Author: Guede Mazaka
I. I am an ancient reluctant conscript1
The world is black and white. Black of the Wall against the white of the snowdrifts against the thin black spikes of the trees against the white of dead human eyes against the black of the man hunched over the body. It is winter and sound has quietly left the earth, muffled up in the sluggish cold that pervades everything.
Tristan touches the corpse’s lips, feeling for an exhalation and finding nothing but hard frozen death. If he hadn’t known that the man had been missing three days, he would have had a hard time telling when death had come to him.
By now the blood is a dark straggling web that spins itself out from the corners of the man’s mouth and over his cheeks. It does not trace beneath him, which is how Tristan knows that the where of the death was not here. He rewraps the leather and rags around his hands so the wind does not bite away his nimbleness and carefully turns over the body. His knife would make quick work of the clothing’s seams and stitches if it had been summer or even spring, but it is winter and so he struggles with the frozen leather that is rigid and unwieldy and clinging as if the corpse still protests its violation. None of the steel or iron remains; all the metal has been taken by the Woads, who are denied entrance to the best ironworking sites.
As he skins the corpse, he mouths a few words. If he thought about them, he’d remember an old tree-brown face who’d taught him the chants for begging pardon from the spirits, for calling down the patronage of the gods of the hunt and of vengeance, for keeping up the strength of the hunter and clearing the hunter’s eyes. But he does not think because this is Britain, after all, and he is not tracking prey over the mystical steppes and brush of his homeland. He is here to carry out a duty and so he does. Coldly, methodically, distantly.
He mouths the words, hearing none of them, and casts a judging eye over the story of the wounds.
* * *
II. The road I am on is a long road and I can go hungry again like I have gone hungry before 2
Far away in the garrison, the men are huddling around the low red fires and laughing, sharing jokes, looking at red-lipped wide-hipped women or through the smoke at each other’s wary faces. They are rough, frost-bitten men with bruised and generous hearts, and their absence is a surprising loss, as it is every year.
But Tristan also finds something in clinging to his horse’s mane, wind needling through every small gap, and breathing in the hot salt-earth scent of his stallion’s skin. In seeing the world through the narrow hole of his tight-wrapped cloak and reeling up the story from its thread’s-end at the corpse forward into the thick quiet forests. In the garrison he is warm, and he laughs in the glow of men’s faces, and he feels comfortable.
Out here where the snow crunches away the sound of his breath and heartbeat, where the whiteness strips the color from his skin, he feels truthful. He feels thin and transparent and sharp, a broken pane of ice floating on the blank landscape. There is nothing within and without, and that is what lies behind every jest, every meal, every battle. There’s nothing. So he doesn’t care, and here, he does not ever have to pretend to. The land doesn’t care; if he should slip off his horse and fail to stand again, it will rise up and softly swallow him, carry his body till spring gives birth to his corpse.
He doesn’t care. He watches for the tiny subtle signs of the trail and occasionally his foot twists to guide his horse into a turn, and around him lift the gentle slopes of sleeping white death.
* * *
III. I pick things out of wind and air3
The body was carried over the distance of a day’s journey on foot. Tristan takes nearly the same amount of time on horseback, for he has to circle and double back on his own trail to confuse it, and he has to be on watch for others watching him.
Above him, the steel gray of the sky bellies earthward under a heavy burden. Storms no longer roil the skies, but the slow sinking of the clouds carries its own menace, and he pays heed. The caves in this country are few, but he’s been here before and he remembers the way even when the snow blanks out all directions. It’s a talent, he’s been told. Like the way the wolves smell the wind and thus learn everything that is of any importance.
In the beginning, the flakes are light and frivolous dancers, more nuisance than anything else with how they sift through every seam to melt itching besides Tristan’s skin. But soon they are heavy and brutal, slaps against the face that cling afterwards and weep into his clothing. He picks up his pace, for he cannot afford to let the dampness freeze.
By the time he reaches the cave, he knows his horse still lives only because of the feeble gust of steaming breath that wets his lead-hand, and he knows the cave is there only because he knows. He cannot see it, and in fact how he arrives within its confines is by a slip and a lightly-wrenched ankle.
Tristan recovers quickly enough and tends to his horse as best he can, brushing off the snow and tethering it to a jagged tooth jutting from the maws of the cave. Then he tends to himself, which is not much. He curls beside the hot side of his horse with his saddle as his blanket and he chews on some dried meat. Tomorrow it’ll be impossible to pick up the trail. He’ll have to circle wide, try to pull together what he knows of the area and what he thinks the Woads do with it.
The man hadn’t been casually killed. There had been a regularity, a precision to the wounds on the body. It doesn’t bother Tristan to think on such things any more than it does for him to look at the gutting of a deer and from it divine the skill of the gutters.
Eventually night comes. Darkness falls. If Tristan dozes, it is in spans of time too short for him to notice. His eyes are half-shut and his breathing slower on purpose, but for all he knows, he is continuing to finger broken twigs and run his eyes across hoofprints half-melted in the snow. The shapes of them blacken the sides of the cave and waver wildly every time the blow of the wind changes direction.
* * *
IV. I came from the wilderness3
She blows in sometime during the night. A knot of dull-gleaming tanned skin tumbling with the snow to skitter white clumps of it across the ground. Dark lank hanks of hair, and splayed toes that land her on her feet, silver gleam pressed between her hand and the cave floor. She knows he’s there, and he already has his sword two finger-widths out of its scabbard. But there they stop, Tristan staring through the cracks of his hair and the arch of the saddle over his head and the girl with knees drawn up before her breasts. She looks to be naked, coated only in a layer of grease that swells the small space with its pungent rankness.
Her eyes show through the knotted fall of her hair, and they are as cold and unconcerned as the thoughts weaving themselves together in Tristan’s mind.
Whoever had killed the man had been left-handed. The girl handles her knife with her right. Woad she is, but she is not Tristan’s prey at the moment. Nor is she defenseless, and nor can either of them afford the risk of injury or of losing the shelter.
She tilts her head at him so the hair slants away to show the rest of her face. Many men would call her beautiful. Her smile is sharper than any knife Tristan has ever seen. The white of it blazes against the paleness of the snow scattered around her.
The girl unfolds herself, sudden and graceful as a wolf springing from rest to the chase. She puts both hands on her long knife and stretches her arms so he can count the tendons in the backs of her hands, arches her back so his eyes follow the curve of it round and down to the slope of her buttocks and the shadows of her breasts. There are clothes on her, strips of leather wrapped between her legs and about her waist and her chest, but they are so worn and bleached that they seem only folds of her own skin.
She twists around herself, showing the whole span of her back to him, and curls down on the cave floor. Tristan can see her feet and they alone would not be considered pleasing to the eye, for they are hard and horny. Years of barefoot travel has distorted their slender long shape and now they bend and flatten and crook.
He looks at her face and sees that the coldness in her eyes has concentrated to a white spark. She wiggles her fingers at him, dirty tips of them dark against the blade that rests beneath.
As if he’d be such a fool. The horse whickers, huffs against Tristan and he slides beneath the saddle to place one hand against its side. Silence, his palm presses. He waits for the girl.
But she, apparently, is no fool either and she stays put, head on hands on knife so the slope of her arm blocks everything below her eyes. Once she moves to spread her hair over her back. Beneath the dirt, he thinks it might be brown.
In the morning, he’ll kill her.
* * *
V. There is no end to the plan and the clue, the hunt and the thirst4
In the morning she is there and then not there, with only the difference of a blink. Tristan startles himself with a snarl.
He takes extra care when he leads his horse out of the cave, looking ahead at the black dead trunks and listening all around for her. But she is long gone, fled in the trees, and he has other trails to wind into his hands.
His fingers curl too tight around the reins and his horse stamps, paws at the ground. When Tristan leans over to run a hand down its mane, he stops and presses the heel of his hand instead to the base of his throat. It’s warm, and tight.
But in the dulling snowswept land around him, all warmth soon flees. By the time he has made the first of his planned circuits, he is the snow. He has it within himself and it numbs him to calmness.
* * *
VI. You rise out of the depths with your language5
Even in winter, the deer must eat and go to water, and the boars must root for what little they can find. They break the paths and pack down the newfallen snow, and because they are creatures of habit, so are men. For men like regularity, and there is nothing more regular than an animal’s favored trail from place to place.
There are a few settlements within a day’s ride, Tristan knows. But that is in summer. In winter, no one who is sane goes out this far.
He knows what the nature of his sanity is. He does not, however, know the nature of the mind who has been treading in the deer-paths before he has. Tristan leans from the saddle, measuring length and breadth and depth with his eyes. He idly recalls the ungainly bump on the side of the girl’s left foot, a souvenir of some accident healed wrong.
It is not there, and he is tempted to curse himself for looking for it.
He is not looking for the flash of brown in the black branches, but he curses anyway. They are short words and he cuts them shorter with his teeth; he catches the tip of his tongue and hot blood spangles the inside of his mouth. Tristan swallows it, ignores its happening, and does not reach for his bow and arrow because she has already left.
The tree in which she had been is an old gnarled oak with a trunk spanning more than the circle of a man’s arms. After throwing his horse’s reins around the lowest branch, Tristan heaves himself from saddle-leather to bark. The rags about his hands make him slip and scrabble and, exhaling sharply, he yanks the strips down to his wrists with his teeth. Then he can find purchase on the branches, though the wind punish him bitterly for the advantage. He climbs higher till he can run his fingers over the rough bark and come away with a stinking slickness.
It isn’t clear or cloudy. It is tinged with red, and when Tristan lifts himself higher, he can see a bloody smear. But it is stickier and thicker than that which comes from a normal wound, and for a moment he is puzzled.
Then he understands. Some men would be horrified, call it a curse or an ill-omened thing to touch this kind of woman’s blood, but Tristan merely smiles thin and cold. She should be more careful with her traces.
He wipes off his hand on the branch and drops back to his horse, whom he turns away from her and towards his business.
* * *
VII. Feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook6
The snow is belly-high and his horse flounders from drift to drift, proud head drooping lower and lower with the cold. Eventually he seeks out another cave, though the day is a third from ended, and settles his stallion there. He has no grain and little forage to put in front of it, but the animal has weathered more than one year in this country. It tucks its hooves close together, clamps its tail to its haunches and seems to freeze into place, waiting for the time when the world chooses to be kinder.
On foot he makes slower but more detailed progress. There are strange footprints in the deer-trails and they are neither his nor hers. Some of them arrange themselves around depressions in the frozen surface of the streams; Tristan bends down and taps one with the pommel of his dagger. It fractures to flip up long jagged shards, while around it the older ice is inches thick.
If there is a watering-hole, then there is a base.
But the land around him contains nothing notable. No broad plains, no sweet deep springs, no mythic outcroppings of rock. It is simple woodland scrubbed simpler by the winter and it holds nothing of interest.
Nothing much, that is. The day grows dark cannibalistic tendrils and Tristan does not dare venture too far from his horse, so he calls an end to his work. And he turns down a smaller, lighter trail, one made by a young doe with what was likely her first fawn, and he makes his way to an old scarred tree that gnashes its bare branches at the sky.
She is not there yet when he climbs into the boughs, but the tree is tall and commands a view of the whole area, and so the best perching place has a broad white worn patch marking it. Against Tristan’s fingers it is smoother than the best steel.
He takes out a handful of thongs and regards the twigs about him, then puts them away. It is too far from his night’s resting place to bother setting a trap, and too obvious. In his mind is the flash of mockery in her smile, and so he climbs down.
Later he is mending a bridle-strap that has cracked under the nip of the cold and he comes up a strap short. Tristan shakes himself hard. His horse rolls an eye towards him, wondering, and he stares impassively back at it.
* * *
VIII. I have hunted you under my thoughts7
In a tangle of brush. Two trunks have fallen to lay across each other, an old rotten tree scything a young vigorous one out of the ground some months back. Since then the debris has been drawn to the space caught between them and now it is thick, pungent, even a little warm when Tristan presses his hand into the layers of decomposing wood. He comes up with mushrooms, some of which will go into his evening meal, and fresh fragments of nutshells.
Behind him are the ashes of a campsite that had been big enough to seat two or three. Tristan counts it as three because that is the number of places where the snow has been heaped into man-shaped cradles. Snow steals the heat but can also seal it in when used properly.
So they’re Woads like her. He shakes the chips of wood and clumps of loose dirt from his hand and rewraps it before the wind can thieve him of his sense of touch.
Instead it slips his hearing from him. The breeze smacks a low throaty murmur into his face as he spins around, heel grinding the snow beneath it into ice.
No one is there, but he wasn’t expecting anyone in the first place. What he expects and what the gorge in his throat rises against is flapping about a twig at the far side of the clearing. His dropped thong, looped about a branch in the manner that lovers tie knots in each other’s hair. Tristan’s snort rises before him, transformed into a nebulous mist of eerie beauty, and he cuts it in two with his hand.
He thinks about cutting the thong as well, but he needs it and when in the woods he does not bother with petty nuisances. Tristan carefully unties it and uses it to bind the rags to his left hand so they’ll not drop into the water and freeze to him later.
* * *
IX. The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves8
Riverside. The curve of her back stiffening as she comes to find her water-hole already chopped open.
Birch tree. An arrow slashes still-unfrozen sap across it to point towards a second campsite, also not hers. For a moment, Tristan is tempted to kick the charred chunks in the firepit instead of squatting and examining them carefully for clues.
Nighttime. Tristan is going over a trail he’d learned during the day to see the differences in darkness when he bends to snatch a sleepy rabbit from the ground. He wrings its neck and tosses it high into a nearby tree. The branches rattle like blood-thirsty spears, but when he checks the tree a few moments later, the rabbit’s clouded eyes are all that stare back at him.
Boar-trail. Light prints with long splayed toes and a distortion in the left foot pattering from nowhere and ending in nowhere. In between they stomp the tracks of his serious prey into unreadability.
* * *
X. I drive red joy ahead of me from killing9
In the woods are men who have killed one Roman soldier and dropped him contemptuously near the garrison. They flit from campsite to campsite, their tracks deep with urgency and drive. It was they who had spun the thread of snagged twigs and marred snow and clumped ashes that had drawn Tristan here, and not her.
He reminds himself of that, and then he bites down against his anger at having to remind himself. The flesh beneath his horse’s eyes is beginning to hollow inwards and sink, and the hairs of its coat, already turned shaggy by the blistering winds, are losing their softness. Soon he’ll have to leave for a place where there are winter stores, and before then he has to settle his business here. So when an arrow, its fletching stiff and fresh, juts challengingly from the ground beside where he pisses, he ignores it.
In spite of her, he has learned much about the methods and the habits of the other group of Woads. Their trails and camps form a wide circle, and so he crosses its invisible boundaries for its center.
It has nothing worth waiting for, nothing worth protecting, nothing worth dying over or even noticing. The center is black trees scratched into the white world and ice-air biting at Tristan’s nose and silence as the men and she fight.
There are two to her one, and all are sinewy wind-chapped bodies bound haphazardly with strips of fur. They leap and dive at each other, the crescent of her low against the ground as the other two arch high so their knives hang like icicles in the air. Then she is on her feet, light on the snow that now bears a delicate red spray, and one of them is staggering while the other remains swaying from foot to foot, his blade darting from hand to hand. Their teeth are bared and bright but their eyes are even brighter with rage.
Tristan is standing behind a tree, saber drawn but lowered, and watching. The men do not see him, but she does. The staggering one lurches for her while his partner crosses back behind to take her other side, and in the blurring space between their heads, Tristan sees her lift her chin. She draws the corners of her lips even further back, curling them upward as cinders do floating away in the smoke, and she throws up her head to mock him with the pale underside of her throat before she tackles first one, then both men.
And behind Tristan the snow crunches. He twists and ducks, sliding away from the crashing sword while his saber flicks outward. Its tip catches in the belly of his attacker, the missing third, and sends a hot slash of blood across his face. The other man bellows and the sound of it crushes everything.
In the aftermath, the ice is too broken to fit itself back together and so Tristan is deafened by the wheeze of their panting, the slap-crackle of their feet on the crusted snow, the singing of their swords through the air. He shakes his head and parries another blow, letting himself crouch deep so that a thundering heartbeat later, he can lunge for the gut.
But the man is lighter on his feet than his bulk suggests and he comes away with another long shallow cut while Tristan, not meeting the expected resistance, skids into a turn. The rush of their fighting is melting the snow and so his foot slips, his hand goes down to soak steadiness from the ground. His attacker’s sword is already curving around and Tristan cannot get his own up in time. Instead he twists back and sees a broken line of scarlet follow the tip of the man’s blade sideways. Then his shoulder burns, a ragged thin searing that sucks the air hard between his teeth.
He wastes no time in clapping a hand to it but flings himself around, and so he and his opponent come full circle. From over the man’s shoulder rises a rich laughing cry, a victory bell further blaspheming the shattered silence. It’s glorious and wild and Tristan finds his own lips peeling back from his teeth in sharp amusement.
Who sees his smile, however, is not her but his opponent and his opponent takes it as mocking. Which, for him, it is.
The other man snaps his sword at Tristan in angry thrusts, trying to bait out a foolhardy charge, but if Tristan has been shaken into amusement by the noise, he has not been shaken into stupidity. He slings his body back on his heels, curving his own sword slowly through the air because in the frenzy of battle it is harder for men to watch a slow movement than a fast one, and waits.
His opponent is good. After the first few passes, it seems as if he is settling back into coolheaded, careful strikes.
So Tristan provokes him. Throws himself into an awkward lunge that sends him to one knee, side of his neck towards the other man, and when his attacker whirls up his sword to take his head, Tristan slashes out his guts.
The man finally says something, but between the blood and the horror and the foreign words, Tristan cannot make out any of it. He doesn’t care; he lets the forward drive of his cut swing him around to standing. Then he raises his saber and sends the head soaring across the killing. It spins off a tail of blood and one of long tangled hair, which just touches the tip of her knife.
On the ground behind her are two bodies and on her body are wounds with slick red lips, but Tristan barely sees them because she is quick and fearless and crashes past his sword before he can turn it towards her. His arm smacks against hers as they fall, diverting her knife into the snow beside his head. She takes off a chunk of his hair.
Tristan drops his sword and grabs her by the wrist. He throws her off of himself, but she rises with it and then yanks so they tumble across the snow. It turns to slush beneath their furious struggling, chilling stuff with honed flakes that scratch their way into Tristan’s clothes and stick his hair to his face as he forces the blade-point from his eye. She snarls and knees at him, but his thick layers of clothing not only pad but also conceal the shape of his body and so instead she hits his hip. He elbows himself up and wrenches their hands to the side so the knife wounds a young sapling, which in revenge refuses to let go of it. The girl cries out in dismay, lingers a second too long over the sudden change, and that gives Tristan time to punch her.
By then she has somehow tangled into his clothing with only her legs and fingers and hair, so she does not fall aside but across. He kicks at her, twists around to scrabble for his saber and she drags him back by the hair. So Tristan borrows her trick and slams himself up from the ground, lunges within her guard and gets his hands around her body and his body up against her breasts.
They fall again, her leg thrashing to hook around his waist and his teeth deep in her lip.
* * *
XI. Love is a war of lightning10
It’s madness, feverish and clawing. It’s her laughing as she pushes her blood into his mouth with her tongue, it’s his hands shaping her breasts, it’s her nails skinning him out of his clothing. His bare shoulder lifts to the biting air for a mere moment before he falls back down into the steaming frantic world they are writhing into being. They’ve scraped and melted through the snow so that when Tristan’s hands drag down her back and around her waist, they cut black mud over her skin. His knee wrenches out of the folds of his trousers knotting about it to dig at the ground, and the ground gives way. It sinks down, slow and grudging, but it sinks.
When he sinks into her, he sinks fast and harsh and the breath sucks over his teeth so quickly it snaps. He cradles her hips, her buttocks, her shoulders. The thawed dirt stuffs itself beneath his nails and he smears it over her while she gnaws out of winter-slumber the nerves in his neck, chest, jaw. Traces of her blood enriched with drops of his own pass between their mouths that they cannot for very long separate, and while he cradles her she cradles him. Her body draws in his prick and clutches him closer and deeper every time they rock together.
He cannot get enough of her madness. He licks the salt remains of it from the elongated hollows of her throat, the angular lines of her face, the sharp curl of her lips. He rips it from her skin, leaves behind long pinkish furrows in the brownness. When her hair mats between his mouth and her skin, he sucks the traces from it and tastes fat-slick and bitter herbs, wood and wind and snow and warmth.
She burns him, length of her wrapped so tightly around him that air cannot pass through, knees gouging his ribs and nails stabbing through layers of leather and rough woolens to spur at his hips. When she arches back so her breasts rise to his hungry mouth, the absence of her burns him. Her arm falls from his neck, side of hand carving a deep rut in the softened ground, and he feels it like a wind-sear across his nape. The convulsions of her body crack him open in sympathy and the whiteness of her throat is a final flash of fire joining all the cracks so he crumbles.
* * *
XII. I will keep you and bring you hands to hold you against a great hunger11
Tristan opens his eyes first, but she moves first. She crawls over him and pulls out her long knife from the sapling, then taps it against his cheekbone. He brushes his mouth over the inside of her wrist before he sits up, sending her tumbling into the snow. The girl hisses, thinks better of it and laughs while she crowds back into his arms, responding eagerly to his careless nipping kisses. The knife goes out of sight, and when he finally retrieves his saber, he slides it back into its scabbard.
Around them is nothing of note. They’re nothing of note, they’re nothing but two twisting, laughing, bloodied things that smash each other breathlessly up against every tree between their mud-nest and the cave where Tristan’s horse is, between that cave and the cave that the other men had been using, which is roomy with stored fodder and deep in the back, a hot spring. They’re animals, scenting and rescenting each other, following only the instincts that bundle them together and away from the blizzard that is lurching over the horizon towards them.
They’re nothing. They’re free.
* * *
XIII. Over a gossamer web of unanswerables5
“You’re Sarmatian,” she says, floating on her back. Her hair is brown, and rich, and it loops on the surface of the water like swirls of wine.
Tristan squeezes the water from his hair and watches some of it come out red. More red spreads from the cut on his shoulder, which had scabbed over but had bled afresh when he’d cleaned it. “You speak Latin.”
“Doesn’t everyone? Since the Romans are here.” The girl turns over and sinks below the surface so only her eyes are left, large dark daggers probing at him. She slips through the water and onto his knees, her hand tickling the side of his prick.
He looks at her, and beneath the coolness of her gaze he sees the restless heat that had broken through before. And he curls his hand over the point of her shoulder, and beneath his hand she shivers. Then she smiles, closed-lipped and not sharp but ironic, before she rises to plunge them both back into that disorienting nowhere of limbs and fight and melt.
Later, she lies with her back to his chest, his arm wrapped about her waist, and she marks the stone with wet streaks. Then she drags a single fingertip beneath the line of them. “Guinevere.”
He memorizes what she has written, but does not write himself. Instead he takes her hand and presses her fingers to the marks on his cheeks. “Tristan.”
“They were rebels against rebels,” she says, moving her hand lower to clasp his cut shoulder. Guinevere shrugs, a liquid movement of her whole body that makes Tristan’s eyes drift half-shut and his breath slip slowly from his mouth. “They held this ground against everyone.”
“What is this ground?” He doesn’t expect her to answer him any more than she expected him to answer her earlier about the Romans. It touches too close to what would make them something.
But she does answer, laughing low in her throat where it sounds bitter. “Holy to us. Sanctuary.”
The dead man had been a scout, but not a careful one. He paid no attention to the meaning of the land and the people on it, but only looked at what could be made of it. In Tristan’s mind he sees the man coming and dismissing the place as useless, ignoring the chances of it having guardians till too late. And he sees the polluting body being dragged far from the stark purity of the place to the Wall, the great crouching thing that men had bound over the span of the land.
“It was sanctuary. Now there’s blood on it.” Then Guinevere turns, and her eyes are hot and her hands clever. She presses harder against him. “Makes no difference to me.”
In the corner, the horse whinnies and stamps. Outside the wind howls and drags its talons over the world, reshaping the drifts, but neither of them notice.
* * *
XIV. Under your skin the moon is alive12
The blizzard lasts a day and a night that Tristan spends in a daze. He wakes with Guinevere, sleeps with Guinevere, eats and bathes and dresses and undresses with her. At some points he isn’t sure whether he has gone the last step and crawled into her, lost himself utterly in her bright teeth and sly eyes, her demanding hands and her hot mouth and her sweet body.
After that conversation, they lapse out of the habit of talking, but they do not fall back into silence. They speak instead in the language of bared teeth, changing eyes, turning hands and long sloping curves of sides. He lifts a finger and she smiles; she quirks an eyebrow and he offers her another strip of dried meat.
They write on each other, feverishly working epics and histories in teeth-prints and small bruises. Bridges of scrapes and nail-furrows soon connect the isolated stories of their scars, and their hair tangles so that Tristan can run his hand through his and pull out a strand of Guinevere’s.
It’s like summer-fever, only far out of season. And sweeter, and better, and Tristan thinks that he has never known so much from so little.
* * *
XV. Did I see No Man’s Land in your eyes13
There is plenty of fodder in the cave for the other men had brought no horses with them, but little food for they had been mighty eaters. As soon as the snow stops falling, Tristan drags himself from the soft knot of Guinevere’s body and dresses himself. The drifts are nearly to his shoulder in places, but he needs to hunt.
He has forgotten how cold it was outside; he’s been so warm that it has dissolved all his memories of cold. It shocks him, and he needs the better part of an hour to re-accustom himself to it. But nevertheless he perseveres. He has not forgotten his tracking skills. Instead they seem keener than ever and it is no trouble to find a deer. A buck with enough meat on him to feed a village once, or Tristan and Guinevere a few days.
But an animal of that size is old and wise and wary, and so it is restless, always moving so Tristan cannot get a clear shot through the web of trees. He stalks it, patiently trailing its wild bolts till it tires and then scaring it back in a circle towards the cave. Once he loses sight of it and lets himself wander only to find it a bare thirty-count later, which is far quicker than any other time.
The buck is old but alone, and soon its head droops in a moment of resignation. In that moment, Tristan steps forward and lifts his bow. He shoots and while he shoots he sees on the other side of the deer, directly opposite him, is Guinevere. Bow drawn, arrow loosed, and but for the buck they would have shot each other.
White powder flies up beneath the deer’s death throes and beneath the feet of Tristan and Guinevere who lope to meet over its stilling corpse. Her jaw has dropped in a feral grin, but her eyes are soft with anger and the turn of her shoulder angles away from him. His hands are in fists pressed against his legs, though he is laughing a little at her.
The smell of hot blood drenches the air and whirls them together, but when they rut this time they are desperate and clinging. Once Tristan lifts himself from the beautiful rounding of her breasts to see the death-sheened eyes of the deer watching him. He smacks the head so it looks away and descends again on her, but inside he knows that the head had rocked back almost immediately to continue staring.
* * *
XVI. for your face turned away2
One day Tristan returns to the cave to see that Guinevere has tacked up and led his horse out of it. She stands beside it petting its nose while he patiently fixes the mismatched buckles, and when he is done she steps back, body clenched in on itself.
His saber is strapped to the saddle. He yanks it out of the scabbard just as she stabs with the short-sword she’d taken off the one man. When they spin away from each other, there is blood arcing over the snow from his sword-arm and crossing it, another scarlet arc from her thigh. Tristan turns, slow and panting, and he knows what he’ll find in Guinevere’s face and deep inside, he feels sick.
But she doesn’t hesitate from her rush, and neither does he. They clash blades, fling more blood onto the snow and whirl about to come viciously together once more. Her hair is in strings before her face, inadequate bars for her burning wet eyes, and her breasts on which Tristan had rested his head the night before are smeared red from the slash he’s left across her collarbone. He’s remembered that she usually leaps upon him from that side, and she has remembered that the half-healed cut on his shoulder slows how fast he can lift his arm to grab her.
Guinevere favors her wounded leg, but her charge has lost little of its force. She nearly drives Tristan back on his heels when their swords meet once again, but he pivots so her force spins him around to her unprotected side. His saber goes out and barely misses her spine, deflected by something snapping out.
A garrote. His hand went up before he’d even thought and so it’s between the cut of the leather and his throat, but it’s trapped. She jerks the garrote before he can regain his balance and it whips tight so he chokes and drops to his knees, wrenching desperately at it with his trapped hand. Tristan barely gets his sword up between them to keep her from coming any nearer.
“Roman dog,” she says. Her hiss is ferocious but uneven.
“Woad bitch,” Tristan chokes. He coughs, forces down the bile and brings up what little air he has left. “Guinevere.”
She stands, he kneels. Between them are her stretched garrote and his sword, and between them are so many words in the shaking of his sword-hand and the wide pupils of her eyes.
He blinks and there is no one—no, there is brown skin to his right and he unthinkingly slashes at it. A last few drops of blood fall to the ground before she vanishes.
“Tristan,” whispers the empty leafless branches.
After he’s pulled the leather from his bruised throat, after he’s staggered up from the bloody snow, he hauls himself into the tree. He sweeps a hand over the bark and comes away with a red smear of the kind of stickiness that he had expected, and he rubs a hand over his cheek and tastes hot wet salt when he touches his fingertips to his tongue.
* * *
XVII. I will stab you between the ribs of the left side with a great love worth remembering11
Tristan’s room in the garrison is small because he needs little, and dim because even if he hadn’t long since memorized where everything is, he’s used to discerning worlds from shadows. He lies on the bed and occasionally probes at the bandages that bind parts of his body, but otherwise he closes his eyes and is still. When the door opens and a weight settles on the side of the mattress, he still does not move.
He counts to seventy-four before Gawain finally speaks. “I brought your hawk back.”
His hawk. It seems amazing, but Tristan had left her behind because of the cold and then had entirely forgotten about her. “Thank you.”
“I’m not leaving just because I’ve returned her,” Gawain adds, a touch more impatient. The bed bends as he cranes to look at Tristan’s face; his breath smells of pork stew.
“Why not?” It’s a curt answer and an ungenerous one, but right now Tristan is trying to recall what it was like to live in icy silence and Gawain is making it difficult.
That’s an excuse. It’s not Gawain that makes it difficult.
The other man exhales sharply, the way he does before he launches into a lecture for some green recruit's benefit. But with Tristan he restrains himself to a few tight words. “Because you said it’d take three, four days and you were gone two weeks during some of the worst snowstorms so far this winter. Because you came back looking like you’d tangled with an entire army by yourself. Because—and I can’t believe I’m saying this to you—you’re moping.”
Tristan finally gives up on trying to remember. Or rather, trying to make himself into the memory. He can recall perfectly what it was like to live that way, but because he can recall so much, he knows that he can no longer follow that path. For a moment, he wants to strangle someone, gut them and hang them deep in the woods where there’s nothing.
The moment passes after some work and he rolls over with a reasonably accommodating expression on his face. “Those are good reasons.”
Gawain looks sharply at him, decides he isn’t being sarcastic and then looks sad and irritated. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?” After a pause, he sighs. “Fine. I know you’re not an idiot. Just tell me you’ll go down to dinner tonight. I’ll help, if it’s your leg.”
“You mean you’ll drag me.” From the perch beside the bed coos and whistles his hawk, coaxing him to sit up. Since he’s accidentally reassigned her to second-place, he does and he pets her. The feel of the tiny feathers on her head is soft and soothing. And it reminds him of Guinevere’s hair.
It hurts. Then it flares into anger and settles into an instinctive calm. Eventually he’ll get used to it, used to contenting himself with the memories. He knows this because of how he became used to frozen solitude.
“Either that, or you get Arthur inquiring after your health. And he’ll keep asking till you tell him just to make him go.” The grin on Gawain’s face is tentative, as if he’s unsure of a welcome Tristan had long since offered permanently. “Or you bribe Lancelot to distract him.”
“You don’t need to bribe Lancelot to make him do that.” There is a window in Tristan’s room, but he doesn’t use it often because usually he’s already outside. Now, however, he’s inside with little chance of leaving soon. So he limps over to it and pries open the shutters.
The Wall is a sooty bar thrown over the bleached softened world, as if to lock the snow into place. From here Tristan cannot see the woods. He is not, right now, certain whether or not that is a mercy.
“Nasty damned country,” Gawain says, coming up beside him. When Tristan doesn’t immediately answer, Gawain looks surprised and curious. “You’ve changed your mind?”
It takes a while for Tristan to reply. And when he does, he speaks softly so the choke in his voice will not betray him. “I don’t hate it.”
They’ll meet again. Either she will kill him, or he her, or someone else entirely. But however it happens, they’ll meet again in the black and white nothingness of the land.
He tells himself this a second time, and closes the shutters with an unsteady hand.
* * *
1. “Old Timers”, Carl Sandburg
2. “Horse Fiddle”, Carl Sandburg
3. “Wilderness”, Carl Sandburg
4. “Leather Leggings”, Carl Sandburg
5. “Jabberers”, Carl Sandburg
6. “Winter Landscape, with Rooks”, Sylvia Plath
7. “The Great Hunt”, Carl Sandburg
8. “Waking in Winter”, Sylvia Plath
9. “Fight”, Carl Sandburg
10. “Carnal apple, Woman filled, burning moon”, Pablo Neruda
11. “Mascots”, Carl Sandburg
12. “In the wave-strike over unquiet stones”, Pablo Neruda
13. “Crimson Changes People”, Carl Sandburg
14. “Horse Fiddle”, Carl Sandburg