|War II: Ambush
Author: Guede Mazaka
As it turned out, Gawain was snatched off by Lancelot halfway to showing Tristan and Dinidan where the horses were hobbled and tethered, so Galahad ended up taking over. He kept his words curt and short, and himself well clear of the other two.
“We don’t bite, you know,” Dinidan finally said, exasperated tone very like Gawain’s. He hefted off his saddlebags into Tristan’s arms, then turned back to deal with Tristan’s horse. “And frankly, I don’t remember anyone as pretty as you in Sarmatia, so I don’t think you can claim feud on me.”
“That’s your idea of not biting?” Galahad resisted the urge to rub at his cheeks, which had been and still were an embarrassment to him. Maybe Gawain was right, and the hairs there would eventually darken and thicken, but it couldn’t happen soon enough. After years and years, the teasing was far past old and into killing-offense territory. “Your friends are that way. Lancelot’s in charge while Arthur’s gone, and he’s over there. Food’s left and straight out.”
Then he started to go, but Dinidan twisted in front of him, an expression of mock-hurt on his face. “What, you aren’t going to take the time and show us yourself?” he cooed.
“Go fuck your horse,” Galahad snorted, knocking past him. But something snagged and caught, and when Galahad tried to yank himself free, he just about pulled the saddle from Dinidan’s shoulder.
“Hey!” Fast reflexes. Dinidan saved it from the dirt, but in the process he lost his balance and fell heavily against a rail. His hands scrambled to keep the various buckles and straps from dangling into the mud, like a girl trying to hold onto a recalcitrant hen.
Galahad started to laugh, but then he remembered Tristan’s presence and choked it back. There were men moving around nearby, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was safe from all harm.
But interestingly enough, Tristan didn’t do more than glance Galahad’s way before walking up to Dinidan. Then he tilted his head and slowly looked over his…partner.
Smiling a little less brazenly, Dinidan grinned back. One shoulder lifted in a careless shrug. “Your saddle. Wouldn’t want to get it filthy, would we?”
It was hard to tell from Galahad’s angle, but Tristan might have rolled his eyes before grabbing Dinidan under the elbow and helping him up. His hand slid from there to ghost up Dinidan’s back, and both men slanted curious looks at Galahad, who didn’t react. Then Tristan lightly cuffed Dinidan on the side of the head. “Stop teasing him.”
“But he has such an adorable blush,” Dinidan murmured, trading saddles with Tristan.
“If you’ve all got tongues like his, then I can understand why people don’t like you.” Hopefully, Gawain would return soon, and then Galahad really would have a good excuse for leaving these two.
Tristan shot Dinidan another quieting look, which to Galahad’s eye had a tint of jealousy to it, and Galahad knew very well that he wasn’t particularly observant when it came to such things. A second reason for Gawain to show up again, given that Galahad didn’t feel up to dealing with this on top of everything else. It was bad enough watching Arthur and Lancelot pick at each other’s scabs.
“Dinidan’s more talkative than most,” Tristan replied, slipping past almost before Galahad had noticed. Well, that particular rumor about their stealth was definitely true, because the men—when Dinidan’s lips weren’t busy—moved like cats. “Which way for our tents?”
“This way,” Galahad sighed, resigning himself to staying with them a little longer. Though he walked on the other side of Tristan, who might be amused most of the time but didn’t mock quite as much as Dinidan. “So what’s going on?”
Both of them blinked at him, a little surprised. “I thought you ranked,” Dinidan said. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“Arthur’s going across the river, Lucius has fucked up again, various people are unhappy—that’s not much to go on. I got you two thrown at me before I could hear the rest.” Galahad shrugged and sidestepped a fresh, steaming pile of horse dung; some jackass hadn’t cleaned up after himself. Not that it mattered too much, since it wasn’t likely they’d be in this camp more than a night.
“We’re on the wrong side of the river. The Britons crossed earlier than…the commanders expected, and they’re encircling Lucius Cornelius.” As Tristan spoke, his voice went lower and lower, till by the time he’d finished, he was whispering.
A moment later, the reason for that rounded the corner and pointedly shouldered by Dinidan, hard enough to knock the man off a step. The muscle in Tristan’s jaw ticked, and he watched Perceval go with a concentration so intense it worried Galahad.
“The wrong side?” Galahad hastily repeated, trying to distract the other man. He probably didn’t do a good job because one, he’d suddenly realized the import of what Tristan had said, and two, that wasn’t his specialty anyway. “And Arthur’s going—shit. Listen, you mind going on by yourself? It’s just the next right. I need to go—can’t believe they let the Britons split them like—what?”
“Oh, nothing. I just figured your friend to be the quick one.” Dinidan had straightened up and sobered as well, and now he was looking at Galahad with near-approval.
Well, he could save his backhanded compliments for someone who didn’t mind the insulting edge to them. “You know, I was almost starting to like you.”
“He has that effect on people,” Tristan commented, sounding faintly exasperated. Sensibly enough, he grabbed Dinidan by the arm and dragged him off before he could get to the point where Galahad had to punch the smart-mouthed bastard. “Thank you, by the way.”
Galahad stopped and looked back, surprised that they’d bother, but by then the two men had already vanished.
* * *
“He’s in a mood,” was how Bercilak greeted Arthur upon Arthur’s arrival at Lucius’ camp.
“Isn’t everyone,” Arthur muttered, though he was careful to speak so softly that even Bercilak didn’t hear. He sat up and looked over the sorry excuse for a camp that Lucius had hopefully not yet finished, but the way the soldiers were leaning on their work-tools and chatting made that hope rather dim. From what Arthur could see, his fellow officer had done little more than take over the town’s houses and set a nominal perimeter guard; at the ford, which was so vital to keeping communication lines open, only a few yawning legionaries and two stiffly watchful knights stood guard.
Bercilak, the poor man, was the only troop leader Arthur had who could come near to handling Lucius, but even he looked about ready to commit mutiny. “I did get the knights and the infantry officers that aren’t completely idiotic quartered by the river. Our scouts came in about an hour after we got your message, reported the same thing, but does Lucius do anything? No. He thinks ‘rabble’ wouldn’t dare attack an army this large.”
If Lucius’ forces qualified as an army, then Arthur had a whole nation on the other side of the river.
But thinking about that reminded Arthur of other things that stung worse than human stupidity, so he forced himself to concentrate on the matter at hand. “Where is he?”
“Right here, right here.” Reddened face, loose way of swinging himself out of a doorway, raised voice…and Lucius appeared to be drunk. Arthur’s headache ratcheted up a notch. “What can I do for you, Artorius Castus?”
All around, the men were turning and staring at their drawling, belligerent, nearly sing-songing commander. Teeth gritted so hard he thought he could hear them cracking, Arthur dismounted as quickly as was possible and caught Lucius by the arm, ushering him politely but inexorably back inside. Then he ducked out to ask Bercilak to watch his horse.
When he turned back, Lucius was sprawled against a table and busy downing another glass of wine. He saw Arthur watching and sloshed a second cup, which he offered to Arthur.
“You have an army of Woads surrounding you. They’ll probably attack after night falls. So there are two choices: you can stay here and fight, or you can hurry everyone over the ford. It’ll be tight, but we can fit them all into our camp.” Arthur ignored the proffered glass and stepped forward so he was staring Lucius in the eye. He fought to keep his lip from curling, but couldn’t make his hands stay out of fists.
Lucius held out the glass for a moment longer, then shrugged and downed it himself. “Why shouldn’t you come to me?”
It was very, very difficult, but Arthur resisted the veil of red creeping over his vision and took a deep breath. Then he yanked the wine flagon out of Lucius’ hand and deliberately upended it, swirling the dark red liquid into the hard-packed dirt with his boot-heel.
The other man blinked. “You fucking son of a bitch.”
Somehow, Lucius still managed to sound as bored as a thrill-seeking senator touring the frontier provinces. For his part, Arthur was rapidly nearing the edge of his temper, and he was beginning to forget exactly why he needed to keep it under control in the first place. “Lucius. You’re an officer. You have a duty to your men to keep them alive.”
“When they hate me, and would very much like to see me hung from the nearest tree? God in heaven, Artorius—they’re barely better than the godforsaken Britons we’re fighting.” With sweeping, grandiose gestures, Lucius windmilled his way around Arthur and lurched his way into his boots. Then he grabbed for his armor, but his hand missed and he came within an inch of collapsing at Arthur’s feet.
“They’re godforsaken,” Arthur rasped, clutching at the last shreds of his temper. Very carefully and slowly, lest he jar himself into doing something precipitate, he set the flagon down on the table and seized Lucius by the arm.
It was like wrestling with an oversized, drooling sack of grain, but Arthur got the other man buckled into his cuirass. Lucius’ sword went on next, and Arthur was beginning to drape the man’s cloak over his shoulders when Lucius suddenly exerted a burst of energy and flung himself away. He glared with eyes spiderwebbed red and threw out his arm so the flagon, teetering on the edge of the table, crashed to the floor. “Damn you! Damn you and your fucking land!”
“Lucius, there are Woads coming—” Arthur snapped. He pried his hand away from his sword-hilt.
“Don’t tell me you’re a Roman. You’re Briton, and Sarmatian, and nothing but mongrel just like the rest of Rome’s fucking legions. We’re going to hell, and it’s all your fault!” Those last words carried enough venom to kill an entire city. They also seemed to use up all the wind Lucius had left, for as soon as he was done speaking, the man collapsed into a chair and dropped his head nearly between his knees. “I can’t stand this place,” he moaned. “I want to leave. That’s all. But no, you and your—”
Arthur felt the roar rising in him, and frankly, he doubted anything could’ve stopped it, let alone his frayed-through patience. “I and my what? I’m trying to save your damned army, and—and if you care a whit for Rome, you’d at least help for her sake. Get up and get out there, you lying bastard. Act like you deserve your rank.”
Lucius reared onto his feet, hand slamming to the sword Arthur had just put around his waist. “Who are you to call me—”
“You sent Lepidus to make some kind of deal, and it fell through. Now we’re all at risk, and it’s—your—doing,” Arthur snarled before he could consider what he was saying, throwing the words over his shoulder as he walked out. Inside this tent was nothing but a lost cause, but outside there were still able and willing men.
The air behind him shifted. Instinct twisted Arthur aside just as his ears caught the sound of steel grating on steel. His cloak billowed up, buffeted by a slight breeze, and he hit at it with his arm as he pivoted, trying to move it out of the way. But then hot pain thudded down from his shoulder to his elbow, and Bercilak was shouting, shoving Arthur to the left.
He stumbled back and clapped a hand to his arm, but fortunately found only bent armor; there would be bruises in the morning, and he’d have to have that repaired before the next battle, but the skin hadn’t been broken. The swing had been too wild.
Arthur looked up, disbelief the only thing in his mind, to stare at an equally shocked Lucius. But then Lucius grinned like a madman and turned to the rapidly-gathering crowd. “Men! The Woads are coming, and they think to take us in the night. Well, to your posts! Show them what you’re made of!”
“No! To the river!” Arthur shouted, lunging for the other man. “Lucius, have you gone mad? There’s no time and you don’t even have a wall up! You’ll just get them slaughtered!”
“To the river!” Bercilak was yelling, gesturing and pulling at soldiers, but the men simply stood and watched, uncertain as to whose authority they were to follow. In the distance, Arthur heard a few high whistling calls: Woads signaling to each other.
Before him, Lucius was rounding with sword up. Shock still had its claws sunk into Arthur and he moved a fraction slower than he rightly should have, but as with everything else except making trouble, Lucius was a poor swordsman. Arthur knocked the blade aside before it’d done more than draw a little blood from his forehead, then wrenched Lucius’ wrist so the man had to drop it. He yanked Lucius straight and pulled him close, trying one last time to preserve some order. “We have to cross, and now,” Arthur hissed. “If you want to live.”
“If I live, I stay here. And if I stay here, I’ll be damned if you get your fucking hands on my men. They can hate me all they want, but they’re not going to anyone else.” A grin again, and Arthur was beginning to think Lucius was mad, and not merely drunk and broken and disappointed. “Least of all to a jumped-up, scheming barbarian like you.”
“If I were interested in that kind of politics, you’d be dead by now.” Thoroughly disgusted, Arthur shoved the other man away. He waited till Bercilak and another knight had taken hold of Lucius before turning to the assembling soldiers. “Pack up and move to the river—quietly. In order. My and Paullus’ men will be on the other bank to meet you.”
Something like a dagger-tip dragged over roof-tiles rattled behind Arthur. “Under whose authority?” Lucius called, chuckling. “I command here.”
“And I—” Arthur’s tongue suddenly choked him, but he closed his eyes and said what had to be said, though it felt as if he were filling with lead “—I outrank you. I declare you unfit to lead and am assuming command.”
A whoosh went around the collected men, one long sigh of relief, but all Arthur knew was the crushing, twisting knot of failure tearing at his insides. Twice in a day.
“Ambitious,” Lucius drawled.
Moments before, Arthur had wanted to pin the man against the table and beat him into an unrecognizable pulp for a similar accusation. But now all he could do was ignore Lucius, ignore the poisonous truth, and see to the soldiers before his mother’s people did.
* * *
Not being too fond of raucous, lewd stories, Dagonet spent only enough time as was necessary at the mess area before extracting himself. That was slightly harder than it used to be, as Bors seemed to be quite popular and insisted on introducing ‘Dag’ to everyone, but eventually Dagonet made his way to the river. It was odd for a knight, but he liked rivers. To him, they weren’t impediments to horses and travel, but smooth graceful landmarks which flow reminded him there was another world beyond the Wall.
The town on the other side was actually rather far from the water, so it could barely be seen except for tiny winking dots of torches and a few of the highest roofs. Nevertheless, Dagonet should have been able to catch a glimpse of the walls of Lucius’ camp, if there were walls. If there was a camp. The wildest rumors were beginning to spread throughout the tents on this side, and they’d only grown when Gawain and Lancelot had announced there’d be extra-heavy shifts for the ford guards.
“Did they even make camp?” someone asked, a few yards below Dagonet, which would put them right on the riverside.
Someone else yelped and scuffled. “Galahad, you stupid son of a bitch, you ever creep up on me like that again—”
“I ever creep up on you like that again, I’ll be sure to kick you into the water before I say hello.” Rustling of weeds as Galahad walked toward the other man, whom Dagonet thought might be Perceval. “You’re a lousy guard.”
“And you’re spending too much time with those plundering whoreson easterners.” Yes, that was Perceval; the man had a unique flavor of bitterness to his voice that was unmistakable. “Where’s your sense gone?”
Galahad made an irritated sound that barely carried over the sudden rattle of wind passing through branches. “Maybe it’s a little preoccupied with, say, all the Woads out there that want to kill us? And you’re not my mother.”
“No…” Judging from the uptick in Perceval’s voice, he was stretching. “Too bad Gawain’s not doing a better job.”
The wind came winging back, cold as the welcome of an unfaithful wife, and Galahad’s reply just about equaled it for sting. “I should tie you to my horse and drag you out for the Britons.”
“You should—oh, never mind. What are you doing here, anyway? It wasn’t to show me how idiotic you are.”
The next thing Dagonet heard was the sound of someone landing a good, solid punch. Then a plopping sound, and the crackle of grass under it. “Last time I ever bring you fucking food. And I’ll be sure to tell Gawain how much you appreciate his thoughtfulness.”
“Little brat…” Perceval now talked as if through a mouthful of water. Or blood, or possibly some loose teeth. “Wait. What’s—”
Dagonet also saw the spark of color at the fringes of his sight, and turned to look again at the far bank. Over there someone was waving signal banners—they were coming over. Also, enemies approaching…and so that rumor was correct. They were on the wrong side of the waters; Ambrosius had underestimated the speed of the newly-raised Woad army, and now the Roman forces were dangerously divided. But, it seemed, Arthur was rectifying that.
If nothing else, the man certainly took a personal interest in things, which was a rare trait to find in officers as high as he was. He was also younger than Dagonet had thought, though the air of weary worry drifting about him probably had caused people to treat him as much older for most of his life. But still, popular with his men; they might grumble into their porridge about Rome’s heavy lash, but for the most part, they seemed not to blame Arthur. Some of them were actually quite worried for him, and had accompanied those statements were sideways looks at both the river and at Lancelot, who was riding up now.
He reined in a bit when he saw Dagonet, but only for a moment. A curt nod, and Lancelot was weaving past Dagonet to head for the bank.
It wasn’t clear whether Dagonet was to follow or not, but he was curious now, so he walked down. Halfway there, he ran into Bors coming from a crosspath and received a hearty scolding. “Dag, damn it, if you’re going to disappear like that, you should remember your ax at least.”
“Sorry. And thank you.” Dagonet took his ax before Bors waved it around one inch too far and knocked off someone’s nose, then shouldered it and continued walking. “It looks like they’re crossing.”
“About time. I never like split armies. ‘s like asking a man to step between the legs of your woman and then not to do anything while you take a piss.” Bors was half-armored and carrying his bow, but otherwise didn’t seem to be particularly worried, even though full dark had almost set in. It was a new moon as well, so they were even worse off for light.
When they finally reached the riverbank, Dagonet got an inkling of why a fierce man like Bors might be so complacent: Lancelot already had men with torches ready to be lit, and more knights and legionaries were arriving every second. A grizzled, one-eyed centurion was ordering the infantry around to clear a path back to the camp; he and Lancelot mostly went about their own duties, but occasionally the centurion would consult with Gawain, and Gawain would then make a grab at Lancelot’s leg because the man was always moving. Riding down to check the ford’s depth for himself, splashing back to watch narrow-eyed as the first soldiers on the far bank started crossing, restlessly petting at his equally restive stallion.
“Water’s risen a bit since morning,” Bedivere said, climbing up to Bors and Dagonet with trousers soaked to the knees. “The mountain snows are starting to melt.”
“We’ve time,” Dagonet said, assessing the lap of ink-black waters against the shores.
Bors raised an eyebrow. “How do you know?”
“I grew up by a river.” And it hadn’t been much like this one, but some basic things were the same the world round. Such as the truth of a man’s own eyes, and what Dagonet’s eyes were seeing was that Arthur was a trustworthy man. Lepidus had hinted about a connection with a cavalry officer, but had never said who—Dagonet had had to go with his gut and guess whom to tell. If he’d been wrong, then Arthur would’ve kept Lucius’ army on the far bank, but clearly he hadn’t. Dagonet had chosen correctly.
“You like to fish, then?” Bors was asking. “Don’t mind the taste of the fresh ones, myself. You catch them, I’ll cook them so nice in oil that you’ll be dreaming of them for years. Vanora’s special recipe.”
Dagonet stifled a smile and moved to help roll a log out of the way. “If we have time tomorrow, I’ll see if the fish are running.”
* * *
By Tristan’s estimate, all of the baggage train and most of the infantry had made it across the river in a little over an hour. It’d been a nasty, swearing rush of men and pack animals and bulky, balky wagons, but Lancelot’s glower coupled with Gawain’s improvisational skills was startlingly effective in resolving transportation issues. Shame that Lancelot couldn’t seem to calm down and stay in one place; half the problem was that if one wanted to ask him a question, one had to chase him down as he ranged over the ford, always glancing towards the far bank.
Eventually, Tristan had volunteered to go out almost to the opposite shore and act as guide, simply because he had grown tired of watching Lancelot dart about. Not to mention the silent battle of looks that Dinidan and that one knight—Perceval?—seemed to be conducting. When Gawain had noticed, he’d rolled his eyes and purposefully splashed them with water so they’d had to go back on land, where there were plenty of men to block their private war. Frankly, Tristan was with Gawain in opinion, but since he couldn’t interfere without having consequences down on his head, he’d absented himself from the situation. Perceval hated them—they weren’t too charmed by him, either, and nothing could really be done by either side. During the march, Arthur had gone among them and made it quite clear that he wouldn’t stand for any carry-over of feuding, and Lancelot was eagerly enforcing that rule.
Dinidan had been right about that, Tristan thought. Lancelot was an interesting character.
“Sir? Excuse me, sir?” A girl—barely more than thirteen summers, Tristan realized to his surprise—was waving at him. She was holding a little boy by the hand, who was clearly too short to walk it across; he’d be swept off his feet. “Can you carry him?”
And what were civilians doing waiting on the bank? Tristan looked about for an officer, but he didn’t recognize any of the knights within earshot.
“He can.” A knight with unusually broad shoulders appeared and easily gathered up both children, then waded out to Tristan. “Bercilak,” was his introduction. “Arthur’s having everyone evacuated. Damned jackass Lucius wouldn’t fortify the town, and it’s too late now. We’ll have to let it go and then retake it.”
Absorbing that, Tristan absently took the children and settled them, one in front and one behind. “Where is Arthur?”
“He—” But before Bercilak could finish, he was interrupted by a thin, soaring whine and a vast rushing of air.
Tristan kicked his heels into his horse and whipped it about, racing pell-mell over the ford for the safe side of the river, while behind him, Bercilak was roaring for his horse. The girl screamed and sobbed into Tristan’s back, but the boy tried to twist and turn to see till Tristan, fed up, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. “Still.”
The boy stilled.
By some miracle, his horse didn’t trip on a loose rock, and the arrows starting to dive into the river all missed him. They quickly outdistanced those and ripped up onto the riverbank, showering everyone within a few yards of them with water. Gawain’s face suddenly burst into view as torches flamed high, then steadied. “What—”
“Take them.” First Tristan swung down the boy, who went easily, with a wide-eyed look back at Tristan. Then he tried to get the girl down, but she was petrified with fear and refused to let go.
“Here, now. It’s all right.” Paullus, of all people, loomed up, reaching for the girl. He smiled nicely, showing unusually white teeth, and the girl nearly leaped into his arms. Though, Tristan was interested to see, Paullus lost no time in handing her off to some centurion. Then he whirled back to fix Tristan with his eyes. “What’s going on over there?”
Lancelot had been up the bank, and now he came rushing down as Tristan spoke. “The Woads are attacking, but only the knights are left over there.”
“Arthur,” Lancelot growled, voice rising in a tempestuous mixture of fury and terror. He and Paullus shared a look, and then Paullus turned away, calling for the men still in the river to hurry. Apparently, he was taking full control over the evacuation efforts.
That left Lancelot free to gather up some of the knights and move them halfway across, just short of the arrows’ range. Very short—one dipped into the river a foot from Tristan’s horse, making it start and toss its head. He smoothed a hand over its neck, soothing it as best he could.
“Where’s your hawk?” Gawain came up by Tristan’s right side, pulling his bow off his back as he did.
“Dinidan’s watching it.” Tristan did likewise, marking out a shadow that had strayed too near the waters. He shot and someone screamed. “Or he should be.”
A sympathetic expression graced Gawain’s face. “Galahad had better remember his stirrup leather’s strained.”
“He should fix something like that,” Tristan agreed. The arrows were fewer and more sparse, and from the sound of things, the Woads were going in for hand-to-hand now. He moved up a several yards, nearly onto dry land, and marked his next shot.
“He should,” Gawain snorted, letting his arrow fly. “But people don’t often do, do they?”
* * *
After his last outburst, Lucius had thankfully been quiet, and none of his officers decided to make any trouble. Likewise, the town elders had seen something in Arthur’s face that had persuaded them to save the complaints for later, and the actual evacuation had gone surprisingly smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that Arthur had almost begun to believe that the worst was over.
But then it had come time to move Lucius. The man had gotten onto his horse calmly enough, though rather slowly, and he was riding placidly by Arthur’s side when the Woads suddenly attacked. The Woads had always been justly famous for their speed, but they usually made up for that with a lack of discipline that left wide holes in their defense.
Not now. Now, someone with a sharp intelligence and an iron will was directing these Woads, and they were moving in devastating concert. In a matter of seconds, Arthur found himself clinging to the saddle while his horse’s hooves scrabbled for balance on the slippery pebbles of the river-shore. And Lucius—
--was racing back and pointing his sword at Arthur, yelling at someone in the town. “Here! He’s here!”
“What the—” A few yards away, Bercilak wrenched his rearing stallion around by main force, then swore and nearly toppled from the saddle. An arrow seemed to have grown in a second from his arm. “Fuck!”
“Lucius, come on—” Arthur spurred his horse after the other officer and, when close enough, seized the reins to the man’s horse. But then he saw.
Merlin raised his bow and shot.
Everything slowed to the crawl of clotted blood dripping down a tree trunk. Without thinking, Arthur threw up his arm and slammed his heel into the ribs of his horse, trying to make it move.
Except the arrow wasn’t aimed at him. First Lucius’ face was a transformation of crazed ecstasy, reveling—in what he thought was Arthur’s imminent death—and then it went to horror and sudden fury at betrayal.
The shot came within a hairsbreadth of taking Lucius in the throat, but at the last moment his horse, infected with panic, reared. It went into his shoulder instead, sending him reeling against Arthur, head smacking Arthur in the side and arm flinging across the back of Arthur’s horse.
“We leave the treachery to the Romans,” Merlin said, very clearly and distinctly. Then he was a blur, darting aside as Bercilak charged and then whacking the knight out of the saddle with a long staff he seemingly produced from thin air. Other Woads were swarming onto Bercilak before the man even hit the ground: Arthur glimpsed bloody blades flashing, an eye gouged free to be squashed into the dirt. Bercilak’s war-howl abruptly cut off in a sickening gurgle.
Arthur’s stallion bucked and pawed the air, too maddened by the sudden overwhelming wave of blood to be controlled. Lucius seemed to have passed out and was a dead weight trapping his and Arthur’s mounts together; Arthur tried to pull the other man free, but a shadow flew from the mob on—on what was left of Bercilak and he only just hacked off the upraised hand and sword in time. Then another came at him—he ducked without realizing why till the passing arrow had scratched his cheek. As he did, he accidentally kicked his horse, which it took as a signal to turn and gallop blindly for the river.
Lucius’ horse detoured away and almost pulled him in two, but somehow he revived and jerked his feet from the stirrups just in time. Then he was clawing and gouging at Arthur’s ribs till strained buckles gave—the sword-blow from earlier had weakened that shoulderguard, Arthur remembered—and Arthur’s cuirass began to slide off him.. “Move!”
“You—you and Merlin—” As they passed the last building, a Woad leaped from the roof, missing Arthur only because he used all his strength to make his stallion swerve. It both saved him and damned him, because the sharp turn threw Lucius fully onto the back of Arthur’s horse. The other man wasted no time in punching Arthur in the temple.
The world went black tinged with red. Arthur slammed his elbow back and stabbed it on something that made Lucius scream: the arrow that’d hit him. But that only gained him time to make it to the piers before Lucius recovered.
“He was supposed to kill you! I got him you, and he got me the rebellion I needed to get Ambrosius booted out!” Lucius cried, scrabbling to keep from falling off the other side. “Ambrosius is the bastard keeping me here! Him and you!”
Silver flashed—silver was flashing all around, blades splintering the firelight from the torched buildings—and suddenly Lucius was off, half-dragged and half-running, and Arthur had a shout ripping out his throat because it was excruciating. Half-blind, he hooked his arm around the saddle horn and threw himself forward, twisting and bucking to get whatever Lucius had in his back out. From his lower left ribs nearly to his spine were wide swaths of pain, and with every jolting stride, they inched a little longer. Arthur’s fingers started to slip.
And then—gone. He looked back, saw Lucius riddled with arrows in front and back. A knight rode past Arthur and hacked the body off his horse, braided forelocks flipping about a face burnished bronze in the gleam of the fires. Beyond on the beach was a hulking Woad hefting a pike like it was a twig; Arthur grabbed the reins of the knight’s horse and yanked them further into the water so the pike flew past the man’s face. Clipped his hair in passing before slashing through Arthur’s now-bared shoulder and tumbling into the river. As the world went soft and hazy, Arthur stared into shocked dark eyes, then looked forward and saw Lancelot’s hands reaching for him.
Just before he passed out, he thanked God for at least granting him that.
* * *
Lancelot counted as he shot into the burning town, mentally crossing off names as knights flew past him. Some shouted the names of the dead as they galloped by, but most kept their heads down and their curses scorching their horses’ manes. There were many more Woads than anyone had predicted, and they were swarming faster and thicker than locusts.
“Arthur and Lucius haven’t shown yet,” called Bedivere. “And someone just said Bercilak’s dead. Those two are going to be the last out.”
Well, Lancelot had eyes. He could see that. He didn’t need some woolly-headed idiot to tell him that. He simply needed to snap off his arrows a little faster, sneer at the Britons who thought they could get anything like the same range, and to see Arthur come charging out. That was all.
Somewhere inside the town, a roof collapsed and the subsequent flare of sparks it threw up painted a bloody wound on the night sky. The heat abruptly intensified, to the point that they had to back up a few paces to calm the horses, and a breeze blew over Gawain’s detached marveling at the Woads, who went among the burning buildings as if they were part-salamander. It wouldn’t surprise Lancelot.
“It’s Arth—fuck! Bastard!” Gawain suddenly spurred forward, but had to pull up when an arrow nearly shaved off his nose. The man next to him—Tristan?—immediately swung around and sent the bowman reeling back with an arrow in each eye.
Lancelot, however, kept going forward, ducking and dodging, until he could finally see what Gawain had seen. And it was startling: Arthur had dropped the reins and was clutching at his horse’s neck, but his grip seemed to be slipping and his whole body was wound around the rictus of pain that was currently serving as his face. Something was wrong with his sight—a broken wagon was dead in his path and he didn’t make any attempt to avoid it; it was sheer chance that his strugglings forced his horse into swerving around it. And into a position where Lancelot could see what was going on.
Lucius was clinging to one side of Arthur, his handholds the stirrup leather and a dagger he’d shoved into Arthur’s back. Long gashes of red seemed to wind around Arthur’s side, then disappeared beneath loose-flapping armor as Arthur writhed, making an effort to twist out the dagger. But Lucius had gotten a better hold on the saddle and was raising himself for another try.
Sinew and wood seared through Lancelot’s fingers before he realized. His arrow, he was momentarily pleased to see, had hit first, though apparently Lucius had proven a tempting target to both sides. Then Lancelot was slapping at his horse with the reins, wishing he could make it leap the distance. The stones rolling in the water beneath, however, were too unsteady a foundation, and so his stallion struggled to make headway.
Water suddenly splashed his face as someone plunged past. Tristan had found a more solid strip of river bottom and caught up with Arthur first. His saber whipped out of the scabbard and high, and Lancelot almost threw one of his swords at the other man. But then he saw Tristan was just slicing Lucius off—the corpse had somehow tangled itself in Arthur’s tack, spreading misery even after death.
“Pike!” Bedivere shouted, pointing. “He’s—shit, he’s throwing it?”
It came on the heels of his cry, but somehow Arthur roused enough to notice and actually dragged Tristan out of the way, though the pike-head tore through his unarmored shoulder. And then, finally, breath suddenly rushing back into his lungs, Lancelot was up beside the two men and catching palmfuls of Arthur’s blood as Arthur collapsed into his arms. He watched Arthur’s eyes briefly focus on him, mouth twitching, and then watched as Arthur’s eyes rolled back to the whites.
“Lancelot!” Gawain had caught up and was battering both Lancelot and what appeared to be a shocked Tristan with his bow. “Tristan! Come on! We can’t hold!”
Bedivere shouted again, but this time, it was because of an arrow in the thigh. Everything was red—his leg, the inferno of a town in front of them, Arthur’s face—and Lancelot at first thought he didn’t feel any more blood coming from the man he was heaving onto his horse. But then he understood. There was blood, and plenty of it: it coated his hands so he couldn’t feel it because it was fresh and thus warm as himself.
He wound an arm around Arthur’s waist and slewed them around, then slashed at his horse with the reins till it was surging the water almost waist-high in its efforts to move. They made the other bank just as the Woads raised their eerie victory keen.
* * *
Dinidan met Tristan with his hawk, bandages, and miraculously, a bowl of clean, hot water.
Now that the fighting was over, Tristan could feel his muscles beginning to make their complaints heard, plus an oddly strong twinge of pain over the back of his hand. He frowned and brought it up to see—after detouring to pet and settle his hawk in the corner—which revealed a long but shallow cut he didn’t remember getting. “You have too many bandages.”
“So I see.” The other man sat down on the cot beside Tristan and nevertheless attended to the wound with the same degree of care he’d bestow upon a more serious injury. Then he paused, fingers filled with wool strips, and shook his head as if just waking. “It didn’t take that long, actually. Maybe a quarter-hour at most between you leaving and then coming back with Arthur.”
Tristan closed his eyes and let himself fall backward, his newly-shortened lock landing to tickle irritably at his nose. He was careful not to move his hand, lest he disturb Dinidan’s work. “What kind of man has an instinct to protect a stranger before himself?”
There wasn’t an answer. He hadn’t been expecting one anyway, since for all his fits of flamboyance, Dinidan was at heart a practical man, and knew better than to feed Tristan’s occasional bouts of pensiveness. Instead, the fingers working over his knuckles smoothed beneath to rub gently at the hollow of his palm, calming and soothing and mind-clearing.
“I think,” Tristan finally said, opening his eyes again. “That we’ve just been transferred to a very different officer.”
“I think that I’m glad for that. I saw that pike come at you,” Dinidan replied, suddenly fierce. And then his mouth came down like a midsummer storm, instantly stirring up the heat inside of Tristan.
It wasn’t the same as the heat of the fires Tristan had just left, and for that, he was extremely grateful. Violence didn’t bother him—looting and burning was a part of any soldier’s life—but whatever had happened on that riverbank was had been beyond mere violence. The tang it left in his mouth was sour like bile and needed very badly to be replaced by Dinidan’s warm, slightly spicy tongue.
The man had been sneaking tidbits from the officers’ stores again. Tristan rolled around till he was fully under Dinidan and Dinidan was fully on the bed, fisting his fingers in Dinidan’s hair so he could return the deep, teeth-licking favor and figure out exactly what Dinidan had taken this time. That intensified the flavor, but the identification still eluded Tristan.
Dinidan abruptly slowed and drew away, pushing himself up on elbows. For once, he looked deadly serious. “Are we still under Arthur?”
Tristan shrugged and felt the cold ache start to spread through him once more. It wasn’t completely fatigue, he thought, and then he buried that thought by pulling Dinidan down.
His frenzy was contagious and soon rough, calloused hands were stripping the uncleaned armor from him, peeling it away so a ravenous mouth could scrape at the dried sweat that had built up beneath Tristan’s clothes. Tristan hissed, bucked at the random hard-soft caresses, then grabbed at Dinidan’s wrists and forced them down his sides, between his legs. He didn’t want to have the time to think right now.
Dinidan obliged him, fumbling oil from the packs stowed below the cot and then pressing his face into Tristan’s neck while his hands pressed Tristan’s knees apart. One breath and one finger, two breaths and Tristan’s hands were falling away to grip at the cot frame, three and Dinidan was lifting his hips and whispering to calm down, to wait, to not break the wood. Still too slow—Tristan reached, but his wrists were pinned to the side as Dinidan jerked and pushed till Tristan thought his hips would have to split in half. He swallowed and felt that small motion travel all the way down his spine to the muscles trying to stretch around Dinidan’s cock.
Tristan opened his mouth to say something and found himself being kissed senseless, softly and slowly. “Shhh. I’ll ride you, but I won’t break you,” Dinidan whispered. “Quiet. Or we’ll wake your bird again.”
As if Tristan was the only one who caressed and petted her. But when he tried to tell Dinidan so, he found his mouth taken again, and again, until finally he gave in. Let Dinidan have him till he couldn’t last any longer and broke himself, and then let Dinidan curl round him while he put the pieces back together.
* * *
“You tell him.” Arms folded over his chest, Galahad silently dared Gawain to protest.
Of all times…Gawain dropped his polite face, which was rapidly developing cracks anyway, and glared. “Don’t be a child. I have to go round up all the knights that were there and make sure everyone says it was Woads who tore up Lucius Cornelius’ body. The other troop leaders are busy. Seeing to their men, and probably spreading ridiculous rumors.”
Galahad snarled and rumpled his hands over his face, then made a few forceful but useless gestures. “Are they so ridiculous? You heard what the surgeon said—”
“Damn it, Galahad, I know! You think you’re the only one that wants to panic? Well, you’re not. But we’re in Woad territory and we can’t panic, and someone has to tell Lancelot before he explodes.” As a final flourish, Gawain slapped aside the tent flap to reveal…
…Paullus standing across the way, conducting a conversation in tones of low urgency with a Lancelot that was haggard and pale except for his brilliantly raging eyes. And the restless clench-unclench of his fingers, which were still caked with Arthur’s blood.
For a moment, Gawain could see why Galahad might be so reluctant. Lancelot did look like he was about to eat raw anyone that tried to talk to him, and even Paullus, who was a hardened, stolid soldier by anyone’s measure, seemed a bit wary around him.
But this was wartime, and no one was spared the unpleasantries. The surgeon had flat-out refused to explain himself, due to the monotone, rasping threat of a motivating speech that Lancelot had delivered just prior to turning over Arthur to the man. No one else was around that knew both Arthur or Lancelot very well. And Galahad could on occasion be surprisingly tactful, so Lancelot was marginally less likely to kill him. Gawain hoped.
In point of fact, Gawain hoped a lot of things. He hoped the surgeon didn’t know what he was talking about, because Arthur was the best commander Gawain had ever had, and the only one he trusted. He hoped Lancelot wouldn’t hare off and do something stupid, both because the man was a friend and because they couldn’t afford to lose both Lancelot and Arthur. And he hoped that this campaign wouldn’t become any worse than it already was, because as the years went by, he was losing more and more of his ability to shrug off Roman debacles. It endangered too many people he didn’t want to die.
“All right, all right,” Galahad said, surprisingly enough since it usually took longer to talk him round. “But promise me you’ll steal an officer’s sword for my grave.”
“Don’t joke about that.” Lancelot had seen them, Gawain noted, and was waiting impatiently for information. In another moment, he would probably tell Paullus to go fuck a pole and come over to see for himself.
Galahad started to say something, stopped, and walked around Gawain. His hand briefly fell on Gawain’s shoulder, an innocuous-enough gesture, but Gawain understand and left the man to it. If everything didn’t unravel even further, he’d make it up to Galahad later.
If the reclamation of the river didn’t end up a mess. Now the Woads had tenuous control of that lifeline, and Ambrosius was not going to be happy when he got done with his battles only to find his subordinates had been literally stabbing each other in the back.
Gawain wasn’t normally a vengeful man, but at the moment, he was regretting he hadn’t had time to put one more arrow into Lucius Cornelius.
Thankfully, that useless piece of horse-shit fought terribly and so he hadn’t managed to inflict fatal or crippling injuries on Arthur. His dagger had slashed and slashed and then gotten stuck in a rib, which had kept it from hitting vital organs, the surgeon had said. But those cuts were long and deep in their own right, and coupled with Arthur’s shoulder, he’d lost too much blood. Chipped shoulderblade, a few dislocated ribs because of how hard he’d fought Lucius, and too many stitches to count in his back. When Gawain had ducked in to see for himself, he’d thought at first that he was looking at a corpse, and had almost punched the surgeon for playing such a cruel trick.
If Arthur survived the next night and day, if he didn’t catch fever, if he woke up soon, then he might be all right. But with all the blood lost…and at that point, the surgeon had simply shook his head. Gawain had suddenly seen why Lancelot might want to slam the man’s head up a horse’s ass.
Of course, it was all a moot point if Ambrosius wasn’t satisfied with their explanation and decided to try them for murder. Problem was, no one except Arthur and Lucius knew exactly what had touched off Lucius’ crazed assault on Arthur; they could piece together bits of story, but ultimately, it all depended on whether Ambrosius wanted to believe what Arthur had to say. When Arthur woke up.
And when Gawain’s thoughts were going in circles, then it was time for him to get to work. He reset his shoulders and prepared for the first sleepless night in what was probably going to be many.
* * *
Galahad could be calm, and careful, and restrained. It would have surprised Lancelot a good deal if he had been able to care at all. But he didn’t, and so he merely put up with it, absorbing what he needed to know, until they let him in. Then he scowled and glared and snapped sharp little slivers of sarcasm till they backed out.
They had Arthur lying on his stomach so the stitches on his back were visible in all their horrific glory. Someone hadn’t done a perfect job of washing him afterward, for Lancelot could see specks of blood still clinging to the wounds. He looked around till he found some clean water and a decent rag, which he soaked in the bowl while he perched on the side of the bed. Then, very calmly and carefully and gently, Lancelot wiped off the blood.
After he was done, he dried off Arthur and covered him with a light sheet, then finally got around to scrubbing himself free of all the gore. Somewhere in the middle of that, the canvas rustled in a way that let him know they’d finally, truly left him alone with Arthur.
“You fucking idiot.”
The words should’ve smashed against the mattress, Lancelot spat them out so hard. And then his shoulders started to shake, and his hips rolled him off the cat so his knees hit painfully on the floor, and he had to lay his forehead against the cot-frame because otherwise he couldn’t have stilled himself enough to continue speaking.
“You idiot. You knew he’d try to kill you. You told me so. And I told you back, and you rode away despite that.”
Arthur’s hand was only an inch from Lancelot’s eyes, so he could see how careless the bastard doctors had been. He poked out a finger and shifted Arthur’s so they weren’t haphazardly crumpled against the cot.
“Sometimes I want to strangle you so badly. I want to hit you until your stupid mind realizes that maybe the army or the town or the anything else isn’t worth the cost. Isn’t worth you, you blind jackass.”
Such pale, pale skin. And the odd thing was, Lancelot could still see Arthur’s tan. A warm gold-brown earned honestly from working the same or longer hours than his men did, only now it was nothing more than a transparent veil over sluggish bluish, greenish, purplish veins and a white that rivaled despair for iciness.
“Arthur—damn you, don’t do this. Stop doing this. Or at least let me—it wouldn’t be forcing me, you hypocrite. You do things you hate all the time, and willingly.”
The cot was beginning to shake from the strength of Lancelot’s hold on its frame. He glanced up, but there was no reaction from Arthur. Still, it’d not be a good idea to jar the man. So Lancelot breathed and tried, breathed deeper and tried again, and then his willed relaxation suddenly went through him in an agonizingly intense wave. He slumped, hard, and couldn’t find the energy to lift himself again.
“I’m sorry. You’re not even awake to hear this. I’m sorry and you’re unconscious. I’m apologizing to you, in actual words, and you’re not listening. Damned idiot.”
Lancelot wasn’t a man of any religion because as far as he could see, it had nothing to offer him that the world couldn’t top. Why worry about the next life when this one was hard enough?
But he found himself praying now. First starting with the old, half-remembered ones of his childhood—he dug out his old charm and folded it into Arthur’s hand, clasping his own around it—and then moving on to the soldiers’ favorites. Mithras. Mars. The many varied shades of supposed divinity that he’d run across, heard about during his life. And near the end, when desperation was a tight blanket over him, he even tried the fragments of Christian prayer he’d overheard Arthur mouth.
None of them worked. It shouldn’t have surprised him, much less hurt him, but nevertheless it did and his temper rose. But all he needed was one look at Arthur’s slack face to utterly lose his anger.
“Arthur, Arthur. Wake up. You have to. I’m asking you, please wake up. Live—you’re stubborn as steel about everything else, so why not this? Live and open your eyes and don’t make me know what it’s like to have you die. Please.”
So Lancelot prayed to Arthur, and for once the words came easily because he didn’t need to struggle to remember. For once the words settled lightly on his tongue because he didn’t need to force a feeling of reverence. And Arthur laid there, white and still like a marble sculpture.
The very front of the tent rustled. But whoever it was stopped in the outer compartment. “Ah…Lancelot?” Galahad called.
Lancelot ignored him and sat up on his knees, leaning over to smooth Arthur’s arm so it rested easily by his head. Then he bent and pressed the back of Arthur’s hand to his lips. “Don’t leave. Please,” he whispered.
“Lancelot—” Galahad pushed open the flaps and came to a sudden halt, probably staring. Well, let him stare.
Arthur’s eyelid twitched.