Author: Guede Mazaka
The hay was fresh, still a little green, and so the smell it gave off as it was crushed under their bodies was pungent, sharp, without the musty dead undernotes that it’d acquire soon enough. Its scent mixed with the earthiness of the manure, but up in the loft there was enough of a breeze so that it was just strong enough to remind them that life wasn’t always blood and guts and steel. Sometimes it was just—“Horseshit.”
Lancelot squeezed his eyes shut and made an attempt to rein in his temper. “Don’t start, damn it. I have a good half-hour to just lie here, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
“But it is horseshit,” Galahad insisted. He was two bodies over, and considering it was Gawain and Tristan between him and Lancelot, it probably wasn’t worth the effort to shut him up for good. “We’re not going to get back to Sarmatia, are we? All that about a fifteen-year term…the Woads are going to kill us before we ever finish it out.”
“Not if you kill them first.” From the rafters came a low fluttering; Tristan tore off a bit from the piece of dried meat he had and flicked it upwards into the swoop of his hawk. He waggled his fingers at it and it obligingly wheeled to have another lazy flight around the stables.
He had a good point. And for once, it wasn’t grating. Now, if Galahad would only listen to it…Lancelot rolled over and flopped face-first into the hay, ignoring the way it scratched his face. He didn’t want to hear.
Of course, Galahad still wanted to talk, and the straw did little to block him out. “But the Romans—”
“Are liars, and bastards, and generally not very nice. Yes. We know.” Though Lancelot had his grievances with the Romans, he didn’t want to dwell on them all of the time. Spending time with Arthur meant that very, very rarely he’d seen Sarmatians actually get their discharges and as a rule they were bitter men twisted by long-seething hatred. When--when--Lancelot left, he wasn’t going to carry Rome back with him. Historical victories he had to live with, but he didn’t have to live with a personal victory over him. “They went to war with our forefathers, in case you don’t remember. Why would they have an interest in keeping us alive?”
Surprisingly enough, Galahad didn’t respond. Then a hand shoved at Lancelot’s side. “You do know that we can’t understand a word you say when you’re eating hay, don’t you?” Gawain said.
They seemed to understand each other fine when Galahad was drunk and mumbling into Gawain’s ear, so Lancelot didn’t see what the problem was. But he lifted his head anyway and repeated himself. “Now, does anyone have anything new and interesting to talk about? No? Oh, good. Shut up so I can sleep.”
“Who made him emperor of the stable? Then again, if he wants to lord it over mucking out the stalls, I’m not going to object,” Galahad not-quite-whispered. Hay rustled as he moved in Lancelot’s direction. Then Gawain let out a surprised grunt and there was more rustling, only it remained in one place.
“Don’t roll him over the side.” Tristan’s drowsy murmur was the only indication that he was even there. His breathing wasn’t audible and he didn’t occasionally move to avoid cramps like any normal man would, so if Galahad didn’t annoy him into talking once in a while, they probably would’ve forgotten he was there and would’ve tripped over him.
Little particles danced on Lancelot’s back—someone had just thrown a handful of hay and missed. He pushed himself up on an arm and glowered. “And learn to aim.”
“I wasn’t going to toss Gawain. And why can’t we talk about it? What, are you so close with Arthur now that you’re starting to—” The hand slapped over Galahad’s mouth just in time. He struggled and bit, making Gawain wince, but then he saw Lancelot’s face and then he decided to be sensible.
Lancelot would very much have liked to dangle Galahad over the edge by his ankles, or maybe see to him behind the barn, but luckily for the other man, reason intervened. The last thing Lancelot needed to do was hand that kind of reaction over for the others to blow up out of proportion. It was bad enough waking up to a cold bed and Arthur kneeling on the floor, praying again and again and—the entire point of coming up here was to relax. And he was damn well going to. Someone had to, or else the next time they went out, it was going to snap.
“I never said we couldn’t talk about it,” he pleasantly replied. “So you can go ahead and whine about something that’s a truth and that’s not going to change. I’m going to lie here and work on surviving. I’m getting back to Sarmatia if I have to kill every Woad in Britain to do it.”
Then he did as he’d said and curled back in the hay, hoping very hard that Galahad had gotten the message.
The other man had, but unfortunately, Galahad had a loud whisper. “Why is it whining? If Arthur’s gotten anything right, then we have a grievance and we should be talking about it.”
He was six months younger than the rest of them, and he’d come after Arthur had made it clear that the knights were his domain, so he hadn’t had as many Romans yelling in his face for insolence. That was probably what Gawain was telling himself right now. Either that or he had a bad cold draft in his room and he needed the company to keep warm.
“First you don’t like Arthur, and now you’re using his words,” Gawain muttered back. “Lie down and have a nap. You’re not making sense.”
“I’m not a boy, either. I—look, Arthur’s my commander, and it actually doesn’t taste bad to say that. But even he admits he can’t give answers for all of what Rome does.” From the sound of things, Galahad was shoving off of Gawain and crawling away to sulk.
He didn’t have it completely right; what he should have said was that Arthur couldn’t answer for all that Rome did, but that he tried damned hard to anyway. “You know, if you die here, you might still end up back in Sarmatia. As a nice little pony, maybe.”
Galahad growled. His voice cracked in the middle of it and, embarrassed, he snarled at himself. The second one was actually genuinely menacing. “You know, I think you just want it so you’re the only one who picks at Arthur. And I would not be a stupid pony. I’d be a stallion at least.”
“Pony. With four white stockings and an adorable rat-eaten tail. The children would run you ragged.” Lancelot raised his hand and rudely gestured with two stalks of hay. He ignored the first part of Galahad’s comment, since it wasn’t worth addressing.
“They’d have to geld you just so you didn’t taint everyone’s breeding lines,” Gawain retorted. He must have started to feel sorry for Galahad again.
Tristan let out a rare sigh. “I was sleeping. But now that I’m awake…are we considering Arthur a Roman or not?”
He did know exactly what to say in order to make people stop talking. Lancelot gave Tristan that much. On the other hand, Lancelot could’ve done without having to stop talking because he was suddenly faced with the incredibly complicated and confusing question that he’d been hoping he could avoid. And knowing that Galahad and Gawain had suddenly had the same one posed to them didn’t help in the least. On the contrary, it just put more pressure on Lancelot, for if he couldn’t figure it out with the extra knowledge he had…and he had to, or else watch the opinion of others dictate how Arthur was treated.
It would have helped if Arthur had just been another Roman. But if he had been that simple, then he wouldn’t have been Arthur and the entire problem wouldn’t have existed.
“Maybe we should call him something else,” Galahad said, though his tone gave away how unsatisfactory that suggestion was.
Because Arthur was a Roman. And he wasn’t. ‘Roman’ meant so many things that patently didn’t apply to Arthur, but a few of them did—and that was only looking from the knights’ perspective. Listening to Arthur go on about Rome told Lancelot that in some places in the world—somehow—the word ‘Roman’ had a very different meaning, closer to that held by some of the Britons behind the Wall, who had grown fat during the Roman occupation and who actually feared their rebel countrymen more than their corrupt overlords.
Lancelot couldn’t quite articulate it properly, but it was like trying to decide what to call a corpse: was it a dead body or still the man it had been when it’d breathed and moved? Respect for the dead had seemed silly until the first time he’d come across someone he’d been joking with just before the battle, and some officer had yelled to get the bodies burnt so they could move on. Dead eyes didn’t look like living ones, but they looked enough alike to be confusing.
This was a morbid conversation. “He’s just him,” Lancelot muttered, more to himself than to anyone else. “Isn’t that good enough?”
But all he had to do was look at Tristan’s face to know it wasn’t. He wondered how the other man could look so calm about it all, as if he’d already found the answer for himself, and then he wondered what that could possibly be.
“No, he’s not,” Galahad said. He was propping himself up on Gawain’s stomach and staring unfocused at the wall. “But he’s still acting as guarantor for the Romans’ promises, so I’m going to hold him to that.”
“How do you figure?” Gawain sat up, dislodging Galahad, and started pulling straw out of his hair.
The other man blinked, then came back to himself. He shrugged and looked down at his twisting hands. “Oh…well, he mourns when one of us dies. So he cares whether or not we make the fifteen years. A Roman wouldn’t.”
Simplistic explanation, which wouldn’t hold up if he really knew anything. But Lancelot certainly wasn’t going to bother trying to explain to him. He probably wouldn’t get it. If he were eighty, he still probably wouldn’t be able to understand.
“Knights? Who’s up there?” called someone from the aisle. Arthur.
“Damn. Time to go.” Galahad grabbed Gawain’s elbow and dragged him towards the window at the far end, where they promptly hopped out and scaled the rough-stoned outside wall. They couldn’t have gone more than ten yards before Galahad laughed loud enough for Lancelot to hear…which meant of course that Arthur would have as well, but Galahad was probably going to get away with it.
Lancelot rolled his eyes and brushed the straw off of himself. “He complains so much and he doesn’t even realize how soft he’s got it. Wait till he’s old enough to be treated like the rest…”
Tristan got to his feet and stretched, then went over to the ladder. “You’re in that much of a hurry to see more like yourself?”
He was down and making his excuses to Arthur before Lancelot could even respond. That one wasn’t going to be a horse after he died. Maybe an escaped army mule as solitary, ornery and ruthlessly blunt as he was, but definitely not a horse.
“I see you did sweep out the place before you decided to take your break,” was the wry greeting Arthur gave Lancelot. He reached up to give Lancelot a hand because that was what he did, and Lancelot twisted away from it because that was what he did. Even though Arthur of course took it the wrong way and looked hurt for the briefest moment. “I hope it was an enjoyable one, since you’ve got a quarter-hour less to exercise your horses.”
“Oh, it wasn’t bad. We talked about what kind of horse we’re going to come back as after we’re dead.” It’d been meant as a joke, but it came out sharper than Lancelot had intended. And accordingly, it cut far deeper into Arthur than it should have. Lancelot belatedly remembered that Arthur might not have heard that old campfire tale. “Back home, they say that—”
“—a great warrior comes back as a great horse. It’s one of the few things I remember my father telling me.” Arthur wouldn’t look anywhere except straight ahead, and his voice was lined with lead. “That’s an interesting topic to discuss.”
Bluntness, however, Lancelot could accustom himself to taking, whereas this kind of delicate evasion always irked him. This time he was partly at fault, which only irritated him even more. “You mean it’s depressing. Well, Galahad’s not exactly a beam of sunshine, is he?”
Instead of lifting the weight from Arthur’s shoulders, that only dropped it harder. He slowed down and wheeled to face Lancelot, worry aging him ever faster. “Is there something I should be concerned about?”
“No. No, there isn’t.” Lancelot tried to push past, but the other man wouldn’t let him and all he ended up doing was getting his palms to Arthur’s chest, from which they refused to move. He sighed and stared at the tips of collarbones that were peeking out from Arthur’s clothes. They looked a bit sharper than they should have been. “No, except for you spending too much energy on the wrong things. At this rate, you’ll come back as an ass because you’ll have worn down too far to have enough to come back as a horse.”
Warm, rough hands pressed familiar scars against the sides of Lancelot’s head. He could feel the most recent one, courtesy of a Woad dagger, rubbing against his left temple. Arthur’s breath blew over his hair, and then the other man bent a little to map his mouth to Lancelot’s eye, cheekbone, lips. And damn the man, but Lancelot had to bend up to meet it and take both the sweet and the bitter from Arthur’s tongue, because he couldn’t do without either.
“Somehow I don’t think you’d let me get to that point.” A laugh, rarer than Tristan’s sighs. “You’d harangue my grave till I rose again.”
“I don’t want to think about your grave,” Lancelot murmured, letting his cheek rest against Arthur’s. He slid his hands up to Arthur’s shoulders, grazing fingertips against Arthur’s neck, then moved them back down and stepped back. “You’d better hope I come back as your horse, in that case.”
When he looked up, Arthur’s eyes were more somber than he’d expected. But Arthur didn’t react except to ruffle Lancelot’s hair. He turned back to the doorway and started walking again, and Lancelot went with him. “I hope you come back happier, in whatever form,” Arthur quietly said.
Then he turned the talk to the petty daily problems of garrison life, and Lancelot allowed it because it was better than talking about something neither of them could stop.