|War I: Preparations
Author: Guede Mazaka
To Arthur’s surprise, the scout who’d brought in the initial report turned out to be Sarmatian. He hadn’t thought any cavalry had been posted that far beyond the wall; it was thick forest there, hardly ideal ground for mounted soldiers. Then again, the Romans were very efficient at squeezing new uses out of men, so perhaps they’d come up with a new duty
And he was thinking like Lancelot. Arthur nearly grimaced, turned it into a sour smile, and then just failed to hide that in time. He quickly smoothed out his face, but Ambrosius was already turning towards him. “Artorius? Did you have a suggestion?”
Caught off-guard, Arthur resisted the urge to look away, because he knew that all he’d see would be the eyes of his colleagues. Some would be merely curious, a few sympathetic, but the majority would be waiting for him to trip up like ravens for fresh carrion. His eye happened to alight on the map, and suddenly a thought clicked together. “It sounds like they’re following the river, but they’ll have to cross eventually. Probably here—” he pointed “—this is the ford nearest a town. Normally it wouldn’t be crossable till March, but the waters are unusually low this year.”
“Going for the easy plunder,” snorted Paullus. He rocked back on his heels to take in the rest of the papers littering the general’s table. “Only a day’s march from here, but no garrison there so they could escape if they were quick enough—Castus is right. And we can’t fortify the place in time, so either we take them beforehand, or after they’ve sated themselves with looting.”
“Before would be better,” Arthur put in, concerned at the reluctance in the other man’s voice. No garrison in these parts meant no sizable population of Romans or allies, and that meant no importance. Which for most translated to acceptable sacrifice. “They’ve already razed two towns. Letting them have another would damage morale.”
Eyebrows raised, Lucius leaned over to slowly, derisively look over Arthur. “And where do you propose battle? The nearest good field’s ten miles away.”
“I don’t recall that Artorius Castus was the one in charge of that,” Ambrosius acidly interrupted. He seemed to have taken Arthur’s parted lips for the beginnings of presumptiveness, since he glared equally at the both of them. Arthur quickly subsided, but Lucius shot him one last glower before stepping back.
It was beyond Arthur why the other man was so hostile. Infantry-cavalry rivalry aside, Lucius had been relatively polite up until the present year, but now he almost seemed ready to challenge Arthur to a duel. The man was a career soldier, caring little about anything except the business—and to him it was that and no more—of war, so it didn’t seem as if Arthur could’ve offended him in any way.
Possibly Lancelot could’ve explained, since the man was amazingly well-versed in garrison gossip and had an uncanny ability to assess personalities, but currently Arthur wasn’t in a position to ask. It would have to wait.
“Straightforward fights never seem to work with these people anyway,” Ambrosius went on. He swept all the clutter off of the map and respread it so all the officers could view its spare black lines and tiny perfect gilt lettering; it must have cost a fortune to have made. “But that town’s essential to controlling the river—I have no idea why it wasn’t fortified before, but it’ll have to be now. Lucius, you’re in charge of setting up the garrison. Paullus, Artorius, you’ll cross the river here and then march up to engage them on the other side. I’ll take my forces up and around, and we’ll crush them between us.”
“Cross the river…here?” Paullus blinked twice in disbelief.
Ambrosius, however, wasn’t in a mood for coddling. Good general, decent man, but he could be short-tempered when taken by surprise. Very much an officer that relied more on superior organization and attention to detail than one that had any real military genius. And he knew it, so he was slightly paranoid about the men who did have it. Like Paullus. “Yes, cross the river. If you absolutely have to, you can use Castus’ ford for retreat. If I may remind you, officers, we have tax assessors due to go through soon. I want as little farming land ravaged as possible. It’s the Woads’ damned war; keep it on their lands.”
And that was that, though Paullus patently wasn’t happy and neither was Arthur, despite his determinedly shut mouth.
“Fucking marvelous,” Paullus snarled, walking alongside Arthur as they emptied out of the room. “You notice he said nothing about how we’re supposed to secure a supply line through Woad territory.”
“Lucius should be able to handle that. He can funnel supplies over the ford.” The Sarmatian scout, who’d been standing quietly in the corner, was discreetly following Arthur without anyone ordering him to. While Arthur wasn’t quite as blind as Lancelot thought, he also wasn’t given to overweening pride in himself and therefore didn’t assume it was his presence that had drawn the man. He was swarthier than the other officers, and the only cavalry officer in the room, so he had probably stuck out like blood on snow.
Nevertheless, if the man was trailing him instead of heading for food, water, or surgeon, then that meant some kind of private conversation was coming. Arthur started to cast about for ways to detach from Paullus.
Meanwhile, the other man was continuing to complain, albeit in a lower tone. “Don’t tell me you trust Lucius to keep us in supplies. That whoreson couldn’t manage a brothel if they gave him—”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Lucius snapped, striding past them. “Artorius’ precious knights are all barbarians, after all. Great hunters, the lot of them.”
Arthur remembered curling his fingers so his nails slashed into his palms. He slowed, stopped, and breathed until his vision was no longer tinted red.
“As I said,” Paullus grumbled, making rude gestures at Lucius’ back. “Damned if I know what’s going on with him. Fuck, I thought he was starting to get fond of Britain.”
It turned out that Arthur had paused beside a crossroads, one of which paths would lead to the stables. He carefully uncurled his hands and glanced over the damage, then wiped off the little beads of blood on his legs. There was something about the way Paullus said that…a trace of lascivious mockery, perhaps. “What do you mean?”
Frustratingly, Paullus chose this moment to be tactful. He shrugged and waved it off, apparently seeing someone else he needed to speak to. “Rumors, I think. I won’t waste your time on them.”
Time, time, time. There never seemed to be enough, and the responsibilities simply kept mounting. But Arthur swallowed and took it, because he couldn’t do anything else and still sleep at night. “See you on the march.”
“Vale,” Paullus replied, spinning on a heel and striding off.
A brisk, commonsensical man, who lived only for the next battle, but who didn’t include with that the ambition Arthur suspected was eating away at Lucius. He made no secret of his preference for campaigning in the east, where the lands were rich with gold and silver and jewels, but he was willing to fight for his transfer the honorable way: winning enough battlefield victories to earn a right to choose his next post.
Things could be a little worse, Arthur thought, trying to console himself. At least it was Paullus and not Lucius that was partnering him in the field. And truthfully, they could scavenge if they absolutely had to. Though Arthur hoped not, because to feed the horses properly they’d need hay, and if the hay didn’t come from the Romans it’d have to be seized from the Woads. Burning farmhouses, even when justified, always reminded Arthur of his mother.
“You are…Arthur, sir?”
Startled, Arthur almost went for his sword, but at the last moment remembered and diverted his hand to adjusting his cloak. He turned all the way around and greeted the Sarmatian with as pleasant an expression as he could manage. “I would be. And you?”
“Dagonet, sir.” The other man, huge by anyone’s standards, fell easily into step with Arthur as they headed for the stables. When Arthur offered him a flask of water, he seemed surprised by the gesture, but readily accepted. Then he politely wiped off the rim before handing it back. “I’m not a scout,” he said, as calmly and distinctly as a priest carefully pronouncing vows. “I’m the last survivor of a cavalry detachment sent upriver to guard an officer meeting with the Woads.”
Arthur had to stop again. He hastily pulled the other man out of the main road into a deserted alley, then looked about for any possible eavesdroppers. “You swear that this is the truth?”
“I swear it on my horse’s neck. I don’t lie, sir.” And there was no falsehood in Dagonet’s face.
Consequently, Arthur had a potential internal disaster on his hands. He thought through his options, then concluded he didn’t know quite enough to make a decision. “Have you informed Ambrosius?”
“No. It…didn’t look like it was official orders they were carrying out, sir.” Dagonet seemed to perfectly understand the gravity of what he was saying, because his tone was somber, but his eyes were clear and completely focused on Arthur.
“Call me Arthur. What was the officer’s name?” Ambrosius would probably have to be told something at some point, but when would depend on the rest of the story. If there was perfidy of any kind, the Woads would waste no time in spreading the tale as evidence of Roman corruption.
Before he answered, Dagonet deliberately looked down the alley at nothing. Merely an empty crossing-point, and beyond, another empty side-road. “Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.”
A minor infantry officer, banished to a small, exposed garrison due to suspicions of intrigue against Ambrosius. He’d been reported killed by the rebels, but in such a way that everyone assumed he’d been in his garrison. Caught while sleeping, which was marginally better than cut down while conducting secret talks with the enemy. “Why are you telling me, and not Ambrosius?”
“Because you have a reputation as a fair man among the cavalrymen. No one I’ve met knew much of Ambrosius,” Dagonet replied. “Arthur.”
It might have simplified matters if that hadn’t been so. On the other hand, Ambrosius might not be as disposed to believe the testimony of a common soldier as Arthur was, so Dagonet probably just wanted to ensure he was believed. And Arthur did, which left him with an impending mess. Especially—he suddenly realized that Dagonet had been gazing at the way Lucius had gone. And unlike Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Lucius had too many high connections to be lightly set aside.
“Keep silent for now,” he finally said. “I may call on you to repeat your story, but later. Come--you look like you could use a good meal before we march.”
* * *
Say what they will, but no one could say that Lancelot couldn’t organize men as well as lead them. A quarter-hour before Arthur showed, he had all the knights packed, properly victualed, and lined up on the parade ground in marching order.
Or so he thought, the preening cock. Galahad finished going down the roster list, then passed it over to the other man. “All accounted for, plus one redheaded tavern-keeper.”
Vanora was in the process of giving Bors one deep, tongue-filled kiss for every child they currently had, so he wouldn’t forget his obligations. Lancelot looked torn between rolling his eyes and staring at the way Vanora’s skirts clung to her ample yet shapely behind, like the other men were. “Good.”
“And everyone has eight days’ worth of rations, and all their gear, and they’re mostly sober, though they all would like to string you up for touching off their hang-overs,” Galahad muttered, slouching back in the saddle. True, Lancelot was responsible for issuing general orders, but who did he make do the dirty work of getting last-minute replacement knives, shoes, arrows and so on? Galahad. Gawain got to inspect the horses for travel-readiness, and Lancelot got to stand in one place and snarl at people.
The only thing Galahad could say was that at least Lancelot had taken on the haggling for supplies himself, and truthfully, he probably was the best-suited for cutting those snotty officers down to their boot-tops. Especially when he was in a mood.
“Good,” Lancelot repeated, looking a bit happier. From the looks of it, he was dying for a fight.
“Why do I have to help with this again? I don’t even get a rank.” Out of the corner of his eye, Galahad could see a red cloak approaching: Arthur. He was about to tell Lancelot and see what kind of reaction he received, but Gawain rode up and interrupted.
“Because you read better than I do. Though I’ll never understand that, considering how much trouble it took to get you to actually sit down and learn,” Gawain laughed, turning his horse to back in between Galahad and Perceval.
Shrugging, Perceval twisted to give Gawain a strangely cool look. “Well, I can’t blame him. What use is there for reading? You can’t do it and ride at the same time.”
“No, but you can read the signs that say which door’s the shitpile and which is the bath-house,” Galahad snapped, leaning over to catch the man’s eye. As annoyed as he was with Gawain right now, he wasn’t about to let some jumped-up bastard of a troop leader look down his snub nose at Gawain. Especially since Perceval had a working nose and still couldn’t figure out where to piss and where to wash.
Irritatingly enough, all that accomplished was a confused look from Gawain and Perceval transferring his icy gaze from Gawain to Galahad. Then he stared past them at the newest troop. Galahad suddenly noticed that the knights next to it had edged away till there was about a foot of separation between them.
So did Lancelot. “Urien! Damn it, make your troop hold line! You’re more likely to catch something from that little blonde of yours than from the other knights!”
“He’s in a yelling mood today,” Gawain observed under his breath, tipping an amused, irked glance at Galahad.
“What’s wrong with that troop?” Galahad hissed back, curiously watching the byplay as Urien’s men warily moved back while the new knights looked…supercilious? The man that had talked to Gawain earlier in the morning was in the front line, expression blank as a freshly-cleaned sheet, yet somehow emanating a sardonic kind of humor.
Gawain blinked, seemed about to say something insulting, and then thought better of it. Sadly, Lancelot was quicker with his tongue. “You really did come from a backward village, didn’t you? I thought you would’ve at least heard stories about that bizarre tribe from the far east.”
“Oh, those—they’re them?” Galahad straightened up and took a closer look at the heartless monsters, famed trackers, brutal mother-killers or plain dishonorable thieves, depending on who one asked. The worst stories came from the tribes closest to that one, so he assumed they at least must have been slightly better at raiding than their neighbors. “I thought they’d be taller. Giants.”
“Riding what? Elephants on the steppes?” Of course, neither Lancelot nor Galahad actually knew what an elephant was, besides it being huge and having something to do with ivory, but that didn’t stop the other man from being vitriolic. Even Perceval seemed taken aback by Lancelot’s venom.
At that moment, Arthur walked up, leading a man that was more like what Galahad had imagined. “Dagonet, these are the rest of the knights here. Lancelot’s my second-in-command, and…I think you’d do best in Bedivere’s troop. Bedivere! Bors! Get this man set; he’s the one who escaped the slaughter up-river.”
As they’d been quarreling just before Arthur had come, Galahad was still partially watching Lancelot, and it was an interesting view. First the man compressed his lips till they were white with pressure, then slipped the bottom one beneath his teeth and chewed on it like a dog with a soup bone. And all the while, he was staring at Arthur like something inside of him was about to burst open his skin and pounce on the other man.
It was a wonder they managed to be as discreet as they were. Then again, some people just didn’t have eyes; from the way Bedivere talked and moved around Arthur, he had no idea about the underlying tension, but Bors flicked a few worried glances between his commander and Lancelot. At the edge of the grounds, Vanora was turning to give her man one last look, and she went on to stay and wait for the customary speech as well.
Dagonet was quickly swept into the back ranks to be outfitted with everything he’d need—and for once, Galahad wasn’t in charge of that—while Arthur mounted his horse, which Lancelot had somehow found the time and willingness to tack up and lead out. Funny how Lancelot seemed to make more considerate gestures when he was upset than when he was enjoying himself.
“Knights,” Arthur said, voice now deep and resonant so it’d reach the last rank. Galahad sat back and waited for the speech.
“You come from many tribes, but never forget that you are all knights of Sarmatia. Great warriors, great men, regardless of your origins, because a man is what he makes of himself. Think before you raise your sword, see that it never rusts in its scabbard, and help your neighbor to stand with you. You have only a few years of service left; don’t throw your life away now.”
“Our campaign is upriver, where the Woads have rebelled and overthrown two of the local garrisons. It’s a substantial uprising, but localized; our duty is to contain it and then stomp it out. No different from tending a campfire.” A little forced, but most of the men laughed. “I’ve led most of you for years now, and I ask you to trust in that history together. For those of you that do not know me, I am Artorius Castus, also called Arthur. Look at the men beside you—I’ve led them into and out of danger. Believe in their presence here and now, and trust that I will treat you the same.”
It was a bit subdued, even for Arthur, who usually managed a startling passion for his pre-campaign speeches. And notably, he hadn’t said a single concrete detail about the actual plan of attack.
“This is not good,” Galahad whispered.
“Look at their faces,” Gawain replied, nodding at the assembled knights. “They don’t think so.”
Lancelot was looking regal yet demure, the perfect subordinate, but the side of his mouth moved just a little. “That’s because they don’t have to.”
Then he wheeled his horse and trotted it up to Arthur, who was turning so he could lead them all out the gate whenever Dagonet was mounted. Gawain merely raised an eyebrow, but Perceval rocked back and rubbed at his nose, expression now worried. “First that lot joining us, and now Lancelot’s a little more than insulted by something. Galahad, you might be right.”
* * *
Good speech aside, Arthur was seriously worried about something. For a moment, Lancelot forgot about their argument and spurred forward, coming up to Arthur’s right side. But then Arthur turned and the naked relief on the man’s face surprised even Lancelot, since usually Arthur saved the demonstrative looks for when in private. Lancelot found himself instinctively slowing his horse, and Arthur, jaw clenching, closed up again.
Damn it. “What?” Lancelot tersely asked, finally settling beside the other man.
“Ambrosius should be by soon. Then we’ll leave.” Arthur leaned back to stare at the sky, as if he’d be able to read an answer there.
“Which is perfectly routine and doesn’t explain your face.” Hopefully the man would remember they had to work together, if nothing else. That was about the only thing still holding back Lancelot’s temper.
Amazingly enough, Arthur seemed to catch on. Either that or he was being his usual excessively polite self, but Lancelot didn’t feel like making himself more irritated, so he tried not to think on it.
“The rebellion might not have been spontaneous,” Arthur murmured. He closed his eyes and rolled back his shoulders slow and jerky, like they were paining him, and they probably were given all the burdens he laid on them. Then he opened his eyes and directed a narrow, oddly angry look past the buildings towards the sound of hundreds of boots marching in unison. “Dagonet says the garrison commander, Lepidus—”
“Even dead the man’s causing trouble,” Lancelot observed. While he didn’t see much of the strife that went on above him, he could reconstruct the fights well enough from the marks they left on Arthur.
The other man momentarily smiled in bittersweet agreement. “He was meeting with the Woads. And, if I’m reading things right, Lucius may have had a hand in it as well.”
“You know, I never liked that man, either.” Ambrosius on his high-stepping Italian stallion was just emerging from the bend in the road. Ranging around his infantry was about a third of the Sarmatians plus the few Gallic cavalrymen that hadn’t been transferred to the continent, led by Gorlois, who managed a covert salute to Arthur as he passed. He then gave Lancelot a hard stare; the man seemed to think that, because he happened to have seen Arthur’s father once, that gave him a right to act as a stand-in for Uther. As if Arthur wasn’t a grown man in his own right.
Even if sometimes he himself didn’t seem to realize that. The young thought they were invincible, but the old merely knew that they were strong, and that they would fail sooner or later. Arthur, on the other hand, still thought he was many instead of being only a single man like everyone else. It got him more hurts than he deserved, and it made Lancelot bite down on his lip till the blood welled out whenever Arthur went ahead of him.
As he was doing now, trotting to meet Ambrosius, who had briefly peeled away from his army. They held a low, grim conversation while Lucius, deliberately slowing his passage through the gate, watched them with vulture’s eyes. Paullus’ men came next, which meant Lancelot was supposed to signal for the knights to wheel to either side of the infantry column, but he hung back as long as he could to wait for Arthur. In the end, however, he couldn’t wait any longer and so he raised his arm.
“What, too early for the lot of you? Get a move on,” Paullus snapped, fiddling with his reins. Likewise, his horse seemed anxious to dance its way out of the garrison.
According to Arthur, Paullus wasn’t bad as far as foot-sloggers went, but from where Lancelot was sitting, he couldn’t see it. That was a beautiful stallion, and the man was going to ruin it before the year was out.
“Apologies. Ambrosius had a few last instructions,” Arthur interrupted, coming up from behind. In marked contrast to the other officer, he smoothly cut between Paullus and Lancelot and skillfully shouldered Paullus off to the side, where his atrocious riding wouldn’t be quite so visible to the horsemen.
Which left Lancelot to fall back and stew, though rationally, he knew it wasn’t exactly fair to Arthur. Nevertheless, his teeth were gritted and his hands were white-knuckled on the reins as he slowed to let the others catch up.
“So? What news?” Perceval, miraculously enough, had managed to exchange glowering at the new knights to try stripping information out of Lancelot with his eyes alone. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“To kill some misbehaving Britons,” Lancelot drawled, forcing his fingers to relax. He raked a hand through his hair, searching for whatever was suddenly itching at his hair, and then he pulled out a…feather.
Galahad made a tiny impressed noise he hadn’t produced since he was twelve. As it turned out, he was staring at one of the leaders in the latest addition to their forces, who’d apparently just plucked a hawk from the air.
“Isn’t that the man that I almost ran over this morning?” Lancelot squinted against the sun’s glare, which was coming over from that side.
“Name’s Tristan,” Gawain helpfully informed, though he was somewhat distracted by the sight of a marveling Galahad. As Lancelot watched in no small amusement, Gawain leaned over and whispered something in Galahad’s ear that led to Galahad whacking him hard on the shoulder. Then Galahad spurred up in a huff, leaving Gawain to choke back both half-hearted apology and a hearty bark of laughter.
In exchange, Arthur came back to sweep his eyes over the passing knights and legionaries, searching for something. He didn’t find it, and the shadows in his face grew a little deeper in defiance of the rising sun.
For some reason, everyone looked at Lancelot. So he looked back at them, then slid up beside Arthur. “So? What’d you say to Ambrosius?”
“Not much. I started to hint about—and he made it clear he wasn’t going to do anything without solid proof.” Arthur wasn’t satisfied in the least about that, but neither did it look as if he was going to fight for the point. “There’s a shortage of officers. Lucius can’t be taken from active duty unless it’s clear treason. And it’s not clear that it was.”
“Perfect. So we have to watch for knives at our backs as well as at our fronts?” Anger made Lancelot speak just a little too loud; Perceval and Gawain both gave him odd looks, and across the legionary column, Tristan also seemed to notice some kind of disturbance. The man next to him followed his gaze, then glanced at Tristan and made a peculiar motion with the fingers of his left hand. Tristan dipped his head, but Lancelot could see the edge of a smile. “Damn it…”
“I know, Lancelot. But it has to wait. Paullus knows as well; we’ll both be watching out for Lucius, but that’s the best that can be done until the rebellion’s smothered.” Arthur spoke rapid, tight-bound words that seemed to crackle as he rode off, doubtless to find a little more congenial company. From the back, his shoulders were humped up like an old man’s against the wind.
Lancelot dug his nails into the saddle and cursed again, then wheeled back to inspect the line. If he couldn’t say anything right, then there was no point in staying where he could see the temptation to open his mouth again. Maybe a spell of tongue-lashing delinquent knights would calm him long enough so that he wouldn’t keep driving Arthur off.
* * *
Perceval was massaging his temples, and it didn’t look as if his headache was solely due to a hangover. “Sometimes I think we should knock out Lancelot, tie him to his damned horse, and leave him behind the Wall.”
“A good plan,” Gawain agreed. “But who would tell Arthur?”
The other man winced and pinched the bridge of his nose, but didn’t answer. Down the line, the sound of Lancelot’s haranguing began to drift back at them. Certainly there probably was due cause, given that Sarmatians weren’t naturally given to uniform order and it was the first major campaign after a winter of mostly loafing, but Lancelot really could stand to shut up for a while. Unfortunately, the only man who could ever persuade him to do that seemed to be preoccupied with a heated discussion with Paullus.
“Arthur,” Perceval finally continued, “Needs either a good dunking in ale, or to get rid of his books. I’m not sure which would be better.”
“Careful—that’s our great commander you speak of,” Galahad snorted, riding up. He slipped around Gawain and cut between legionary cohorts to end up speaking to Tristan and two or three of the knights about him. After a moment, they all peeled off and came back around; Galahad slowed by Gawain, but the others went ahead to Arthur. “Anyway, your ideas always get someone upset, and isn’t the point to cheer them up?”
Perceval failed to answer again, but this time it was because he was staring disgustedly at the backs of the new knights. “I lost two fucking brothers to their people.”
Gawain coughed, but before he could follow that up with anything, Galahad had dragged him back. “No point in trying. Perceval may hold his drink better, but he and Agravaine are about the same for bad morning tempers.”
“And since when did you have a sense of diplomacy?” Gawain countered, giving the man a second look.
Sadly, Galahad’s exhibition of maturity was only momentary; he made a face at Gawain and tried to elbow him. “I just don’t feel like seeing you imitate Arthur, considering how bad things already are. Anyway, your new friends are going to be scouting ahead for the rest of the day, so no need to worry. Except for the fact that we’re going over the fucking river.”
It was a bad idea to screech to a halt in the middle of a march, but that was what Gawain almost did. Only Galahad’s hand, still holding onto Gawain’s reins, kept him moving.
Several yards later, Gawain finally managed to get hold of himself. “So not only are we going into the forest, but we’re going in on the Woad-side.”
“Brilliant strategy. Nice to hear about it.” Lancelot came cantering up and blew right past, a storm brewing in his face. Directly ahead of him, Arthur turned around to show an expectant, resigned expression.
To his credit, Galahad looked a little regretful. But then he shook it off and shrugged, aggravation a red stain in his cheeks. “Everyone’s going to know in a few minutes anyway when we hit the bridge.”
“At least there’s a proper road,” Gawain said, though that didn’t reassure him much, and Galahad’s mood certainly didn’t improve.
Two of the scouts, one of them Tristan, went by just then, and the second scout grinned at Gawain. “There’s better fighting off the roads, you know.”
“No, I don’t know,” Galahad retorted, glaring. As if Gawain was the one needed defending.
Tristan had let his hawk fly away sometime before, so now his arm was free to hide his tolerant smile while his partner made an extravagant bow from the saddle. “I am Dinidan, fair youth.”
Then the pair of them wheeled and sloped off while Galahad flushed from hairline to collar and Gawain, unable to help himself because it was true, briefly joined in the laughter of the other men. But he soon pulled himself together and prodded Galahad with anecdotes about Agravaine and some local cows until the other man cheered up.
* * *
“You like redheads?”
Dagonet didn’t visibly startle, as far as he knew. But that question hadn’t been one he’d expected having to answer, so he took a moment before he answered. “No.”
“Oh, good. Bad enough Lancelot’s always pestering Vanora; I don’t need another whelp to chase off.” Then Bors belched, much to the disgust of all his other immediate neighbors, and resettled himself in the saddle. His tack groaned, and his horse, one of the largest and sturdiest beasts Dagonet had ever seen, whickered a little nervously. “How about blondes?”
Now Dagonet took a slight interest. “Why? Is Vanora both?”
For some reason, Bors seemed to find that funny, whooping and grinning till someone far, far down the line yelled for him to shut up. His genial face instantly transformed itself into a hard-featured mask of violence, and he snarled right back. “And who are you to tell me that? You want to—”
He started to urge his horse forward, but Dagonet snatched the man’s reins and held him back. Then wondered why he’d taken the trouble when Bors twisted around to glare at him.
“And you!” Bors glowered and loomed—then collapsed into another grin. “Relax, Dag. If I really wanted to get him, you wouldn’t even have seen the tail of my horse leaving.”
“So? Blondes? Or you like them dark-haired? I can have a word with Vanora when we get back; she knows some amiable young lasses.” The other man leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, waving at Dagonet. And suddenly Bors was serious again, but in a kindly way that dimly reminded Dagonet of his grandfather, the only member of his family in Sarmatia that he still clearly remembered. “Listen, I heard you—all yours got killed off. Sorry about that. But Arthur wants me to watch over you, so you don’t have to worry now.”
For a moment, Dagonet wasn’t quite sure how to respond, or even if he should respond at all. But Bors seemed to be sincere about what he was saying, so finally Dagonet settled on smiling.
That earned him a solid thump on the shoulder, which briefly threw him. Usually his sheer size intimidated most people into staying a safe distance away, let alone daring to touch him for anything besides medical treatment. This was new. And upon further reflection, not unwelcome.
“Good, good. And you’ll have chances enough for revenge,” Bors said. His tone was absent, but not maliciously so; apparently, he was one of those who saw fighting as fighting and not as war or anything greater.
Which reminded Dagonet of a few thoughts he’d had earlier. “Arthur. Is he what they say he is?”
“What? What do they say he is?” A bit puzzled, Bors glanced back and slowed so they were even with each other.
Dagonet shrugged and recollected all the bits of description that had wafted through the stables of the garrisons. “Roman, Briton, Sarmatian. Christian.”
“I don’t know what you’re meaning by those, but he’s a good leader. And a great fighter.” Bors doubly affirmed that with a sharp nod of the head. “I’ve been through a few, you know. He’s the best yet. Just you wait and see, Dag.”
About to correct the man, Dagonet suddenly thought better of it. He let the nickname stand.
* * *
Away from the line, Dinidan’s pleasant smile dropped off like rocks from a clifftop. He snarled and hacked at some dense underbrush till he’d forced his own path to the bridge. “Stupid brainless bastards. I almost wish I had killed their damned relatives myself.”
Tristan calmly clucked his horse down the existing path, made broad and smooth by years of tramping by many armies. “They don’t all share the same opinion.”
“Hmm, no. Arthur actually is fair in that way, and the one you chatted with seems to be nice enough.” Dinidan sighed and sheathed his sword, staring at the mess he’d made. “This isn’t working.”
He backed his mount out and returned to the main road, catching up with Tristan when they were about halfway over the bridge. Solid wood and stone, it’d hold up over almost anything, and its location commanded a spectacular view of the countryside.
“So this is what it feels like to be a defenseless caravan,” Dinidan mused, watching the rustling of the trees on the far bank, which for the moment was innocent.
“I could have told you it wouldn’t have worked. Now you’ll have to sharpen your sword again.” Carefully keeping his voice toneless, Tristan picked up the pace a bit. The sooner they were out of the open, the sooner his skin would stop crawling. He had a feeling that they were already being watched, though no sign that he could see betrayed the presence of any Woads.
Close behind him, Dinidan chuckled. Then he suddenly burst past Tristan, one arm out so his fingertips just grazed Tristan’s jaw as he passed. “You should tell me such things, then. And it looks like knife- and arrow-work in there to me.”
About as mature as that downy-cheeked knight he’d been teasing. Sighing, Tristan spurred after the other man.
Though they didn’t race for long, due to the immediate press of the forest once they’d entered it. Even Tristan still needed a moment to adjust to the sudden multiplication of shadows and the thickening of air within the woods.
“Then again, none of that matters in here,” Dinidan muttered. “Whatever happened before, we’re all the same when we’re dead and buried on this forsaken island.”
“I understand that most people don’t enjoy thinking about that. So they distract themselves with other matters.” A tiny brown spot on the edge of Tristan’s vision suddenly came swooping down and he raised his arm—
--but his stallion moved. Piqued and not attempting to hide it, his hawk fluttered up a few feet before alighting on a nearby branch. There she irritably snapped her beak a few times.
Tristan shot a look at Dinidan, who serenely dropped Tristan’s reins in favor of grabbing Tristan by the back of the neck into a short, fierce kiss. Then, smiling again, he nuzzled at Tristan’s cheek before withdrawing.
“You know, who really interests me here is Lancelot. I thought he’d be more…stoic?” Dinidan was moving on again, as if the world hadn’t just flipped about and was only now coming to a stop.
After a moment, Tristan shook away the bright spots in his vision and raised his arm to her, making tiny coaxing noises in the back of his throat. At first she looked disdainful, but she eventually deigned to come back to his wrist. “You thought the commander and his second would be twins?”
“Of course not.” The other man paused to check a patch of broken twigs, then twitched a shoulder, signaling nothing of importance, and kept going. “Maybe stoic isn’t the right word. But you hear that he’s a wonderful swordsman and everything—well, I assumed he’d be a little more controlled.”
“I don’t think we’ve seen him as he normally is.” There was an indentation in the dirt that looked a little suspicious, but a closer look revealed it to be a bear print; the animals were rising from their winter sleep in time to see the best and worst of men.
Tristan reached behind him and loosened his sword in its scabbard, then nudged his horse on. They had a campsite to find, and no time to tarry in pointless thoughts.
* * *
Thankfully, the vast majority of the soldiers only balked a little when they realized where they were going, and crossed the river without much protest. They trusted in their leaders and followed Arthur and Paullus, and watching it made Arthur’s throat hurt.
Lancelot had merely asked Arthur to confirm the truth. Then he’d fallen in to ride just behind Arthur and had stayed there, an unsmiling, dark blot on the edge of Arthur’s sight, even after they’d dismounted behind the fast-rising walls of camp.
“Does your man want a talk or not?” Paullus suddenly snapped, whirling on Arthur. The man hated politics, and so his irritation with the whole situation had been growing throughout the day, to the point where even his own men were beginning to avoid him. “Or is he planning to stand there for the rest of the night?”
Arthur stepped back and set his shoulders, ready to defend Lancelot’s presence, but when he looked over, the other man had already disappeared. The edge of a shadow peeked from behind a nearby tent, he also noted. “I’ll dispose of my men as I see fit,” Arthur said, keeping his voice deliberately cool. “Just as you do yours, and hopefully, Lucius his.”
“Lucius.” Paullus bent over a stack of palisade stakes and spit. “Fuck him. Fuck him and his stupid grandiose plans.”
“Now might be a good time to tell me about all the rumors I’ve missed.” It was an effort, but Arthur recovered his civility and reminded himself that now was not the time to alienate his colleague. Even if he’d like to punch the man over said lumber-pile.
Instead, he turned to take in the cavalry camp, which had been built within the main fortifications. Normally the cavalry would go separately, but they were too few and neither Arthur nor Paullus wanted to risk having split communication lines. Not when so much else was uncertain.
The slight beam of light through the clouds was that when angry and without a target, Lancelot had a tendency to take it out in work. Consequently, he was more efficient and productive than at any other time, and Arthur hadn’t had to worry much about getting his knights settled. For the moment, even the newly-transferred ones seemed to be doing all right, though that could be due to the fact that Arthur was constantly rotating them into scout duty, in the hopes that tired men were men that wouldn’t start or take on fights.
“There’s not much to tell,” Paullus sighed, stabbing his heel into the dirt. He frowned at the small dent his efforts had made—winter hadn’t yet lost its grips on the ground here. “Vespasian, Constantine…there’s been a lot of men using Britain to vault into the Emperor’s Chair. And Lucius has just enough noble blood for him to think it makes a good excuse for anything.”
“He can’t think the Woads would fight for him. They hate the Romans more than anything else on earth.” Arthur returned his attention to Paullus and closely watched the passage of emotions over the other man’s face.
But he didn’t see anything except simple disgust and resignation, for machinations of this kind were anything but out-of-place in the Roman world. Contrary to what Lancelot seemed to think, Arthur didn’t idealize Rome as a utopia where nothing at all was wrong. But he did think that the marvels Rome had wrought, and the good men she produced or influenced, outweighed the evils that also followed in her train. Though sometimes it seemed as if only the bad took root overseas, and the good withered and died.
Paullus half-closed his eyes and looked at Arthur like he was a callow recruit. “He doesn’t really need them to fight for him; he’d just need them to fight us till Ambrosius is recalled for incompetence. Of course, then there’s a problem, because it’s either you or Lucius for successor.”
Arthur’s mouth dropped open. Then he hurriedly stepped back and ducked his head, because he knew his expression was idiotic, but it was some moments before he could make his tongue work again. “Me?” he hissed. “You and a half-dozen other garrison commanders have seniority.”
“And we’re all infantry, and they’re gradually pulling the infantry out, or haven’t you noticed? You and Lucius are the practically the only ones with any experience with cavalry left.” Blackly amused, Paullus pushed Arthur back into the shadow of the command tent. “Don’t let your mouth hang like that, Artorius. It’s bad for your reputation.”
“Lucius’ Gallic cavalry mutinied twice against him, and I heard they almost got him hung the second time. That’s why Ambrosius switched him to infantry.” Still incredulous, Arthur walked in a half-circle because there wasn’t room for flat-out pacing. Then he twisted back before his mind had gotten quite past making sense of so many fragments of memory. “He is not taking over my knights!”
Paullus blinked, then grinned. “Spoken like a true commander. Artorius, I didn’t realize you had it in you.”
“I…” Arthur gave himself a mental cuffing and tried to calm down before he said something stupid in front of a less-forgiving audience. He glanced out at the camp, with all its organized, chaotic bustling that had nearly finished raising the palisade walls within two hours.
“Anyway, not much to worry about,” the other man went on, politely giving Arthur a chance to regroup. “If he was aiming to get you killed in battle, his game went off too early. Now, I’m thinking the Woads aren’t particularly choosy about which Roman officer they disembowel. Lucius has to fight as hard as we’ll have to.”
Which was a significantly different tune from the one Paullus had been singing earlier in the day. “You seem to have changed your mind.”
“Well, I’ve been doing some thinking. And Ambrosius has lasted a long time out here; he knows something’s in the wind now.” When Paullus grinned, his eyeteeth showed like a wolf’s did. “See, that’s why I’m nice to you and not to Lucius. You and Ambrosius know what you’re fucking doing.”
A good man, Arthur thought as he watched Paullus walk off. A good one, but not quite a friend.
“I take it I can come out now?” Lancelot hopped over a few stray posts, but kept a few feet between him and Arthur. “Your tent’s up.”
“But I didn’t—oh. Thank you.” Arthur rolled his shoulders back and tried to return his mind to the myriad petty details of setting up a secure camp. Though thanks to Paullus’ news and Lancelot’s presence, that was rather difficult. “Are the scouts in?”
The other man warily edged a foot closer, gaze moving repeatedly over Arthur’s face like the changeable warmth from a flickering flame. “All but two—Tristan and…Dinidan, I think his name is? The others said they went farther, but that they’d be in before dusk falls.” Lancelot abruptly threw up his head, the way a stallion would toss its mane. “You should thank Galahad, too. He’s upset I made him help with your tent.”
And Arthur had to smile, because of course he would assume Lancelot would’ve done it all himself, and of course Lancelot would’ve been sensible enough to realize he needed a few more hands than his own. Nevertheless, that didn’t change the strength of the act’s implication, and it would’ve taken a stronger or more foolish man than Arthur to refuse an outstretched hand. “I will,” he replied, stepping towards Lancelot, and—
--then he stopped, cocking his head. Someone was shouting at the gate.
* * *
Gawain hadn’t seen it coming at all. But then, he wasn’t used to men diving at him from knee-level. “Galahad!”
“Shh! Anyone catches us and it’s your fault.” And then Galahad somehow had Gawain’s trousers open and Gawain’s prick down his throat.
Fortunately, they were in a tent and Gawain had been standing by the support-pole, which he was now attempting to grind into his ass. It was starting to lean. “Galahad…”
Who had a disgusting habit of licking the foam from his mug, but who now turned that habit to better use. Gawain grabbed behind him for the pole and wrenched it back by main force, tried not to groan as that put more of his cock into Galahad’s hot sucking mouth, then stomped his heels around its end to pack the dirt down. Galahad grinned somehow and walked his fingers up Gawain’s thighs, tips warm and tickling in contrast to the cool air.
“…and where’s Gawain? If someone’s got to talk to those filthy bastards, it might as well be him. He’s so friendly with them he might as well kiss them.”
“Agravaine, shut up.” Urien.
It was nice of him, though he was probably just smarting from the rebuke Lancelot had given him in the morning. As for Agravaine, Gawain made a note to do something embarrassing to the man the next time he tripped over the grumpy drunk.
It appeared that Galahad had heard as well, because he made a low growl that did wonderful, devastating things to Gawain’s prick. The pole shook again as Gawain staggered, coming before he had time to warn the other man.
“The sad thing is, it still tastes better than field rations,” Galahad muttered, sitting back and wiping off his mouth.
The footsteps were nearly at their tent, so Gawain didn’t have time for anything except glaring and yanking up his trousers. He did, however, have the pleasure of kicking the brat onto his feet. Then he turned around just in time to smile pleasantly at Urien. “Hmm?”
“Last scouts are in. Arthur’s going across the river—something about trying to catch Lucius Cornelius before the armies get too far apart. He wants to see you and Galahad, and after, you’re responsible for seeing the scouts settled in.” Message delivered, Urien ducked back out and resumed herding Agravaine to somewhere else, which couldn’t have suited Gawain better.
“In other words, no one wants to tell them where everything else.” Galahad rolled his eyes and grabbed his sword and Gawain’s ax, which he then handed over. “This is a little stupid, isn’t it? Like what women do when they decide they don’t like another girl.”
And typically, Galahad failed to take that as a compliment. “Stop that; you look like someone’s just hit you with your own ax. Damn it, this means I’ll have to wait for—”
Kissing worked to some extent, in that it stopped him talking before he could irritate anyone. Then Gawain tousled the man’s hair and ducked out of the tent. “I’m told anticipation only sweetens things, so by the time I’m done, you should be ready as a mare in heat.”
He dodged Galahad’s blow and walked very quickly around Bors and Dagonet, who together effectively blocked off the whole path. By the time Galahad caught up, they were facing Arthur.
* * *
Damn the man. Damn him, damn him, and damn him again. And yet Lancelot was hanging onto Arthur’s stirrup like a particularly stubborn child. “What’s the point in this, Arthur? You just said he probably was planning to kill you, and now you’re going to warn him about an ambush? You really think he’ll welcome you with open arms?”
He’d been on the verge of apologizing to Arthur when the riders had come in, and then Lancelot hadn’t been able to move or speak because he couldn’t figure out who he wanted to strangle more: Tristan for pulling up short and breathlessly announcing they were on the wrong side of the river for attacking Woads, or Arthur for volunteering to go warn Lucius himself. That had surprised the knights, but Paullus, damn him too, had just looked grim and nodded.
“Arthur! Are you even listening to me?” Lancelot dug his heels into the ground and grabbed for Arthur’s hand, which he tried to pry off the reins. “Why can’t you just send a messenger?”
“Because a messenger can’t lead the knights Lucius has with him into battle. He’s got thirty with him as scouts and messengers.” Arthur bit off the last word of that sentence and jerked his head away from Lancelot, then reined in and twisted down to seize Lancelot by the back of the neck.
That act lifted Lancelot onto his toes and pulled painfully at his scalp, but it also meant he could get a better hold on Arthur, so he didn’t care. “Arthur, you don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do. If we’re going to have any chance in this campaign, we have to hold the river. Ambrosius split us up—” Arthur cut himself off again. Of course. He’d never openly criticize a superior. Not even to Lancelot, who knew what the man’s come, tears, sweat and blood tasted like. “—at the least, we need the men Lucius has, and we need them alive. He’s a terrible strategist—you know that.”
“Then take some men with you,” Lancelot insisted, digging his nails into Arthur’s shoulder. “Take—take—”
But a single shift and Arthur was sliding away from Lancelot, sitting upright. “I can’t. Lucius already won’t want to listen to me; it wouldn’t be a good idea to alarm him, or let him know we’ve found out his plans. You’re in charge while I’m gone. Remember what I said—if there’s fighting, we’ll try to force it down to the ford.”
“That’s a mile from here, and you’d be crossing in the dark.” Lancelot swallowed and swallowed, but he could still taste the rancid flavor of begging. And Arthur’s face, however reluctant, was also implacable.
A sudden surge of fury pushed Lancelot off Arthur’s horse—at least, that was what it felt like. His arms didn’t seem to be his own anymore, and neither did his tongue. “Then go, you pompous jackass. You think you can carry it all yourself? Fine. You can go try, then.”
“Lancelot—” Arthur started, but ahead, the gate sentries were starting to notice the commotion. He turned about to wave them off, but then glanced over his shoulder. “The river, Lancelot.”
“And what if you die, and the men and Lucius live? How much better off are we then?” Lancelot bitterly shot back. There was a post by him for mounting, and he held onto that so he wouldn’t be tempted to run out and make a fool of himself again.
The other man almost closed his eyes with real pain, but Lancelot forced himself to stay put. “There’s a chance of that, but I think the chances of losing Lucius’ army are greater.”
“What if I think differently? Or what if I decide to leave things to Gawain and come?” Both of them knew where this conversation was heading because so many previous ones had tended the same way, but before, one or the other of them had managed to pull up in time. But not now. Not now, when Lancelot’s gut was plunging to his knees with sickness and his head was boiling with rage and fear. “Say it, Arthur. Damn you, say it. Say it or—”
“Lancelot, I’m ordering you to stay here.” Then Arthur bowed his head, as if he were faint and about to fall off his horse. A long, long moment later, he lifted it, and the world was grayer.
Lancelot couldn’t tear his eyes away long enough to look, but he thought his hand might be bleeding from the grip he had on the post. “I never thought you would actually say that to me.”
“I never thought I’d have to,” Arthur said, with a surprising degree of heat in his tone. But when he turned away, he was slumped over the saddle as if he’d already lost the battle, and Lancelot wasn’t standing very steadily, either.
Despite it all, Lancelot stayed to watch the other man go, as he had a thousand times before.