|Humanity IV: Relief
Author: Guede Mazaka
The Woad came on horseback, an unspoken sneer at the knights. He dismounted by the gates and sent a contemptuous look upwards, scanning the ramparts for the leaders.
Lancelot couldn’t keep his hands from curling and uncurling, itching for swords, so he held them out of sight as he leaned over. Beside him, Gawain stood with iron face and cold eyes and a tension that implied the slightest wrong move would snap his control.
“Are you the commander now?” the Woad called up. His eyes flicked towards the treeline where Arthur’s red cloak was a tiny red splash, flapping in the wind.
“You can speak to me as such,” Lancelot made himself say. The words tasted like ashes. He told himself for the last time that it was only a temporary situation, that he wasn’t admitting a single thing by saying it. That he wasn’t presuming anything.
Behind and below, Geraint and picked knights from his troop stood at the ready by their horses, fully armored and prepared to try a rush if Lancelot gave the signal. That had been the compromise Lancelot had made with Gawain—a kind of sop, except Gawain wasn’t some politician that had to be kept happy, but a well-liked, well-trained knight who could wreck an immense amount of damage if he ever wanted to. He could divide the knights when they most needed to stand together.
It was bad enough dealing with the Woads without also having to cast fellow knights as possible opponents. If Lancelot ever got his hands on the mind that had set this whole mess in motion, he was going to take his time ripping it into gory little bits.
The Woad took a longer look at him, then nodded. He reached behind him, scornfully ignoring the way the knights on the wall instantly aimed arrows at him, and pulled out a bulky bundle, which he proceeded to unwrap with great flair. First the string. Then the cloth. Then the first sword.
“Tristan’s.” Gawain put his hands against the top of the wall and pressed down till he squeezed them white. His eyes started to close, but then he stiffened and opened them.
He knew what was coming. So did Lancelot. And yet, when the Woad lifted the second sword, Gawain’s shock was still a palpable thing. His shoulders bunched so tightly that they seemed about to burst through his clothing and the hiss of his breath cut like a razor.
For his own part, Lancelot was suddenly having trouble recalling how to breathe. He was staring at the Woad so hard that the tiniest details not only were visible, but also leaped out at him. A drop of sweat on the man’s temple was a huge trembling clear globe ready to pop in Lancelot’s eye. The movement of the Woad as he dismounted and laid his tokens on the ground assaulted Lancelot’s face with its apparent suddenness, though a moment later Lancelot recognized that the Woad was actually moving twice as slowly as a regular pace.
It took a moment for the gestures to sink in, and then Lancelot’s vision whiplashed back to its normal state. He flinched, torn between gratitude and raw uncertainty.
Still no sign of Arthur. The Woad wasn’t showing Excalibur.
“These are our terms: you will open the gates and you won’t interfere with anything we do to the villagers currently under your protection. You will leave us your swords and ride back to your garrison.” When he finished, the Woad stepped back to lay a hand on the withers of his horse. Then he watched and waited.
“Might as well ask us to cut our own throats,” Lancelot muttered. Those weren’t terms so much as boundaries entrapping them to one and only one course of action, which didn’t favor them in the least.
Gawain didn’t answer. His head was bowed, but Lancelot could still see how it was furrowed with thought, as if the other man were actually, seriously considering the proposition. Which was insane—he had to understand that the Woads would kill them as soon as they disarmed themselves.
But did he care?
Perhaps Lancelot shouldn’t have hesitated back in Arthur’s rooms. No, he definitely shouldn’t have had. It had been a wrong move to let the other man up here, and in a moment Lancelot would have to watch exactly how wrong it was destroy his tenuous grip on the knights. And then it’d be chaos and the Woads would have been lying in wait for just such a chance, and Arthur would have no safe haven to make it back to—
--there was a commotion at the edge of the forest. Forgetting the Woad, Lancelot threw himself forward and got a knee up on the stones so he could lean farther. He could feel his balance straining to keep him on the wall, but he stressed it even more because there were three horsemen racing across the field.
The wind ripping past him was Gawain going for the stairs. And Lancelot was right behind him, nearly tumbling over his own feet and only being saving because Gawain was likewise stumbling and so they barely avoided tripping each other. Geraint shouted for the news, which gave Gawain enough time to seize a horse from one of Geraint’s knights.
“Open the gates!” Lancelot snapped. He grabbed a set of reins and snarled when he saw that it still had another pair of hands holding them. The other knight’s eyes went wide and the man leaped back. “Knights coming up! Archers—cover fire! And keep that damned messenger from—”
Someone slammed into the gate lever and sent the gears spinning so the heavy doors fairly flew open. Through them Lancelot could see an arrow knocking the Woad off his saddle—the man had tried to gallop off and failed. It was only his shoulder, so he would keep.
By the time they were outside, the three horsemen were nearly halfway across the field.
The air inside Lancelot’s chest squeezed, gelled and clogged his throat. He fought it, fought till it burst out so hard that he saw black spots. Then: “Damn it, formation! Give them cover!”
Slowly, too slowly, the knights did as he’d ordered them. All except Gawain, who had loosed the pressure of two horrific days and who was letting it drive him forward. He got to Tristan and Galahad just as Galahad, an arrow sticking from his shoulderblade, slumped forward in the saddle. Gawain wheeled so his horse’s hooves struck up clods of dirt bigger than a man’s fist and caught Galahad’s outflung arm, then gathered in close so he could steer both their horses. His face as it flashed by Lancelot was an agony to see, relief and fresh fear all lashed together.
But then Gawain was gone, galloping for the fort, and Geraint was turning to give the same support to Tristan who also seemed to be fainting, and there was Arthur. Eyes dark and mad and so very cold and not looking at Lancelot. Instead they were looking at the—damn him, but the Woad messenger had hung on and not fallen completely out of the saddle.
Arthur thundered past, Excalibur raised high in the air. The Woad saw something in Arthur’s face that made him freeze, and then his body had been slashed out of the saddle and Arthur was spinning about. Lancelot met his gaze and felt the air turn to daggers.
Then Arthur’s eyes cleared. His face cracked from that terrifying expression to a relief so profound that for a moment, it drowned out the rest of the world.
He was alive.
* * *
Arthur wanted to cry, to laugh, to scream. But he did none of those things, because suddenly there were shouts of his men crashing about him, there were the Woads shrieking their dismay from the woods, and there were so many thoughts crowding into his head. Things that he needed to do, to see to. Things that he wanted to do, but couldn’t.
His arm was aching—he lowered Excalibur and wheeled about to head into the fort. A heartbeat later, Lancelot had come up beside him; the other man lifted his hand so it grazed over Arthur’s arm and passed him to enter first. Light as the touch seemed to be, in reality it had to be the heaviest thing on earth because it carried everything that they didn’t have the time or the privacy to say.
As soon as Arthur was inside, he was surrounded by faces half-hysterical with relief, with worry. A babble of questions rose up about where he’d been, what had happened. He gave a terse explanation before he dismounted—Jols came running up, clucked at the size of the horse Arthur had had to use, and went off again—and then he called for quiet. Asked for what had happened here while he’d been gone.
“Long story. I’ll tell it while you wash off your face—you look like a fucking Woad, and after all this trouble, it’d be stupid for you to get shot by accident.” The laughter of the knights was the loosening of a dangerously taut bowstring; Lancelot shoved his way through it and took Arthur’s elbow in a grip that looked casual but was in fact hard enough to numb the flesh beneath it. He glowered about the rest of the knights. “Get back to your posts. Same rotation as last night—Geraint, you’ve got comm—fuck.”
“Geraint, take command until one of us gets back. Everyone, I thank you for your loyalty while I was missing,” Arthur finished, pretending the slip hadn’t happened. He could barely hear himself speak for the rush of blood in his ears. Now that he was on the ground and not constantly moving, all the aches and the fatigue of the past few days came roaring into him. The feel of Lancelot’s hand on his arm was the only anchor he had, and it was dragging on him so hard that at any moment he was liable to fall.
He and Lancelot started off at a normal pace in a silent agreement to act as calmly as possible, but as soon as they were out of sight, Arthur found himself hurrying, and Lancelot matched him instead of trying to slow him down. By the time they were in the hallways of the inner fort, they were nearly running.
Lancelot got to the door first and opened it so roughly that it banged off the wall and nearly caught Arthur as he skidded inside. The other man still had a hand on his arm, and Lancelot used that to spin them around. Arthur closed the door by slamming Lancelot up against it, mouth snatching savagely at Lancelot’s and hands feverishly sliding over shoulders, back, thighs. He tasted blood in Lancelot’s moan. It was too fresh.
But when he tried to back away, Lancelot locked hands behind Arthur’s neck and held them together, breath to breath. “I didn’t know where you were,” he whispered.
“All I knew was killing.” Arthur pressed his forehead against Lancelot’s. His hands settled just above Lancelot’s hipbones and kneaded the flesh there, seeking reassurance and grounding. “That’s all I thought about. I wanted to kill them and I wanted a reason for it—I didn’t kill for a reason. I was a Woad—I crawled in the trees and killed by stealth and I liked the blood.”
Nails dug into the back of Arthur’s neck, then relaxed. After a moment, Lancelot twisted his head just enough for him to stare at Arthur. “You’re the son of a Sarmatian and of a Briton and you’re a damned Roman and I don’t care.” His gaze clutched Arthur in a grip like steel and wouldn’t let Arthur look away as Lancelot swiped a finger over Arthur’s cheek, neck. He showed Arthur the thick layer of woad and sweat and dried blood he’d gathered on it, then put his finger in his mouth and sucked it clean. “Damn you, I don’t care. I don’t care what you are as long as you’re alive and you’re--”
The gesture knocked all the breath out of Arthur, and the words that came after it made every previous injury he’d ever received seem like the barest graze. He stopped Lancelot’s mouth, drank in air and tasted himself. Tasted bitterness and death and his kills and his guilt, and took it back because he couldn’t bear for the other man to be tainted with it.
He was covered in filth and Lancelot scraped it off, flaked away long trails of it with his nails. With his teeth, once Arthur had taken his hunger to the long, beautiful line of Lancelot’s throat. They scored Arthur’s jaw, neck, lips and he felt the nightmare of the past two days fall from him. His hands were rough as he clawed away the barriers between them and neither of them cared. Lancelot arched into it, whatever Arthur did, and that made salt sting Arthur’s eyes that Lancelot licked away, that Lancelot shared with Arthur’s mouth.
They stumbled backwards because Arthur was himself again and so he wouldn’t draw needless blood, and because Lancelot would not let him go to dip his fingers in the lamp. It broke and oozed clear thick oil on the floor while Arthur pressed into Lancelot. Fingertips stabbed into his arms and he stopped, knees weak with the sweet hot clench of the other man’s body and tongue desperately lapping at the pure sweat gathering in the hollows of Lancelot’s neck. He couldn’t seem to lift his mouth from the other man’s throat and face, ravaging from behind the ear where it made Lancelot whimper down along scratching stubble and up again to feel Lancelot’s lips part for him.
Lancelot pulled and Arthur shoved. He wanted to be gentler, to take his time, but it had been two days and that was long enough for him to forget how. So he wasn’t. He clamped one hand on Lancelot’s shoulder and he used the other to squeeze and work Lancelot’s prick till he was swallowing gasps from Lancelot’s mouth, and he fucked the man so the door hinges rattled. He fucked till his bones rattled, till he was slamming his mouth against Lancelot’s so hard he thought he felt a tooth chip, till the other man was first clawing and trying to climb up Arthur with nails and knees, and then limp and trapped between Arthur and the door. And then he kept fucking till the giving was too much and he was too full of all that he’d received. He brimmed, overflowed and it finally, finally drowned out the sound of his thoughts.
“They pinned up your cloak with corpses. I almost thought you were dead.” Desperation and fear made Lancelot’s voice shake. He was panting and his whole body was trembling with exhaustion, but somehow he found the strength to pull them closer.
Arthur dragged up his hand and threaded it into Lancelot’s hair. “I heard them say they’d almost gotten inside.”
The other man turned his head to nuzzle the inside of Arthur’s wrist, uncaring of the crusted dirt and gore there. “Urien’s girl turned traitor. Killed him, almost got the gate open before anyone noticed. Gawain killed her.”
“The villagers…?” Everything could have gone so badly—everything had gone badly, and had only avoided catastrophe by a margin so thin it made Arthur’s breath catch. He buried his face in the join of Lancelot’s neck and shoulder and filled his nose with the other man’s scent.
“Settled. Well enough, anyway.” A trace of Lancelot’s usual dark flippancy found its way into his voice. So did a tiny bit of hysteria; they were discussing the past few days so simply, as if mere words could convey everything that had happened.
But they did, in a way. Because a single word from Lancelot told Arthur so much, and he knew that the other man was reading his brief comments just as well.
Lancelot’s grip tightened a fraction more. He strove to laugh lightly and instead sounded frayed and hollow. “I was acting like you were dead. Like I had the fucking command.”
“You don’t,” Arthur murmured, rubbing his cheek against Lancelot’s. And he wouldn’t wish it on Lancelot, either.
But they each had responsibilities outside this knot of their bodies and they had to see to them. Galahad had been shot—it hadn’t looked fatal, but if the past two days had been as punishing on Gawain as they’d obviously had on Lancelot, then a mere scratch could have tipped things. And Tristan had spent the time with serious injuries and barely any medical treatment, and then there was the matter of defeating the Woads.
At that thought, Arthur’s former icy rage whispered to him. He took its suggestion, but forced away its mood.
They stayed twined about each other a moment longer before breaking apart. Lancelot lifted his hand, paused and then ducked his head to hide a smile tinged with both irony and sadness. “You know, I should be used to this. Every time we walk on a battlefield, it’s the same.”
It wasn’t, but Arthur’s tongue was suddenly too thick and clumsy for him to say so. Instead he raised his hand to touch Lancelot’s, then dropped it and began to see to his clothing.
“No…it’s not,” Lancelot said, slowly redressing himself. “The battlefield’s harder, but then I don’t have the time to sit and stew in it.”
But Lancelot clapped his hand over Arthur’s mouth. Then he leaned in, voice and eye fierce. “Do not apologize for that. Just say it’ll never be me waiting again.”
He was out the door before he could’ve heard Arthur’s answer. If Arthur had been able to offer one.
* * *
The sound of fluttering wings made Tristan open his eyes. He stared up at the ceiling, then tilted his head to look at the head of the bed.
Geraint had Tristan’s hawk on his arm and was cooing at it, trying to soothe it into quietly shifting its perch. He wasn’t completely successful, but he did manage to avoid having a chunk snapped out of his ear. “The surgeon can’t understand why you haven’t passed out yet. He’s new; he hasn’t seen very many of us.”
“He knows his business well enough.” Having his leg reset yet again had been far from a pleasant experience, but nevertheless Tristan was relieved to finally have someone properly see to it. Galahad’s tries hadn’t been all that bad, but Tristan depended on his mobility and so he wanted better than ‘not bad.’
His side had only needed a few extra stitches where he’d pulled out the first ones and a good wash, so he actually hadn’t been that long at the surgeon’s. A good thing, both because he disliked their callous way of manhandling the wounded and because Galahad needed them more.
That thought turned Tristan about to look at Geraint. “Any word about Galahad?”
“He’ll live. Be in a sling for a month or so, but after that, all he’ll have is a scar.” Geraint finished easing back from the hawk, who was now dipping over to cry inquiries at Tristan, and took a seat beside the cot.
When the fort had first been built, this room probably had formed part of an officer’s quarters. Later a connecting door had been walled up and a new one carved to the hallway to create a small, isolated room that apparently served as a spare storeroom. It was possible to go from it to the outside without having to pass anyone else’s room, which was why Tristan had chosen it.
Now, however, he wished he’d picked one from which he could hear what was going on. He wanted to know whether Arthur had lost that lethal, glittering hardness in his eyes, whether Gawain had gone mad after all—a joke at the time, but now Tristan regretted it—and whether Geraint was, as he generally did, understating the situation. Creeping about the back of his mind was a comment that his room was rather like the small cave in which he’d spent last night, and that familiarity was not an enjoyable feeling.
Tristan reached up and stroked his fingers down the back of his hawk, bringing that old memory to the forefront. But the effort drained what little energy he still had left and so he laid back down.
“Your leg should heal without trouble, too.” The other man clasped his hands around his wrists, rubbing them and tugging at the bracelet of hair that circled one. He seemed to be waiting for an answer, but since he hadn’t asked anything, Tristan didn’t provide one.
Some deep irritation flashed over Geraint’s face and then retreated to the harsh lines around his eyes and mouth. He started to say something, stopped himself and twisted in the chair to stare at the far wall.
Satisfied that all was well, the hawk ruffled her wing-feathers in place and dozed off.
“Your officer nearly went out of his mind,” Geraint abruptly said.
It took a moment for Tristan to realize Geraint was referring to Gawain, because that was technically how it was. But in practice Gawain—and the others up to Arthur, for that matter—had always treated him as if he stood on equal footing with them. They had never formally discussed the arrangement, which was quite different from how Tristan had worked under his previous officer, but then, there’d never been any need to.
“It’s a good thing no one here didn’t already know.” Now Geraint’s tone was faintly malicious. But when Tristan raised an eyebrow at him, Geraint looked away and seemed almost ashamed. He stopped fiddling with his lover’s token and instead pressed his fingers to the sides of his nose, then dropped them to his lap as if they were made of lead. “You should have been here. Lancelot was nearly as bad, and Urien was hiding in his woman’s breasts right up till she killed him.”
Brangaine. So she’d been the failed spy the Woads had mentioned…but that was a minor detail that Tristan could track down later. Currently the more important issue was the one barbing Geraint’s tongue. “How was I supposed to be here?”
“With us. Damn it, it should have been you!” Geraint slammed his fists down on his knees and glared at Tristan hot enough to singe the air. But only for a moment, because then he almost seemed to cave in on himself. “My men should be your men.”
Tristan almost threw himself up before he remembered the aches and the pain, and when he did sit up, he did so hurriedly enough to make his side protest and his hawk open a curious eye. It wasn’t her fight, so he put out a hand and petted her back to sleep before turning his attention to Geraint. “But they aren’t. They’re yours, and I won’t take them.”
He’d been avoiding his old troop and it seemed that Geraint had noticed and taken it the wrong way. The reason wasn’t hate or snobbery—Gawain’s higher status hadn’t been a factor at all in Tristan’s decision to transfer—but again, the inability to take the familiarity. If Tristan was going to go on and find a new way through life, he could not stay with men who had known him with Dinidan and whom he’d known with Dinidan. Looking at them was like feeling Galahad’s mouth moving against the back of his neck and knowing that he could close his eyes…and it would only hurt all the more when he opened them to banish the dream.
“They should be—” Geraint stubbornly continued.
“They shouldn’t. Not now. I can’t lead them. I can’t…” The explanation was in Tristan’s head, but it would not go to his tongue. He spread out his hands and tried to will his reasons into view between them, laying them out on the mattress. “I can’t ride with you anymore.”
Snarling, Geraint kicked out of his seat and stalked about the room. He finally stopped by the bricked-up door and put his hands on the lintel stone, which jutted out from the rest of the wall. His nails grated as he gripped it, head bent and back tense. “Is Gawain that much better for you? Better than your tribesmen? Better than your memory, perhaps?”
Wood creaked. When Tristan looked down, he saw that his hand had unconsciously wrapped about the bedframe and was now doing its best to warp it. It made him laugh, for he was taking offense at a comment that completely missed the truth. For that matter, it also missed the more accurate insult, because in the end, it hadn’t been only Gawain.
“No, he’s better because he isn’t a memory. At least, not one that goes that far back.” That was the only explanation Tristan knew he could give, so he hoped that Geraint would understand. He respected the man and he had spent years fighting with him, and he did sympathize with Geraint. While in any other unit they might have a milk-and-honey life, in the knights officers took the brunt of it.
Geraint was still for the space of two long, strained breaths. Then he pushed back and looked at Tristan, eyes narrowed. There was knowledge in those slits—unwelcome comprehension, but comprehension nonetheless—and after a moment, Geraint acknowledged that with a curt nod.
“Then I wish you well,” Geraint said. He was wheeling about before he’d even finished talking and so his last two words were whipped to razor edges.
“And I wish you so.” By the time Tristan said it, Geraint was halfway out of the door. The other man didn’t acknowledge it, but it was obvious that he’d heard and that it hadn’t improved his mood any. It hadn’t been meant to do that so much as to acknowledge a genuine feeling of Tristan’s, but nevertheless Tristan wished for a moment that he could have offered more than a feeling.
* * *
Dagonet had the night watch once more, but he didn’t mind. The night was no longer ambiguous, but merely another haunt of the Woads, who would soon be smoked out, and the knights were no longer a huddled group of uncertain, fearful men but a weapon with a mind behind it.
“Almost pretty,” Bors grunted. He jerked his chin at the stars and grinned at some recollection, which glow he wasn’t slow to share with Dagonet. “One night m’girls were asking me how many stars were up there. I said I didn’t know, nobody knew, and then they said well, then no one’ll miss a few if we take ‘em. That’s how you know you brought them up proper.”
“They’ll have men laying them at their feet in their time.” Phantom little hands curiously poked at the tattoos on Dagonet’s head as he smiled. But then the memory went away and he remembered a different set of hands: nearly as large as a man’s, rough as an iron file, and written with the story of a hard, vivid life. He felt his smile shrink a little, but it didn’t disappear.
Bors barked a laugh and leaned against the wall. Still chuckling, he pulled down his trousers, then turned to take a piss. Someone called over that he’d better not be watering the road, and he yelled back that he was watering where he damn pleased because didn’t they know flowers sprung up where he pissed? He was a veritable miracle-worker, he was.
He was an uncouth, loud, irrepressible presence in Dagonet’s life and Dagonet was glad for it. What Bors did was add back the color, least anyone forget that the world wasn’t a black and gray shadow that one could only survive.
“Dag, my friend, you need to get yourself a wife. What happened to Maria? Or that blonde that Vanora was positive was sweet on you—what’s her name…”
“Aurelia.” She had been kind to Dagonet, but apparently he’d bored her and they had gradually drifted apart. The last he’d seen of her, she had been big with Bedivere’s child and she had glowed like a candle-flame cupped about with a hand. “I don’t have enough for rooms outside of the barracks. Where would I put her?”
Bors nodded, chewing on his nail. He ripped off a bit and spat it over the side. “True enough. But you could use somebody. Can’t keep borrowing my kids—not that I mind, but you should be having some of your own. They’re worth all the trouble, really.”
“I’d believe that.” As rascal as they were, Bors’ children were at heart as generous and loving as he was. If Dagonet could be sure to have a family like Bors’, or at least one that wasn’t wrecked by the tension that permeated the whole land…
Something touched his foot. He looked at Bors, but the other man was leaning over the wall and staring at something that’d caught his eye. Then Dagonet looked down and saw Branwen.
She looked more gaunt and worn than she had before, but her eyes were as bright as the stars above them. As soon as she saw him staring at her, she put a finger to her lips and glared. Then she quickly shoved a small wrapped bundle against his foot and slipped out of sight.
Bors was still watching the horizon, mumbling to himself. Normally Dagonet disliked keeping secrets, and especially from the other man, but this time he was glad for Bors’ distraction. He didn’t particularly want to explain Branwen, considering its delicacy.
A casual, quick stoop and her gift was safely tucked away. It was a farewell, he knew. He would’ve liked to return the favor and leave something in return, but she’d made it clear that she didn’t want any traces to remain on her side. He’d respect that.
Dagonet would have stepped into a corner and taken a peek, but just then Bors raised a wild whoop. He lunged back, grabbed Dagonet, and yanked him up to shake him at tiny specks of light.
Torches. In marching order. The Woads didn’t march.
“Magnus Maximus. Well, well, we’ve got reinforcements,” said one knight. He trotted backward, picking up speed as he went, and then twisted about just in time to avoid tumbling down the stairs. Those he flew down as he raced to inform their commander.
“Still have to do a bit of fighting, I’d wager, but it’ll be on the field and on our terms.” Bors laid a hand on Dagonet’s shoulder and squeezed hard. He looked unusually sober. “You remember what we shook on, right? I fall and—”
Dagonet nodded, though he prayed that that would never come to pass. A family come by that way was no family at all, but a living scar. He’d seen it with Bran and Branwen, and he hoped never to see it amongst his friends.
He lifted his hand to Bors’ elbow and squeezed back, silently promising anyway. It was the least he could do; the most he could do was still waiting in the future.
* * *
Galahad woke up in the dark. For a moment, he thought he was back in the cave; the air was stale and there was a body slumping hard against him. “Tristan?”
The body stirred and then Galahad knew damn well who it was. He flushed and hid his face in the pillow.
“What?” Gawain murmured. Then he was fully awake and pressing his cheek against Galahad’s shoulder with a vengeance. His hand skittered over Galahad’s back, touching here and there and never settling till Galahad pushed himself up on his elbows—fucking shoulder didn’t like that—and pinned it to the bed. “Galahad.”
“That’d be my name.” Galahad’s voice was shaking. He held onto Gawain’s hand till he thought it’d stopped, and then he held onto Gawain’s hand just because now he could. As dark as it was, no one could see them…and anyway, he didn’t think they were in the barracks or the infirmary. Which was rightly where they should’ve been, but if Gawain had managed to wangle a private room, Galahad wasn’t going to protest.
After a moment, Gawain bumped his nose into Galahad’s cheek. He didn’t curse the dark or make any embarrassed noises, but instead kept moving until he found Galahad’s mouth. Then he kissed Galahad, which was enough to keep them busy for a while.
Eventually Galahad’s shoulder really started to hurt and he had to pull away. “Ow. What the fuck was that?”
“An arrow.” Gawain’s hand slid out from under Galahad’s and skimmed over his back, then curved about Galahad’s side. A little judicious tugging and lifting saw Galahad more comfortably situated on Gawain’s chest.
“Figures. I get through the whole damn thing with just scratches and then I have to get an arrow at the last moment.” No, the shaking undertone wasn’t gone from Galahad’s voice, and that greatly annoyed him because he sounded like he was panicking. Which was ridiculous, because what did he have to panic over now? Between the Woads and the frightening thing behind Arthur’s eyes that had saved him and…Tristan. “Where’s Tristan? He’d better not be dead, considering how much effort I put into keeping him alive. Oh, and you’d better appreciate that, since it was for your…Gawain? Gawain?”
It took a little bit for Gawain to stop making those worrying choked laughs. He ran a hand through Galahad’s hair and pulled him up to peck him on the forehead. “This is what I was missing?” he snorted. But his amusement was too full of pain to really be funny.
Galahad shook Gawain’s hand out of his hair, then rested his head beneath Gawain’s chin. It was panic and fear and grief and sudden reprieve, and it was even more complicated than that, but at the moment he didn’t want it to be. He was tired. His shoulder wanted to complain. He had Gawain and he wasn’t in a cave and everything was about as fine as it ever got. So he was damn well going to enjoy it while he could.
“Tristan’s fine,” Gawain eventually said. His fingers gently stroked over the bandages. “I’m impressed—you two seem to have gotten along better than I thought.”
“’m not completely stupid. You didn’t have to worry so much about that,” Galahad retorted.
The next breath Gawain took was a little delayed. “I didn’t worry about that at all.” His voice was low and suddenly jagged, and his hand shivered against Galahad’s neck. “I don’t think I even remembered about Tristan most of the time. I…the Woads…I kept thinking you were dead.”
It hurt to listen to him, and Galahad wished he could make it stop, but what was shaking Gawain now was a memory and those couldn’t be erased. So Galahad did what he could with his lips and his hands and the rest of his body. Made his arrow wound whine, but he could ignore that for a little bit.
“It’s funny. We risk the same thing whenever we go out to battle, but I’m used to that. This was worse.” Gawain pressed his face into Galahad’s hair and breathed, long and deep. When he lifted his head, he seemed to have calmed down a bit.
“Probably because when we’re on a battlefield, all we have to worry about is the next bastard with a sword. You’re either alive or you’re dead. But…I was crammed into this cave and I was thinking you were dead, you were alive, you were captured…and that was when Tristan wasn’t having a fit.” Galahad could hear the disbelief rolling off of Gawain and poked the other man. “Well, not a fit, but whatever goes on in his mind is very, very weird.”
That made Gawain laugh, but it also made him sound uncertain about it. He was already going back to normal, worrying about Tristan who did have odd spots but who was more composed than nearly anyone else, thinking about his responsibilities. Usually Galahad would be annoyed, but currently he was relieved. Where they’d been for the past two days had been a place no one should ever have to go. It hadn’t seemed too bad while Galahad had been in it, aside from the few moments of panic, but now that he was out…waiting till eternity before going in again wouldn’t be too long.
“Gawain! Gawain!” Someone pounded on the door till the hinges rattled. “Magnus Maximus’ forces are here!”
“Shit.” Gawain’s grip on Galahad tightened. Then the other man was rolling out of bed onto his feet. He started to reach for his sword, which he’d set on a nearby chair, but then he noticed Galahad and he stopped. “What are you doing? That’s your sword-arm—”
Galahad glowered even though he knew Gawain couldn’t see it. At the least, Gawain should be able to feel it. “I know. I’ll—”
“You can’t watch from the walls; we’ll need all that space for the archers.” Hovering, Gawain leaned towards Galahad, leaned towards his sword. He started to say something else, but apparently remembered the conversation they’d just had and stopped himself.
The inside of Galahad’s mouth tasted bitter. But now, so soon after they’d come back together, was not the time to argue. He hated it, and he was definitely going to complain later—when Gawain could take it. “Then I’ll go irritate Tristan. I’m not going to stay and wait by myself.”
“What, you like him now?” Gawain sounded incredibly relieved beneath his surprise.
“Not really,” Galahad muttered. Liking was something one did with…beer, or a nice pair of boots. It had nothing to do with the convoluted, patchwork ties that circumstances wove among them.
And Gawain was still hesitating. He looked stupid like that. For that matter, Galahad was frozen half-up and he probably looked stupid like that, and if he kept thinking, then he wasn’t going to be able to focus. So he reached out and shoved Gawain. “You’ll need your sword, you know. If you don’t want to get killed.”
“Brat.” But the hard, fast last kiss Gawain gave Galahad belied the sharpness of the insult.
* * *
“Knights! Ride hard, ride well, and guard the backs of your comrades!”
It was all Arthur had time to say, for the battle had already been joined outside of the fort. Magnus Maximus had driven through the woods to push the Woads out onto the field where they’d be easy killing for horsemen. And after the events of the last few days, all the knights were eager for blood.
Well, almost all. Honestly, Lancelot would have been happy to have told the Woads to go fuck their spears for a week or so. Then he could’ve spent more time finding out what had happened to Arthur in the woods. More time reveling in the fact that Arthur was, in fact, not dead. But they never had time for that anyway. He should be used to it.
He wasn’t. Besides, this had been as bad as the campaign that had left Arthur’s back striped with scars. Arthur could be castigating of himself, or overly demanding, but he’d never looked…frightened of himself. Yet he had.
It didn’t make sense; being afraid of oneself meant surpassing expectations, but one of Arthur’s defining characteristics was how he always found himself lacking.
And it didn’t particularly matter whether or not it was logical. What did was that it was a problem for Arthur, and that it was a serious enough one to carry over into making Arthur afraid to touch Lancelot. Which Lancelot was not about to stand for. As if there weren’t already more than enough things trying to divide them.
That wasn’t going to happen, Lancelot vowed.
The gates opened as soon as Arthur had wheeled to put his horse alongside Lancelot’s. Before them lay a verdant field being trampled and bloodied. Before them lay those responsible for Arthur’s change in mood.
Now the anger rose, and now Lancelot felt the eagerness for violence rise with it. He would lose that euphoria soon enough in the exhausting, terrifying, confusing haze of fighting, but for now he welcomed it.
Arthur unsheathed Excalibur and pointed it at the sky. He kicked his heels into his horse’s sides a bare beat before Lancelot did, and then they were off across the field.
The speed built up behind Lancelot, explosions coiling from the thundering of his horse’s galloping up through his thighs into his body. It would have rattled his teeth, except the wind was slapping him in the face and the opposing pressures canceled each other out. He hefted his lance and picked out a Woad. Had his target killed a moment before they hit the struggling armies and twitched the tip over, tapped his left foot against his horse so it would shift trajectory.
The lance-tip took the man squarely between the shoulderblades. Though Lancelot had braced himself for it, the jolt still slammed him backwards. His knees jerked inwards and he shoved the lance from him, then yanked out a sword barely in time to parry a pike-point.
Taking his knee-clamp as a signal to swerve, his charger went pell-mell into a mob of Woads and Romans, all pressed together too close to fight with anything but hands and feet. Lancelot slashed and slashed, doing his best not to hit the legionaries. There was no skill here; only the draining drudgery of moving his arm up and down and the erratic rhythm of time, which slowed and sped up in accordance to no sensible pattern.
He broke through and saw a graceful arc of blood moving so sluggishly he could see the way the light rippled on it. Then a Woad came shrieking at him and everything was a jumble of his other sword parrying and stabbing behind to get the man he knew was coming up there and then cutting something vital. The blood splashed Lancelot, bringing him to his senses. He had a hard time not laughing at that.
Instead he shook the gore off his swords and rode towards the next knot of fighting. Arthur was there, length of Excalibur twisting and darting as he worked his way through the mess. By the time Lancelot reached it, Romans and Woads were unraveling into victorious and dead fragments.
So Lancelot rode past it and stuck his sword in the eye of a woman hefting a spear at Arthur’s back. The tip snagged and he ended up dragging her for a few yards before her weight finally pulled her corpse off. “Arthur?”
“Knights! Draw back and re-form!” Arthur shouted. Across the field, Gawain’s head jerked up and he started signaling; Geraint already had his men half-out.
So they were going to keep cannonading into the flanks and leave the head-on work to the infantry. Well, that suited Lancelot. It played to the cavalry’s strengths and it put most of the effort on the legionaries, who were fresher and far more numerous.
He banged his knee against his stallion till it stopped trampling Woads and followed the rest of the knights back out of the lines. The slash of the wind brought a few minor cuts to Lancelot’s attention, but he soon forgot about them because he was readying himself for the next charge.
Then Arthur whirled up beside him, as had happened a thousand times before. The other man’s mouth was snarling around his panting and in his eyes was that dizzy combination of ferocity and intelligence that always made Lancelot, though he couldn’t afford it, look twice.
Arthur looked at home. He looked at home here, blood and dirt clotting the side of his face and dripping off his sword, in a way he never did when relaxing. Because when at rest, Arthur was still thinking a thousand things and they kept him from being at peace, and when at war, he was thinking a thousand things and he could let them lash out.
Suddenly Lancelot understood how Arthur could frighten himself. It made Lancelot’s gut turn cold.
Then they were charging and his blood was running hot and high again, his swords seeking flesh. But he’d remember the lesson for later. He’d remember it for when he wondered what the reward was for all his troubles, and for when he wondered whether the balance was equal. For when he wondered what he was truly fighting against, and for.
* * *
“They’re shouting on the walls,” Galahad said. He slouched in the chair and drummed his fingers along the side of its seat. It was incredibly annoying, and when he saw how Tristan was grimacing at it, he drummed louder.
“It’s a victory. If it were a loss—”
Galahad flipped up his hand in a rude gesture before returning to his incessant tapping. “—they wouldn’t still be yelling. I know.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Tristan asked, irked enough to show it. He carefully judged the timing, then snatched out at Galahad’s hand and made it stop. Above him, his hawk made a relieved sound and slowly smoothed her feathers down from an agitated ruffle.
“What, do you want me to leave? It can’t be healthy to spend so much time hiding from other people.” Though Galahad’s words were flippant, his eyes were not. His eyes were also telling Tristan that the man was not really thinking about Tristan’s state of well-being so much as about Gawain on the field. He jerked his hand free of Tristan’s hold and absently began chewing on a knuckle.
It was amusing, in a very twisted way, that Galahad managed to touch more deeply when he wasn’t thinking about what he was saying than when most other men could when they were calculating the weight of every word. And it also stung a little.
Tristan must have been silent for too long because Galahad stopped fidgeting to look at him. Then the other man shrugged and sighed. “Well, I did spend all that time carrying you around. Be a little annoying if you went off and got yourself killed now.”
“So you’re not still doing this because Gawain said to?” Morbid curiosity made Tristan pick at the stinging.
Galahad rolled his eyes. “Tristan. People like company. This is normal, if you’ve never seen it before.” His grin had a mocking edge to it. “Maybe you’re just fun to annoy. Gawain’s no good anymore—he’s too used to me and he laughs it off.”
The muffled shouts grew louder, and somewhere a door slammed open. The noise instantly slewed Galahad around, and a moment later he was running out of the room to go find Gawain. All the commotion caused Tristan’s hawk to flap her wings and vociferously protest.
He clucked at her and smiled. “Shh. We’ll let that one go. Till my leg is healed, anyway.”
* * *
The Woads were utterly destroyed. A few of them managed to escape into the woods, but the majority fell on the field, which was now patched with rusty brown. Surprisingly, thankfully, there were no immediate fatalities among the knights. One of Geraint’s men had had the better part of his right arm taken off, but the surgeons said he was likely to survive the amputation. He’d never fight again, but they always needed men to staff the various administrative posts in the garrison. The Sarmatians preferred to interact with as few Romans as possible, and the Romans tended to cheat the Sarmatians whenever possible.
After hearing a brief summary of the events from Arthur, Magnus Maximus readily agreed to let his men take over cleaning up the battlefield. So Arthur sent his knights back inside, except for Lancelot who wouldn’t have gone anyway, and stayed himself only to wrap up matters. “Thank you for coming.”
“My pleasure. It’ll make a nice report, rescuing fellow soldiers.” The other man arched an eyebrow at Arthur.
He was asking if Arthur was going to challenge that version of the story. While it wasn’t completely truthful or fair, it was also the price that had to be paid. The safety of Arthur’s men overruled his reputation or his pride. “I suppose,” he said, nodding his head.
Behind him, Lancelot let out a soft snort. But when Arthur looked over, Lancelot was studiously seeing to his and Arthur’s horses.
“Woads this far back…” Maximus shook his head and whistled. Business settled, he became human and cast Arthur a sympathetic look. “Bad luck, or turning tides?”
“The former now, I think. They’ve lost the river campaign and this one, and with it two sizable armies. They won’t be able to afford anything but sure fights for a while.” Arthur scanned the field again. So many dead…he’d carried out his promise. He’d seen the Woads crushed here and any sense of vengeance he had was more than satisfied.
Nausea was a lurking shadow.
The point of fighting was to forge peace, not to shatter peoples. At least, it had been, but the more Arthur fought, the more he feared that that wasn’t possible. But it had to be. If it didn’t, then all of his life had been wasted.
He would have to watch himself more carefully from now on, and make sure he never fell so far into the fighting again. If he was going to make peace, then he was going to have to know how to live in it as well. And that had to be the case, no matter what pressures he had on him.
“Paullus got his orders,” Maximus said. He ruffled his sweaty hair off his forehead and left a brown streak behind. “Asia Minor. I’m going with him, so after this year I’ll be out of this.”
Arthur smiled. He could feel how thin his sincerity was, though it was genuine. “Congratulations.”
Maximus belatedly realized what he’d implied and flushed. Then, being a pragmatic man, he shrugged it off. After all, only a few more months and he’d no longer have to worry about being polite to Arthur. “Thanks for that. I swear, this land makes you go mad. This isn’t even war; it’s just grinding each other into the mud and waiting for someone to suffocate.”
They spent a few more minutes discussing the logistics of switching out the knights for the regular fort staff—which was normally a token force, but it’d have to be temporarily increased—before Maximus went off to oversee his men.
“Good thing we’re all experts at holding our breath now, isn’t it?” Lancelot walked up and handed Arthur the reins to his horse. His eyes flicked up and down Arthur, checking for wounds. “You all right?”
It was what Lancelot usually asked after a battle, but for some reason, it felt as if he were asking about more this time. His gaze was boring holes in Arthur’s face, and his hand twitched out as if to touch Arthur on the shoulder.
“Now…yes.” Arthur gave the field a last glance before he mounted up. “Lancelot, when you said you didn’t care what I was—”
“I haven’t changed my mind.” The look Lancelot shot Arthur as he pulled himself into the saddle was unequivocal. “Though you make it damned hard,” he muttered.
And he made it easy for Arthur, so easy…that was the difficult part. He wanted to do anything to keep what he and Lancelot had, but therein lay the slide into something dark and brutal.
“Back to the usual campaigning…Arthur?”
“I hope you never regret that.” Arthur reached over and grabbed Lancelot’s arm, holding it a fraction longer than he strictly had to. Then he picked up the pace.
After a moment, he heard the other man scrambling to catch up; there was a blur past Arthur as Lancelot shot ahead. Then he spun around to face Arthur and nearly snarled the words. “Don’t regret it for me, then.”
He fell back, but only enough so they were abreast of each other. And they entered the fort like that, as Arthur hoped they’d do with everything.
* * *
“I’ve never been so glad to see a place behind me.” Galahad snuggled down on the furs Gawain had piled on the floor of the wagon. It wasn’t the best padding possible against the jolts of the road, but from what Gawain could tell, the other man liked it well enough.
Tristan was sitting across from him, broken leg straight out and other leg bent so his hawk could perch on the knee. “You’re saying goodbye to the only break we’re likely to get till winter.”
“Don’t tell me you’re objecting.” Not bothering to look at Tristan, Galahad hung over the back of the wagon and tossed an apple to Gawain. Then he laid back down so only the top of his head was visible above the backboard. Wet crunching sounds were soon followed by apple seeds and a core dropping over the side.
Gawain’s horse whinnied in disappointment. He patted its neck and told it there would be apples waiting once they’d gotten settled in for the night, but there wasn’t time now. “Galahad? I’m going—if you need anything, you should mention it now.”
“I’m fine. Have fun outyelling Lancelot.” Galahad flashed a grin. For a man who’d been shot in the shoulder, he was in remarkably good spirits. Then again, he also got to ride in the wagon and sit out the thousand exasperating moments that made up a routine march.
“Tristan?” Gawain called.
Shaking his head, Tristan let his hawk fly out the front of the wagon. “I’ll try not to kill him.”
“The effort’s very much appreciated.” Gawain ignored Galahad’s outraged exclamation and turned his horse to face the fort, checking for any forgotten details.
On the walls was a thin figure with long brown hair. Frowning, he followed the line of Branwen’s gaze to…Dagonet, who was raising a hand. He looked back at the wall just in time to see Branwen disappearing behind it.
She didn’t come out of the gate, so Gawain assumed that whatever it had been, it hadn’t lasted. Oddly enough, Dagonet seemed untroubled by that. Either that or he was very good at hiding his disappointment, but dissembling didn’t seem to be in his nature, so Gawain doubted that.
“Is everything ready?” Arthur asked, riding up. A pace behind him was Lancelot, who was only slower because he was twisted about to tongue-lash a clumsy porter.
“Far as I can see.” As ready as they could be, considering that anything beyond the next hill-top was fair game.
“Then move out.” Arthur rode on, occasionally stopping to converse with a knight or a legionary—Maximus’ men were helping to escort the wagon train—or to wait for Lancelot, whose temper seemed unaffected by the beautiful day.
They were going back into the war, but better that than a false peace, Gawain thought. At least then they’d already learned who they were and what they were capable of under those conditions. When he rested, he wanted to know that he was going to rest, and that he wasn’t going to be called upon when he least expected it.
“Move out!” he shouted. The order echoed down the line, and slowly they began to return.