy and twisted around itself till he had almost thought he could smell blood. Back in Sarmatia, carving out a space amongst the other tribes had meant being quicker and quieter and deadlier than anyone else. In Britain, that hadn’t quite been good enough to keep up with the Woads, but Tristan had worked until he’d surpassed them—and he’d watched fall the other knights who couldn’t adapt fast enough. He had told himself that that would never be him. If he were to fall, it would have to be on a battlefield, because he’d eliminated the chances of any other time.
But he’d been proven wrong about that, once by Dinidan’s death and once by the attack yesterday. It hadn’t seemed as if there was anything left that he could do.
A forehead bumped his back. “Hey. I asked a question.”
“I heard you.” Galahad refusing to leave him, however, had forced on Tristan a night to think. And now he thought perhaps he didn’t know if there was anything left, but he was going to try anyway. “They can’t see your hands from here while I’m sitting up. Try and see if you can do something about the knots.”
“I thought you said they wouldn’t give,” Galahad muttered. Nevertheless Tristan could feel the man’s fingers fumbling at the rope a moment later.
It wasn’t the kind of company Tristan would have wished for, but it seemed it was the kind he needed. “They won’t just from pulling. Use your wits. Try something else.”
“You have any suggest—”
Shouts off in the distance, which caught the attention of the Woads. Tristan swiftly shoved himself back, ignored how that hurt his side, and propped his head up on the root. The position wasn’t comfortable in the least, but it kept them from seeing what Galahad had been doing.
But whatever was being called through the woods was so distracting that the Woads didn’t even look over. Instead they jumped to their feet and began carrying on low, anxious conversations. Their faces were angry, fearful, shocked…Tristan strained to hear.
“What are they saying?” Galahad hissed. He poked at Tristan’s head with his nose.
And Tristan didn’t snap back an insult because he was too busy trying to think past his amazement. “There’s someone else in the forest, killing the Woads. They can’t track him fast enough—they just find the bodies.”
* * *
Whatever had been in that note had been terrible: Lancelot had read it once, then had crumpled it up and spent the next few moments staring over the wall, a low vitriolic stream of curses issuing from his lips. His jaw had tightened to the point that Gawain had feared it’d simply snap.
But when questioned, he’d just said it was a Woad taunt and had declined to explain further. Nor had he read it to Gawain, or let one of the few other literate knights take a look. He instead had ordered the knights to keep rotating watches, then walked off with a fast, jarring stride with which Gawain hadn’t been able to keep up.
It looked as if Lancelot had retreated to Arthur’s rooms once again, but Gawain couldn’t be certain because before they’d reached the inner fort, Bran had appeared. Lancelot had thrown the man a look that had made Bran step back a pace—and Bran didn’t look as if he lacked courage—and had simply walked around him, which left Gawain to deal with the man’s complaints, such as they were.
Bran didn’t mince words. The old man lifted his shaggy head to fix Gawain with red-rimmed, emotionless eyes and asked: “Are you the one who killed my niece?”
Gawain opened his mouth to defend himself, closed it because he couldn’t think of a way to excuse himself that didn’t taste foul, and opened it again. “Yes.”
It seemed as if Bran had been expecting a different answer, because his stare intensified and he was silent for several moments. Then he sighed and looked away. “The knight that brought in Branwen told us what happened. I wasn’t sure I believed him—since Brangaine came under my roof, she’s been nothing but friendly toward the Romans and their allies.”
“We’re not their allies,” Gawain muttered. Bile surged into the back of his throat and he was so very tempted to just loose his temper on the other man, but he willed it away. It wouldn’t bring Galahad back any faster, or make the number of Woads besieging them any less.
In fact, all it’d do was wear him out so he had something besides worry gnawing at him. And later it would probably give him nightmares and long sleepless nights staring at the sky and wondering what kind of man he’d be when he finally did receive his discharge. Decapitating the woman was going to trouble him enough without adding her uncle.
“All right, you’re not.” Bran’s tone was still neutral. All of him was neutral, from gaze to expression to body stance. From all appearances, he was taking things remarkably well.
He couldn’t be. After death, Gawain was best acquainted with grief, and his experience told him that if Bran cared a whit for his niece, then what Gawain could see was only the tip of the mountain above the thunderheads. “I…apologize that there wasn’t another way.”
As soon as he said that, suggestions popped into his mind and whispered, shouted, did everything but be ignored. He could have tried to pull her aside. He could have hit her on the head with his hilt and tried to knock her out. He could’ve done all the matter of things that normally he would have. When everything wasn’t a panicking rush of shouting above and enemies hammering at the gates, when he wasn’t already using up energy pretending there wasn’t a gaping hole at his side.
“So do I,” Bran said. When he noticed Gawain’s surprise, tired shrewdness flickered in his eyes. Maybe a trace of sympathy as well, but it was only a trace. “You killed my niece. But she put herself before your sword. Branwen says she probably died happy.”
Branwen…that must have been the other woman, the one with the scowling face. She’d been the one to shut the gates, and if Gawain remembered rightly, she was Bran’s daughter. So she’d told her father what had actually happened, and hadn’t just blamed the knights.
It was hard to think of a response that even approached suitable, but the silence demanded one. In the end, Gawain just shrugged and looked bleakly at the other man. “If you apply for compensation later, you’ll probably get something. But until we go—”
“—we’ll cooperate. I’ve no intention of losing more of my people to anyone.” Something in the sky caught Bran’s attention and he looked up. There was gray in his stubble and folds of skin around his throat, nearly hiding what was almost certainly a sword-scar. He raised his hand and rubbed round it to the back of his neck. “I don’t know if you’d understand, but I’m too old to see the virtues in fighting. I want to live, I want my village to live, and you can’t do that on a battlefield.”
“I…appreciate your understanding,” Gawain carefully replied. He wished Lancelot hadn’t gone off so precipitously; the other man knew better how to handle matters like these, even if it was obvious Lancelot hated doing it.
Then again, Lancelot’s mind was clearly elsewhere. At any other time, Gawain would be a combination of annoyed, amused and concerned about that, but right now, he couldn’t see how Lancelot was wrong.
Bran’s head came down and the veneer dropped as well to show a flash of bitterness. “Don’t mistake it for friendship. If you die somewhere else, I won’t weep.”
If Gawain were dressed as a ranker legionary, the Briton wouldn’t be nearly so insolent. Legionaries were the fist and the voice of Rome out here; they changed emperors and ruined nations and did as they and their officers pleased. Even Paullus, the best of the infantry commanders, thought nothing of leveling a town that had taken upon itself to discipline drunken soldiers of his. Whereas Arthur bent over backward to work with the civilians and trained his officers to do the same, and the most they ever got was a grudging business arrangement. If it could even be called that.
“I wasn’t about to.” Whether or not Bran thought the conversation was done, Gawain certainly did. He turned on his heel and walked away.
* * *
Where Arthur had ended up was only a few hundred yards from the treeline, but far down its length from the fort. The edges of the Woad camp were probably a couple hours’ hard walking, but it took him even longer because he was doubling his tracks and making sure that it’d be awhile before anyone managed to catch up with him.
The first scout he ran into provided him with a bow and a half-full quiver of arrows, which soon went empty. He took another quiver off a downed scout and lurked about the edges of the Woad camp, trying to determine how it was arranged and where they would keep any prisoners.
Occasionally he would glimpse the garrison through the trees and then the urge to just turn his feet towards it would be so strong his eyes burned, but Arthur always forced himself away. The grass of the field separating the forest and the fort was too short for him to slip through it without being seen, and without a horse there was no way he could cross it quickly enough to evade arrows. There was also no way he could alert those inside the garrison without also giving notice to the Woads, who were far closer.
And he had knights in danger. If he left them to die, it would be not only a betrayal of everything he’d ever taught, but also of the trust they had in him. He might as well fall on his sword in that case, because he’d never be able to look the rest of his knights in the eye again, and he couldn’t lead them if he couldn’t look at them.
But all of this was merely a faint undercurrent to Arthur’s thoughts that occasionally pulsed strong enough to be felt. For the most part, he felt…quite calm. Almost frozen, except for the fact that he could move and think—in fact, his thoughts seemed to run faster and clearer than ever. He barely even noticed that he was killing people anymore.
Beyond him was a pair of Woads gracefully slipping from tree to tree. They were calling out to each other in words, not bird calls, so they thought they were safe. And according to the fragments of conversation they tossed about, they thought they were tracking him.
Not him specifically; the Woads still didn’t seem to realize who was picking off their sentries. Their speculations on the identity of the killer ranged from a knight they had missed during yesterday’s ambushes to one that had somehow sneaked out of the fort, but Arthur never heard his name. What he did hear, however, was that two knights found some distance from his group had been attacked and had escaped for most of the night, only to be taken just before dawn. They were still alive because the Woad leader wanted to try another ruse to get into the fort.
So there’d been a first ruse, Arthur noted. And the knights for whom he was looking were Tristan and Galahad.
He decided he’d heard all he needed from these two, so the only decision left to be made was whether letting them go would help disguise his presence, or would leave a serious danger at his back.
In the end, he let those two go, since it seemed as if they were headed farther out. But a few yards further he stole quietly up to a tree trunk, nocked an arrow and then aimed it high into the branches. He loosed it and quickly dropped the bow so he could catch the falling body.
The arrow had taken the Woad high in the shoulder, so he was still alive enough to muffle yells against Arthur’s hand and slam a knee into Arthur’s side. But that was all before Arthur whipped a dagger through his throat. He died messily, splattering more blood on the dried stains that caked Arthur’s neck and hands and chest.
At this point, armor was more of a hindrance than a help. Arthur only had on chainmail in the first place, and one of his sleeves had been wrenched half-off during his fall from his horse. He’d torn up the sleeve of his undershirt and had bound it up, but it still tended to slip free and jangle. In addition, the closer he got, the harder it was to work only from the ground. Armor would weigh him down once he got into the trees.
After listening for approaching Woads and hearing none, he stripped himself to the waist and wiped the blood from himself the best he could, then put his undershirt back on and strapped Excalibur on top of it. He was briefly at a loss as to what to do with his chainmail before he thought about the smell. He smelled like gore, the body at his feet like woad, and the chainmail…Geraint had once offhandedly mentioned that a good scout could smell armor.
Arthur went off a few paces and dropped his chainmail in a careless heap, as if it’d fallen by accident. Then he carefully walked back in the dents he’d made in the leaf-litter and stooped by the Woad. A few swipes garnered him enough woad to cover his neck and face; he still smelled of those that he’d killed, but less strongly now.
Then he slipped further into the Woad camp. In the distance someone was running, and it sounded as if he were coming Arthur’s way, so Arthur quickly scaled a tree and tucked himself into the branches.
The Woad jogged a little past Arthur’s tree and then stopped, bent over with one hand against a nearby trunk, to catch his breath. He had come from the direction of a scout Arthur had killed, and considering the jerky way he kept glancing about, it seemed likely that that was the news he carried. Good. If they thought Arthur was over there, they’d concentrate even less on this direction.
The branch beneath Arthur’s left foot gave. Not enough to make a sound, but enough for him to feel the shift. His grip on the other branches started to tighten, but he stopped for fear of shaking the leaves. Instead he tried to slowly ease his weight onto his other foot, but he felt the strain in that one increase too fast and he froze.
Below, the Woad seemed to have finished his rest and was slowly straightening.
Hurry, Arthur silently snarled. Hurry up and tell your leader that you’ve dead men. Stop loitering; the news will only get worse. You’ve made the news worse for me, so I return the favor.
A tiny part of him said he sounded like Lancelot. Another tiny part corrected that, because Lancelot’s rage always burned hot and right now Arthur was very, very cold. If that Woad didn’t move, he was going to get a taste of the part of it that was strapped to Arthur’s back.
The Woad finally started off again. Arthur didn’t feel relieved so much as satisfied, for now he could move on. He had to hurry himself, because the likeliest time for the Woads to make their next try was in the evening, when another long, sleepless, frightening night was staring the knights in the face. So Arthur had to find Tristan and Galahad before that happened, and the sun was already peaking.
He quietly dropped to the ground; the branches that had supported his feet now groaned, but there was no one to hear their warnings except him and he didn’t care.
A breeze sprang up, too light and casual. It grated his nerves with its incongruity—but then it brought good news and Arthur almost smiled.
Horses. He smelled living horseflesh.
* * *
Lancelot slumped in Arthur’s chair and let his fingers slowly unlock from their first so the little scrap was visible. He raised his other hand and stabbed a finger at the ball. Forced himself to unroll it and read the message again.
The Latin was bad, but there was no mistaking what it said. The Woads had two knights alive, and they wanted to talk about trading terms.
He crushed the piece of parchment and flicked it onto Arthur’s desk. A lie if Lancelot ever heard one. The knights didn’t have anything to trade except the villagers and the fort. Maybe the villagers housed some more Woad sympathizers, but the Woads weren’t known for counting the cost of their sacrifices, and anyway the villagers would have more chances to do damage inside than out. Though if any of Bran’s folk tried anything, there were knights watching them, Lancelot had no problem with hanging the bodies over the wall for the Woads to see. An eye for an eye…one of the few Biblical phrases that had made much sense to him.
Predictably, it was one of the phrases that troubled Arthur the most. He could spend hours and hours pulling out phrases from other parts of the Bible that contradicted it, he could discuss the theological and presumed historical arguments against it, and—Lancelot would gladly throw open the damned gates if he could have even that again. He needed to stop thinking along that line.
The fort, on the other hand, was definitely valuable. It had a year-round reliable source of water and it had been newly repaired under Lancelot’s own eye, so he knew how strong it was. If the Woads got it, then they would have a foothold behind the wall, in supposedly secure territory. Aside from the sheer size of the campaign necessary to dislodge them, it’d be devastating for morale.
Therefore the only sensible demand the Woads could make was for a full withdrawal from the fort. They would probably offer safe passage, and it’d be a lie.
Even if it wasn’t, they would still be dead. The Romans might decimate the Sarmatians for their apparent cowardice, but Lancelot would’ve been in his grave before then. Arthur not only wouldn’t countenance such a dereliction of duty, but he’d also take full responsibility, since in his mind he should have somehow been able to get there in time and stop it from happening. Even though that would require wings, at the least. He would probably offer to execute himself, and Lancelot refused to follow any other officer.
It was a trick and the Woads were going to pull it, and damned if Lancelot saw how he could hold the knights back from falling for it. He knew very well what his reputation was among the others, and he knew very well how far they would follow him. It’d been hard enough to persuade Gawain to back down before, and that was when they didn’t even know where Galahad was. If the Woads dragged Galahad up to the wall and Gawain saw him…even Arthur’s God probably didn’t know what Gawain might do.
When Lancelot had read the words for the first time, for a long, long moment he had thought…but no, the Woads would never offer to trade Arthur. He was too good at killing them. He had Briton blood in him, so his value as Roman propaganda to persuade the other Britons to cooperate also was too high.
Then the other one was probably Tristan. Lancelot slouched further in the chair and let his head fall back so he could stare at the ceiling. As impossible as it seemed, Tristan was the only other knight unaccounted for…it must have been horrific in the forest if he’d been taken. The little that Lancelot knew of him all pointed towards extreme efficiency under conditions that would daunt another man.
Maybe it was a bluff. The Woads had never specified names—they’d just said two and then they had added a brief description of the knights’ swords, which details their scouts could’ve gotten before the ambush, or just from the sword without necessarily having a knight attached to it. After all, they had put up Galahad’s saddle, but they’d waited till now, after Brangaine’s failed treachery, to make this offer.
But could Lancelot really chance disbelief? If the Woads did indeed have Tristan and Galahad…then it might be worse to let them tell Gawain. If he told the other man, then he would have a little time to talk Gawain into…into doing what? Sitting still? Watching from the ramparts as someone cut off Galahad’s head?
“Damn everything.” Lancelot closed his eyes. There was so much to consider and weigh and so many unknown but deadly important facts, and all of it was cramming into his skull, pressing against the backs of his eyes till they ached. They wanted to burst, and he almost wished they would. Leave him in the darkness where he could sleep without a single worry.
He absently turned his head and opened his eyes to look at the bed, which was probably the worst thing he could have done. Because then he could see the rumpled sheets and the slight impress in the mattress left over from yesterday morning—he hadn’t slept a moment since—and he could remember how light and lazy and achingly near-perfect it had been. It could very well have been the last time, and he hadn’t—of course he hadn’t known. He couldn’t have. But nevertheless the curves and folds of the blankets reproached his careless attitude; he should know better by now than to take even a simple breath for granted.
Someone knocked on the door. “Lancelot?” Gawain called.
Lancelot sat up and pressed his hands against his face, trying to brace himself for what was to come. Then he waved in the other man. “Shut the door. Sit down.” When Gawain did, Lancelot moved to get between Gawain and the door. “That message from the Woads—they say they’ve got two knights. They want to trade them.”
Gawain had been slumping with fatigue, but now his head threw up and back, his body leaned forward and his hands trembled with too much energy. “Who?”
“They don’t say by name, but they mentioned a few details from Galahad’s sword, and they said the other knight’s sword was curved, so I think—”
“Tristan. Has to be. Has to—they’ve got them. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” On the last repetition, Gawain jumped to his feet and paced around the room before coming to stop in front of Lancelot. He drew in a breath, hesitated, and then asked. “Arthur?”
The words hurt to curl tongue and lips around. “No word.” Now it was Lancelot’s turn to hesitate. He quietly stepped back to Arthur’s desk and laid his hand on top so it covered a heavy paperweight. “They didn’t say for what, but you can guess what they’d ask for. Ceding the fort.”
Apparently Gawain hadn’t even thought about it till Lancelot mentioned it, for the other man just stared. His eyes were wide enough for Lancelot to see the moment when Gawain’s mind belatedly dragged the pieces together. And then there was anger. “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them just for making me look at this as a choice.”
“It’s not a choice. We can’t let them have it.” Lancelot kept his eyes on Gawain’s, but with his peripheral vision he tracked Gawain’s hands. He didn’t want to do it, but if he had to, he would knock out the other man and lock him in the room.
Yesterday he’d touted the lock as such an advantage. It still was, but the context had twisted about so sharply that Lancelot could almost feel himself bleeding.
Gawain didn’t reply, but instead spun on his heel and stomped a few steps. He stopped and stared at the wall while his fists beat hard against his legs. “Did they say how we were negotiating? Because if they bring Galahad out one step onto the field—”
“Sadly, they’re not that stupid. They’re sending a man up to the gate at sundown; he will have tokens to prove they’ve got the knights and he’ll…” It was a struggle not to snarl every word. “He’ll ‘set terms,’ according to their message.”
At first Gawain’s shoulders only twitched once or twice. Then they went violently up and down, and then they were heaving uncontrollably as he hissed breath between his teeth. He abruptly threw himself forward and grabbed the edge of the bedframe, hunching over it as he fought for control.
For as long as Lancelot had known him, Gawain had been easygoing, patient, willing to shoulder burdens without complaint. He rarely ever was angry enough to raise his voice—and now rage was shaking him so hard that his teeth were clicking together. As numb as Lancelot had become, he was still shocked.
“We can’t do anything till the messenger shows up,” Lancelot said, more quickly and quietly than he’d intended to. But he was genuinely taken aback at Gawain’s reaction and he was suddenly doubting his ability to cope with the other man, should Gawain’s temper suddenly snap. “After we talk to him, we’ll know where things stand.”
“So till sundown.” Each word was jagged as broken glass.
Gawain stayed bent over for another few seething breaths. Then he straightened up and went out of the room without looking at Lancelot.
Lancelot let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Before he could catch himself, his temper whipped out and his knuckles exploded.
On the wall before him was a faint red streak. He looked at it, then at the bloody back of his hand. And he let the stones stay stained, and his hand unbandaged.
* * *
The only meal the Woads provided was some disgusting soup, which nevertheless Galahad’s stomach eagerly accepted. Stupid thing even growled for more after the bowl was taken away. The Woad that had brought the food sneered at him, said something nasty and kicked dirt in his face before going to the other side of the clearing. Galahad spat and rubbed his face against his arms. “What’d they say?”
“If you learned more Briton, you wouldn’t have to keep asking me,” Tristan muttered. He bent down to wipe his mouth on his hands, then squinted at the knots he’d hastily redone. A glance at the Woads, who were back to staring nervously at the trees and jumping every time there was a birdcall, and then he twisted one loop. Parts of the knots came free: the result of hours of picking at the rope. “It’ll just upset you to know and you’ll be distracted.”
He was right, but Galahad still wanted to know. Damned Woads already had him upset, so what was the point in pretending they weren’t being utter bastards?
The difficulty wasn’t in the knots themselves so much as in how they were placed; the Woads knew what they were doing and put them where Tristan couldn’t reach and where Galahad had to wrench himself around to get his fingers on them. The position was so strained he couldn’t hold it for more than a few heartbeats at a time, and he couldn’t twist himself around too often because then the Woads might notice him gasping to death. So it’d been slow going.
“Whatever they want with us, it’ll probably happen at sunset.” A trace of anxiety wove through Tristan’s voice.
The angle of the light told Galahad that wasn’t more than a half-hour away. He grunted and managed to loosen a loop just as his muscles told him no more. Dropping back bumped his spine against the tree, which had long ceased being an irritation and was now just more pain. “Great. How’s it look?”
“A little more and your hands should be free.” Tristan slowly eased himself down on his stomach. The side of his mouth twitched in a grimace. “Don’t start yet. I’m going to turn over.”
“Your side?” If it’d started bleeding…but no, Tristan should be paler in that case. More likely was that he was cramping; his current position did let him keep an eye on the Woads, but it also forced him to put some weight on the wound. Galahad pressed himself as far back as he could to make room for the other man.
Tristan gave a curt nod. His mouth was pressed so tightly together that the skin around it was white as snow, but he didn’t stop moving until he’d flipped onto his back. Lying like that meant his arms were forced above his head and thus blocked his vision, so after resting a moment, he scooted up to prop his head against a root. His hands were still pressing against his cheek, but when asked, he said he could see the Woads fine and he told Galahad to get working.
“I am, I am. See if I ever inquire after your health again.” Of course, Galahad wasn’t being serious. And normally Tristan wouldn’t even react to something like that. But this time Tristan went a little stiff and glanced at Galahad. Too quickly for the look to be interpreted, but just the fact that Tristan had bothered to look over was curious.
Galahad hooked his finger through the loop he’d made on the last try and yanked it free. To his immense gratification, a whole knot suddenly unraveled. Two left.
He slid back and rested, grinning to himself. Then he noticed something and rolled his eyes. “All right, what? You’ve been twitching on and off ever since…am I jarring you too much? Do I smell? What?”
The little sound Tristan made said Galahad was wasting time and was acting like an idiot. But the way he tensed up said something else.
“Well, I’m very sorry, but in case you haven’t noticed, I can’t move away from you. Once we’re free, you can go as far as you want from me, but till then, you’ll just have to put up with it.” And they’d almost been getting along, too. Gawain would’ve been proud. He was always telling Galahad how he just needed to get to know Tristan better, and then he’d see the man wasn’t such a bad friend to have…well, Galahad had thought he had begun to see, but clearly not. “Don’t like you, but I’m not that rude about it.”
“That’s the problem.” Tristan spoke so quietly that Galahad thought he’d imagined it. But then the other man looked at him—Tristan’s expression was some cousin to dismay—and Galahad realized Tristan hadn’t even realized he’d been talking aloud.
Galahad watched Tristan for a long time, waiting for an explanation. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to get one, he snorted and turned back to the knots. “Not only do you not make sense, but you’re also an ungrateful bastard.”
“Thank you. For earlier.”
When Galahad looked over, certain that it was just another sarcastic retort, Tristan wasn’t looking at him anymore. Nor was he looking at the Woads, but instead he was staring at his broken leg. “I’m not teasing you,” Tristan softly said.
Another knot unraveled between Galahad’s fingers before he decided how to respond. “You’re welcome.”
“Gawain’s going to be a very happy man.” Tristan didn’t sound sarcastic. More like envious, but without the bite. There was something like regret softening his tone.
“Fuck, I’ll be a happy man. Worst two days of my life, and I had to spend them with you.” Galahad let himself snicker a little. “That would be teasing.”
For that, he received an elbow in the nose. “Get back to the knots,” Tristan snapped. But a faint smile danced around his mouth.
* * *
“I supported your story. I made you knights look good,” Branwen spat. She pushed herself further into the room and dropped onto Dagonet’s cot. Her crutch bounced off his foot and clattered to the floor. “I saved your skins.”
“I thank you for that.” He finished washing the soapy traces and newly-cut hairs off of his face. Then he walked the basin over to the window, checked for anyone below, and tipped out its contents when he saw that there was no one.
The puffy black shadows beneath Branwen’s eyes and the fine red lines spiderwebbing them said she’d been crying till very recently, but now there was no sign of any moisture or anything soft in her face. She glared at Dagonet as he put the basin back, as he sat down on the bed beside her and unlaced his boots. He had an hour before he had to go out again, and he thought it’d best be spent sleeping. Lack of rest ate at men, thinned their nerves and increased their regrets when the sun rose on another day. All he had to do to confirm that was look at Lancelot or Gawain.
“I’m supposed to thank you for saving my life. But what I really want to know is how can you be so calm? Are you just dense? Do you understand anything that’s happened, that is happening?” She hooked her fingers into his bicep and dug until he could feel a bruise welling up.
Dagonet preferred not to strike out except when he had to, but this he wouldn’t take. He jerked away his arm. “I’m alive and in Britain when I’d rather be in Sarmatia. You’re alive and here when you’d rather be dead because then you wouldn’t feel as if you owe me a debt. We’re living in a war and nothing makes sense.”
“That made sense.” And she sounded as if she wanted to hurt him for it. Branwen wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the floor.
He twisted his legs behind her and laid down. Come sunset, he had a feeling that things were going to get worse again, and he wanted to be ready if that feeling was right.
“I didn’t even like her that much. She was pretty and laughing and she always smiled when she told me to shut up. And my father would let her, because she was so handy to have around when the Romans came demanding something.” After she’d finished speaking, Branwen raised her head and looked curiously about the empty barracks.
The other knights were busy eating, or manning the walls—Dagonet would have been there if Geraint hadn’t spotted him and ordered him off. Apparently Arthur had left a standing order about how many consecutive shifts a knight could take, and so far neither Gawain nor Lancelot had countermanded it.
“What happened to her parents?” Dagonet asked.
The bed dipped as Branwen shrugged. “Killed in a raid. They were traders, traveling under Roman protection when Woads raided their wagon train. Brangaine saw all of it…I always thought she blamed the Woads…”
A hand touched Dagonet’s shin. It was large for a woman, and he knew it was scarred and callused and hardened by years of daily labor.
“My father cried when I told him how close I came to dying. First time in years he’s acted fond of me.” Branwen’s voice was wondering, soft and thready like that of a child’s. She moved her hand up Dagonet’s leg, then withdrew it. “I’m not going to miss you, or what you bring—you did bring it, just by virtue of what you do,” she said with sudden ferocity. “Not when you go.”
Then she turned around and leaned down to kiss him. Hard, fast, uncaring of what her teeth caught. He lifted hands to push her away and she grabbed them and squeezed, so he pulled her to him. They rolled over and he was as careful as he could of the bulky bandage on her leg, but she was careless as she tugged down his trousers and slid her hands beneath his clothes.
It wasn’t gentle or considerate. Her legs were flashes of white, shocking in comparison to her sunbrowned feet and hands, and her breasts remained masked softnesses, slight roundings that he stroked and pressed his mouth to through her dress. She cupped his head and licked at his markings while his hands dove into her skirts and pulled them up, but when he started to push them past her waist, she seized his wrist to make him stop.
She was tight and dry, so dry that he almost thought he’d tear her, but she pulled and he pushed in his prick and when she arched it wasn’t in pain. In a little bit some slickness worked up between them and then he gave in to her yanking. The cot rattled and thumped, and once he tore his shoulder from her mouth and kissed her afterward and tasted blood there. But she hooked her good leg around him and twisted him down so he would have to break her to free himself. And he wouldn’t do that.
When Branwen came, she said his name. Accented the wrong syllables and dragged it out in the wrong places, but it was still the sweetest thing he’d ever heard her say. Then she curled around him and held him while he muffled his cries in her hair.
She let him hold her for a few long breathes before pushing away. He tried to help pull her dress back down, but she irritably shoved back his hands and insisted on doing it herself. So he saw to his clothing, and left her alone.
“There won’t be anything of this,” she told him. “I’ll see to that. I don’t want any of this to remain here.”
Dagonet nodded and lifted a hand to her hair. For a moment, he thought she was going to leap away, but she held herself in place. Very carefully, he pulled out a few hairs, which he held up to the light so the drab brown suddenly gleamed with blues, greens and red. “Beautiful.”
Branwen laughed at him.
“I like your laugh better than I did Brangaine’s,” he told her. And he looked at her until he saw that she believed him.
She tensed on the edge of the bed, a startled hawk ready to flee. Then she grabbed his shoulders and pressed her face into his neck. “Don’t die here,” she hissed.
A moment later, she was gone, and Dagonet was carefully tucking the hairs into his saddlebag. He paused with his hand on the flap, then shook himself and laid back on the bed.
Someone shook him awake an hour later, and he opened his eyes to see Bors’ speculative face. The other man gave an exaggerated sniff. “Found some company, did you?”
“Of a kind,” Dagonet agreed, sitting up. “What are we doing?”
Instead of answering him, Bors narrowed his eyes and scrutinized Dagonet the same way he would one of his sons when trying to figure out which had just buffeted him in the back. Then Bors smiled, but it was a strangely sad one. “You know, I keep hoping you’ll get a girl you deserve. Everyone needs a little warmth at night. And I don’t mean fires, either.”
“I know.” On an impulse, Dagonet grabbed Bors’ forearm and squeezed it; the other man quickly caught on and did the same.
Then Bors chuckled deep in his gut and pulled Dagonet to his feet. “Well, you’re young yet. Plenty of time to be looking about. Speaking of, we’re wanted on the walls. Come on.”
* * *
After years of shepherding young Sarmatians, stealing a few horses was simple. Leading them to a good hiding place was much more difficult and took Arthur nearly the rest of the time he had left. He stared at the angle of the sun, then looked out at the field beyond the trees and tried to plot out the quickest way to locate his knights in the few moments he had left.
There was a dip in the treeline. Arthur was on one side of it, and he could easily see the other, where there were bodies hanging from trees. His vision flicked red: they dared.
And then it went grey: that was where they’d bring Tristan and Galahad when they used them, so the two knights couldn’t be far away. That was where Arthur was going.
He took the horses with him as close as he dared, but when the encounters with Woads became too numerous, he secreted the horses—more like ponies compared to the chargers Arthur was used to—in a copse and continued on, praying that no one would find them.
Soon he had to retreat to the trees because there were so many Woads passing to and fro on the ground. Arthur hadn’t climbed trees since he was very young, before he’d learned to hate the Woads…before he’d even really known who they were. He remembered his father railing a few times against the bastards that kept him from home, but his mother was always shushing Uther and clapping her hands over Arthur’s ears. As far as he recalled, she’d never expressed an opinion on the presence of the Romans. After his father had been killed, she had gone cold and silent whenever Uther’s name was mentioned, but she said nothing. When she’d told Arthur, she had merely said that his father had been killed in a battle. It had been Gorlois, nearly ten years later when she was dead and Arthur had just donned a knight’s armor, who had finally told him the rest of it.
Ever since then Arthur had considered himself a cavalryman. He rode when he could, walked when he had to, and if he looked at the trees, it was almost always because he feared an attack. And now he was the attack.
It didn’t feel odd to be appropriating his enemies’ strategies, for they were part of his heritage as well. In fact, it was the ease with which he was accustoming himself to them that vaguely rippled in the recesses of his mind.
Below, the Woads were speaking of those that he’d killed, of some failed attempt to coordinate with a spy within the fortress. Some of them grumbled about how badly their plans had failed, about a knight that had run the Woad lines and gotten through to another garrison. Most were grimly resigned to salvaging what they could of their expedition; they had no choice, considering how far behind the Wall they were. If they lost here, there was little chance that they could retreat. Too many garrisons and other detachments of Roman forces stood between them and friendly territory.
The name ‘Merlin’ was mentioned. Arthur’s blood seethed and hot acid boiled up in the back of his throat, but he made himself hold still and continue to listen.
Merlin had been here, but he’d since left to go oversee some other activity. Fortunate for him in that he’d continue to live, but unfortunate in that now Arthur had an excellent reason to not stop at merely extricating himself and his knights from the situation. His anger hadn’t been soothed by the dead Woads he’d left on his way here, and he very much doubted that it would be by anything short of completely breaking the Woad force. He would not see his knights betrayed like this again. On the battlefield, anything was expected and rightly so, but this wasn’t one.
A man passed beneath Arthur’s tree, arms full of swords that Arthur recognized. As soon as the Woad was out of hearing distance, Arthur let himself down from the tree and headed in the direction from whence the Woad had come. He had to claw into another tree only yards later, but by then he’d gone far enough. Looking down on the ground showed him Tristan and Galahad lying against a tree trunk; Galahad was bent over something while Tristan was staring intently across the clearing, probably at guards. Arthur turned, careful not to rattle the branches, to see where the Woads were.
And then someone exclaimed in surprise just beneath his tree. His instincts made him kick off the branches and drop straight down.
* * *
“Fuck!” Galahad jerked backwards. There was a sudden, agonizing pain around his wrists, but almost immediately it disappeared and he was left to stare in complete shock at the newly-crushed Briton.
Across the way, the Woads jumped to their feet and opened their mouths. Arrows appeared in them. It was like a grotesque parody of baby birds begging for food, only these fledgings had just been fed for the last time and that had been the fastest Galahad had ever seen a man shoot.
Tristan was frozen as well. It made Galahad feel a lot better about himself—especially when he finally noticed that his flinch had ripped free the last knot and his hands were loose. He blinked, remembered why that was good and scrambled back to deal with his feet, only to nearly get his fingers cut off when Arthur’s sword flashed down. “Fuck!”
“What injuries?” Arthur went from Galahad’s to Tristan’s bonds in one smooth motion.
“His leg’s broken, side’s cut—I’m fine, more or less.” Galahad belatedly got moving and reached for the bow Arthur had tossed aside, but the other man stopped him.
Shaking his head, Arthur got a hand under Tristan’s arm and started pulling him up. “I used up all the arrows and there’s no time to get more. Come on—I’ve horses.”
“Horses?” Tristan said, still looking stunned. Then he cocked his head, listening, and then he shook off his surprise. He pushed from Arthur and grabbed Galahad, nearly sending them both off-balance. When Galahad protested, Tristan looked at him like he didn’t have a single sensible thought in his head. “Arthur needs his hands free, since he’s got his sword.”
“Fine, fine, I’m used to carrying you anyway.” They were already moving, shuffling as fast as they could. Hopefully the horses weren’t too far, because the noise had alerted the other Woads and there were too fucking many of them. And Galahad didn’t have a single weapon on him.
Arthur jogged ahead of them, pushing branches out of the way. Once he wheeled around and dragged them to the side, then disappeared around a tree. There was a scream and then he came running back, shoving at Galahad and then taking Tristan’s other arm to help them go faster. Excalibur’s whole length was dull brown with a few new streaks of red.
“Where have you been?” Galahad panted, struggling to keep up and to keep from jolting Tristan’s leg too badly. Though Tristan didn’t make a sound of complaint, his face went whiter and whiter, and finally Galahad just told his body to pretend fatigue didn’t exist. He skidded to a stop, dropped and got Tristan over his shoulder.
“Killing.” It was a succinct, cold answer that didn’t sound like Arthur at all. But when he turned around to see why Galahad had stopped for a moment, the concern in his eyes was familiar as the night sky.
No time to think on that; now the Woads weren’t bothering to hide their approach, were merely hurrying as fast as they could to cut off the three of them, and Galahad could hear the rattle of arrows in quivers. He could also smell horses, and the scent was so damned welcome he would have cried if he hadn’t been so worried about arrows in the back.
A few more steps and there they were: shaggy small native beasts, but they were horses and they were a way across the field. Galahad halted beside one and threw Tristan up into the saddle. Winced because that was going to be excruciating on the other man’s injuries, but they couldn’t stop for gentleness. Anyway, Tristan didn’t fall back off, so that meant he was still conscious.
When Galahad scrambled on to his own horse, Arthur had already mounted and had spun about to cut down a spear-wielding Woad. The first arrows were hissing down about them, but Arthur actually rode towards them. And towards a Woad with an upraised sword, but still—“Arthur!”
“What is he—” Tristan started to jerk around his horse.
Two of them going back into the Woad camp was even worse. Galahad stretched over and slapped the flank of Tristan’s horse to get it going, then yelled one last time. “Arthur! We’re on!”
Thankfully, the message got through and Arthur went galloping in the right direction; Galahad whooshed a relieved breath out his mouth and kicked his heels into the side of his horse. The arrows and the shouting had already made it skittish and so it took off as if he’d lighted a fire beneath its tail. He pressed himself as closely as he could to the horse’s neck and urged it on.
They flew across the field, arrows and spears chasing them all the way. It sounded as if some of the Woads even came out into the grass, but ahead the gates of the fort were opening—so fucking slowly, like they had honey in their gears—and there were dark shapes pouring out. Gawain, Galahad thought, and he grinned and got hairs from the horse’s mane stuck in his teeth. But he didn’t care, because he could hear the sounds of the Woads dying away and now he could make out the faces of knights riding towards them.
He could see Gawain.
Then his shoulder screamed. Galahad sucked in a breath and felt the pain race down his back, hot and sticky and…no, that was his blood. He knotted his fingers around the crude saddle-horn and held on, but his grip was slipping the more he tightened it. Damn it. Damn Woads. Damn it, not here—
--something caught his arm and shoved him back in the saddle. “Count to five!” Tristan shouted.
Which made no sense, but Galahad’s mind still took it as an order. He got to three fine, but it was a struggle to pull up four because he wanted to pass out.
No. Not till…till…five…
…and Gawain’s voice wrapped around him, and Galahad could fling out an arm to catch the hand he knew was reaching for him, and then he could let the other man gallop them the rest of the way.