|War Prologue: News
Author: Guede Mazaka
The rider came in just before dawn.
His leathers were filthy with mud and dried gore that the sentries, high up in their towers, could smell as clearly as they could the ale on their own breath. They let him pass with only a minimum of challenges, for it was clear he brought urgent news, and then they turned their faces back to the vast black fringe of forest on the horizon. The harshness of Roman discipline ensured that they did not speculate aloud between themselves, but their minds were neither on the beauty of the misty sunrise, nor on the by-now familiar menace of the treeline beyond the Wall.
* * *
Arthur was in the act of sitting up when the door burst open. He stiffened and shoved his hand down, hastily rumpling the sheets back over himself, while his other hand went out for Excalibur, leaning against the bed. “Who goes—”
“Still abed? I thought you were famous for rising early,” Lucius said, voice heavy with mockery. The other officer was already in armor, and had his pack hanging from one shoulder as if it were filled with rocks. “Courier’s in. Damned Britons revolted, burned a town. They’re massing upriver; get your men ready to ride. Then get yourself to the general’s quarters.”
Infantry and cavalry never were very friendly with each other, but for the moment, Arthur chose to ignore the fact that he nominally outranked Lucius. There wasn’t any point in rising to the bait. “Thank you. I’ll be there.”
“Good. Wouldn’t do to have the prodigy missing.” With that Parthian shot, Lucius started to swing himself out of the door. But then he paused and glanced back, his long thin lips first frowning, then smirking. “A word of advice—you might want to set up your mistress somewhere outside of the barracks.”
As the other man finally departed, Arthur gritted his teeth and dragged his fingers from Excalibur. Then he sighed and rose, wrapping a blanket around him as he went to shut the door. It was barely into campaigning season, so the air was still chilly enough to steal one’s breath with icy claws.
Behind him, Lancelot threw off the rest of the blankets and sat up, eyes laughing. “I suppose ‘mistress’ is better than ‘whore.’”
“If you say so.” Arthur threw the bolt, wishing he could use it more often. The disadvantage of rank was that, if he was going to be a good officer, he had to be accessible at all hours. The higher he rose, the less privacy he had, and the more he dreamed of it. “Get dressed.”
He said that much more curtly than he’d meant to. In his defense, news of a Woad uprising this early in the year didn’t bode well at all; last year’s campaign had been aimed at crushing the insurrection for good, and here it was, seemingly fresh as ever. Ready to eat up more of Arthur’s men and tear to pieces more of his memories of his mother’s people.
But one look at Lancelot’s face, smooth handsome features going so easily from amusement to hard sarcasm, told Arthur it was too late to explain anything. Or to even apologize, and one was owed. It was grossly unfair for the Sarmatians to even be here, let alone have to suffer the temper of their newly-promoted, preoccupied commander. Arthur still tried. “Lancelot…”
“You’d rather I had left right afterward.” The other man turned away and scooped up his clothes from a chair, which thankfully hadn’t been in view of Lucius.
Then again, that particular officer wasn’t especially observant or smart, sharp as his tongue was. While Arthur would like to think that they’d always be so fortunate, he knew better. “It has nothing to do with what I want. But the Romans aren’t quite so relaxed about their morals, and they’re already watching me closely because—”
“And you favor me so much anyway. I have ears, Arthur. I can hear. And I’m not some callow youth that has to be taught about the hypocrisies of society.” Lancelot threw on his clothes with quick, tense jerks that had him dressed in less than a minute. He bent down to pluck Arthur’s cloak from a chair, then flung it at Arthur hard enough for the hem to sting as it slapped Arthur’s arms. “It’s a wonder you like Romans so much when they frown on something you very definitely enjoy. Unless some other man happened to be fucking me into the ground last night.”
“Lancelot, for God’s sake—” Arthur lunged for the other man, but Lancelot deftly evaded him and slammed open the bolt. Then he opened the door and slipped out while Arthur was scrambling to dress himself.
As soon as he could, Arthur followed, but naturally Lancelot wasn’t anywhere in sight. And there was the first campaign of the year for which he needed to prepare, which meant he most likely wouldn’t catch up with Lancelot till late morning. By then, the other man might have cooled off, but more likely was that he would’ve spent the time perfecting his argument.
Arthur didn’t sigh as he ducked back into his room. He lost count of the number of times he broke the third commandment while he strapped on his sword, but it hardly mattered since he didn’t have time for forgiveness. Another season of shattering the sixth commandment awaited.
* * *
Thankfully, the first man Lancelot ran into at the stables was Gawain, who was patient and calm and knew better than to interrupt Lancelot’s snarling. After all of that had been worked out of Lancelot’s system, he hefted a saddle onto his shoulder and redirected himself to the knights’ barracks.
“So…” Gawain began, hurrying after him.
“A wonderful start to the year—Woad rebellion upriver. Now help me wake up everyone.” And wasn’t he a helpful little knight, Lancelot savagely thought. First laying into Arthur, which certainly wasn’t going to help the deep lines carving ever deeper into Arthur’s face, and then waking all the others up for another plunge into blood and guts and steel.
All right, he didn’t feel very guilty about the waking-up part; it came with the territory, after all. But he still failed to see why he should appreciate the territory, given that the Romans had made him exchange wide plains for a miserable little island in the grips of an endlessly miserable war. The few bright spots he had were like those strange green wisps that rose from the swamps, always flashing out of reach—either because of him, or because of Arthur.
Damn the man. Lancelot did understand, and he didn’t want the bastard Romans prying any further into his life than Arthur did; he might give them the services of his sword, but he wasn’t there for their amusement as well. But skulking around and looking nervy as a new colt as Arthur seemed to like doing grated on Lancelot. It was too close to denial when only hiding was necessary. And Arthur would deny this and that and—Lancelot nearly tripped over a knight who hadn’t quite made it back to his cot before passing out. With more than a little glee, he dropped Bors’ saddle on his head. “Rise and shine! Your duty calls!”
“Yarrar—you damned—what?” Bors leaped to his feet and, blinded by the saddle, nearly ran Gawain into a door. Then he apparently remembered that chances of proper turnabout were greatly increased if he could see his opponent and took off the saddle. “Gawain?”
“No, him,” Gawain sighed.
Lancelot assumed the man was pointing at him, but by then he had already banged the doors of half the corridor. Behind, he could hear Gawain starting on the doors on the other side, so Lancelot sped up and rounded the corner before Bors could catch anything resembling wits. By doing so, he nearly smacked into a knight he didn’t quite recognize.
Spitting oaths, he stumbled back a pace. “Well, you’re up early. Good. Get your horse packed for campaign; rations will be issued once everyone’s assembled on the parade grounds.”
He didn’t wait to hear an answer, but instead moved around and continued down the hall, spreading the good news as he went. His knuckles were going to be sore—were already sore, in fact, but that was just as well. It would distract him from thinking on the ache between his legs, or the one in his throat.
Everyone thought he was a proud bastard, and they were right. Arthur made a mission out of bending his head, but Lancelot had a better sense of himself than that. Though it was cold, walking down these corridors and watching the sleepiness in men’s faces turn to resignation, frustration, fear. And it’d been warm, curling up by Arthur’s side.
* * *
The man by whom Lancelot had brushed turned to sweep his oddly intense stare over the halls and after him. Then he seemed to smile very slightly and spun back to greet Gawain. “So that’s Lancelot.”
“Yes…you don’t—oh, you’re one of the knights they just brought up from the other garrisons.” Gawain temporarily stopped banging doors to take in the newcomer. Down the hall, Bors was doing a fine job of bellowing out the explanation for the rude awakening, so Gawain could spare a moment.
And he’d better, since he’d never seen a member of this tribe among the cavalry before. Facial markings, armor that was slightly more fitted at the waist than the usual, and what looked like a curved sword. The man himself was about Gawain’s age, with an aloof demeanor that probably irritated most people. “I am,” he acknowledged. “They’re consolidating units as the officers die or transfer.”
“Fucking shame they can’t send you along with your officers,” Agravaine growled, stumbling half-dressed from his room. He yanked his shirt all the way onto his shoulders as he attempted to glower the newcomer into shrinking. It didn’t work, partly because Agravaine’s puffy red eyes made him look quite pathetic, but Gawain suspected that the new knight wasn’t intimidated by much, anyway. “Mother-killing son of a bitch.”
“You would know,” Lancelot snorted, coming back down. When Agravaine whirled on him, he slowed just enough to deliver a leveling stare. “Shut it, Agravaine. We’re all being equally fucked by the Romans without your pretty self helping. You and your gear, in the stable in two minutes, or you’re answering to me.”
There was a reason Gawain hadn’t ever seen this man’s tribe here before. Displaced they might be, but the old grudges and tribal feuds hadn’t been left behind in Sarmatia. Among their peoples, raiding and fighting on horseback was a profession they’d perfected on and amongst themselves before exporting it elsewhere.
Not that Gawain particularly cared about that; as Lancelot had said, they were all in the same grinding trap, and there was no point in such petty quarrels. As long as he didn’t see someone he knew had killed a relative of his, he wasn’t going to bother. “Agravaine’s a mean drunk. He’s always like that.”
That wasn’t a common attitude, so the surprise in the newcomer’s face was understandable. The emotion, however, didn’t last long, so apparently the stories about an especially stoic tribe were true. “I see. And Lancelot?”
Lancelot was a long, long story that was easier to watch than to tell. He had the same attitude about intertribal grudges as Gawain, but more likely his reasons were that if they weren’t about him, he didn’t care. Even if he’d stayed in Sarmatia, he probably would’ve kept the same opinion.
So Gawain shrugged. “He’s who he is. I’m Gawain, by the way.”
“Tristan.” The man started to say something else, but something stirred at the end of the hall—another knight ducking in to wave at Tristan. He made a quick nod to Gawain and passed by, just a little less rudely than Lancelot had gone by him.
The second man, who appeared to be of Tristan’s cohort, greeted him with a broad smile and an arm around his shoulders. They went off in the direction of the stables, heads bent together like very close friends.
A familiar grunt and elbow in Gawain’s side announced Galahad, who had finally dragged himself out of bed. “Adorable,” he drawled, sarcasm thick as honey on the back of a spoon. “Someone might want to mention that the Romans and Christians don’t approve.”
Gawain glanced right and left, saw no one, and then grabbed Galahad by the arm, yanking him back to their room. “You’re in no position to talk. And start packing. We’re probably going to leave before midday meal.”