|War III: Siege
Author: Guede Mazaka
“The good thing is, if we couldn’t hold the town, then neither can the Woads. They couldn’t build proper fortifications if someone whipped them into doing it.” Morning was creeping up on Perceval’s left shoulder, and it showed a man who had fatigue crusted at the corners of his eyes and day-old gore beneath his nails.
Though to be honest, all the other knights looked equally bad, and Gawain didn’t exempt himself from that observation. Almost no one in camp had gone to bed for very long, except for the dead and the critically wounded—everyone else could only catch at most an hour’s rest before they were needed for some undertaking. Squeezing two armies into a camp built for one wasn’t easy in the best of times, and it was made even more difficult by Woads trying to provoke skirmishes around the perimeter. Thanks to Lucius’ idiocy, the town-side of the river had been lost, and the last thing the Roman forces needed was to lose the other bank.
“It would’ve been better if we’d gone to the town,” Urien muttered, ragging at his filthy hair with his hand. From the freshness of the blood on his hands, he’d probably just come from the sick tents. “Now we’re cut off from Ambrosius.”
“We would’ve been that anyway if we’d gone the other way,” Bedivere growled, slumping over the table. Then he hastily caught a clump of mud before it hit the maps spilled across the top. Looking sheepish, he shrugged and wiped his hand on his knee. “Well, ruined maps would be a sorry welcome for Arthur when he gets back on his feet.”
That produced a brief relaxation of the men gathered in Arthur’s tent, but even as they laughed, they sounded hollow. Ground thin and brittle. Gawain found himself glancing at the entrance, not sure whether he should be cursing Galahad for being so slow or Lancelot for being so damned self-involved right when they could least afford him to be. Even if Galahad had had to knock Lancelot out and drag him back, the two of them should’ve returned by now.
“You should have seen it,” Bedivere went on, mouth in a soured twist. He slowly and deliberately cracked his knuckles, the way he always did before smashing into a brawl. “Not even a fence around the place. It would’ve taken the Christian God to save that town. And Lucius Cornelius just—he must have been mad.”
Perceval sighed and raised his hand before Urien could reply. “It’s of no consequence now. Paullus sent word by way of Lancelot that he wants volunteer couriers. We have to retake that town and get out of this camp before supplies run out, and to do that, we need Ambrosius.”
“We don’t only need the fastest riders, but also ones that can get past the Woads without being detected,” Gawain broke in, deeming it time that he regained control of the discussion. It wasn’t his usual role and he was happy with that arrangement, but with Arthur down, Bercilak dead and Lancelot preoccupied there wasn’t any other cavalry officer with either an even temper or a sense of diplomacy.
And Lancelot was intelligent enough to realize when tact might be needed, even if he didn’t always employ it. Gawain, on the other hand, was mostly depending on instinct and the other knights’ inability to disguise their emotions very well.
Though Perceval rarely ever tried, and certainly not when he was being contemptuous. He straightened up so he could look down his broken, bumpy nose as if he not only knew what Gawain was thinking, but had already seen it fail a thousand times before. Which would be impressive if he did in fact know, because Gawain actually didn’t yet have an idea.
“My men can do it.” Owein, a dark-skinned rangy silence in the corner, unfolded himself and stepped into the light. “Dinidan and Geraint’s horses are fresh. They can make Ambrosius’ camp in a day. A day and a half at most.”
Urien glanced over, but remained studiously blank-faced, while Bedivere stared with broken-willed eyes Gawain had only seen in the most desperate of the desperate. Though a good enough troop leader, Bedivere wasn’t terribly distinguished for either his intelligence or his cunning, or really anything except being one of the few knights that had seen Arthur grow up. He actually reminded Gawain more of a hound than anything: a strong, fighting brute that early on latched to a leader and never learned how to do without. And Arthur wasn’t here…
Perceval flicked his eyes at Owein, then pivoted on one heel and spat at the tent flaps.
He was being considerate of Arthur’s furniture, but Gawain still wanted to smack Perceval’s narrow head into the table. As if they really had the time or the energy to spare for that kind of nonsense. “All right, send them out as soon as possible. I’ll tell Paullus and have them issued passes,” Gawain replied to Owein, though he was watching Perceval.
“Tell him to seal the message, too, so we’ll know—” Perceval started to mutter.
Several things crashed together at once: Owein, expression snapping to raging, slamming into Urien who held him back, Perceval laughing half-hysterically and knocking against Bedivere, and—
“—Perceval, your mouth is so large that I think it’d be a perfect fit for one of my swords. I could use a new scabbard.” A hand slapped aside the canvas, and a moment later, Lancelot ducked in with challenge in his face and arrogance armoring him better than steel. He stared Perceval into sitting, then turned to Gawain and nicely asked, “So, what did I miss?”
* * *
“Listen, we’ve let you—”
“Shut up, Galahad.” Interfering nosy bastard, Lancelot thought, but only absently because every particle of himself was focused on the slight tic of a single muscle. Arthur’s eyelashes were starting to flutter—first one eye, and then the other.
Behind them, Galahad made a frustrated growling and flopped into the chair Lancelot hadn’t used. He probably threw up his hands as well, but Lancelot didn’t bother to check the accuracy of that prediction.
Slowly, so slowly Lancelot’s vision began to blacken because he didn’t dare breathe, Arthur opened his eyes. At first they were dark, all pupil, but then awareness crept in and he focused. Blinked and refocused.
And suddenly a hard shudder slashed through Lancelot, making him go limp against the side of the bed. He felt as if there’d been a ton of lead suspended above him by only the fragile thread of a spiderweb, and somehow that thread had held long enough for him to escape. “Arthur…”
“You’ve been here all night,” Galahad muttered, sounding exhausted. “We need you to—oh. Oh—shit—ah—”
“‘Why, yes, Lancelot, I’ll go and get the surgeon. And some breakfast for you two while I’m up.’” Lancelot sucked in a long breath and pinched himself, waiting for his vision and mind to clear so he could stare again at a conscious Arthur. Only then did he turn around and glower at Galahad. “Now.”
The other man lost some of the shock whitening his face and stood up, flipping a derisive hand at Lancelot. When he spoke, however, his tone was nearly as relieved as Lancelot felt. “You know, I’m not sure I want to leave him with you…”
“Don’t make me kick you out,” Lancelot hissed. Then he twisted back just in time to see a faint smile on Arthur’s face.
Arthur licked at his lips, tried to say something, but his throat was dry—of course it was dry; he’d nearly bled out—and all that came was the ghost of croak. And then the fool tried to lift himself, so Lancelot had to watch while the skin around Arthur’s lips went almost transparent with pain and the stitches in Arthur’s back strained.
He grabbed for Arthur and did his best to push the man back down without touching an injury, though that was difficult. As he did, he took back his charm. “Don’t get up, you idiot. I don’t want to wait for you to come out of another faint.”
More raspy noises from Arthur. After a bit of poking about, Lancelot found a few flagons and a cup. He watered down the wine till it was little more than flavored water, then sat down on the edge of the cot. Meanwhile, Arthur had apparently forgotten about his shoulder and had tried rolling himself upright, only to hiss and scratch his nails deep into the sheets.
Well, if the man wanted to get up…sometimes Lancelot wondered why everyone called him stubborn, because from where he was sitting, Arthur had an equally recalcitrant streak in him. Sighing pointedly, Lancelot set aside the wine and helped Arthur sit up. He started to hand over the wine, but after seeing how Arthur’s wrists nearly dropped to the mattress with the effort of holding the glass, he took it back and held it for Arthur.
As Arthur drank, he swayed and shivered like a weakling lamb born too early. It hurt to watch, and not only because Lancelot was still reeling from the thought of Arthur dead, but also because he’d never seen Arthur this frail before. Ever. Despite everything, it had never been Arthur who’d been injured—not badly enough to keep him from standing back up. All around, knights would go down to war and sickness and sometimes other things, but Arthur had always escaped that. Even Lancelot had been down in the sick tents a few times, but not Arthur.
“Thank you.” Typical that that would be Arthur’s first words. And typical that Lancelot had been hoping for something different.
When Lancelot put down the half-empty glass, he noticed his hands were shaking. Irritably rubbing them on his legs, he turned to see Arthur gingerly testing his hurt shoulder. “Do you ever stop?”
“It’s already morning? How long have I been out?” Arthur glanced past Lancelot at the few stray beams of light that were stealing in, then leaned back. A mistake on his part—he jerked himself to a stop and grabbed at the sheets, eyes closed and breathing slow.
Lancelot counted to ten, then to fifteen and twenty and thirty, but Arthur didn’t raise his head. Worried again—almost impossibly, given how weary his nerves were—he reached out and touched Arthur’s undamaged shoulder. “The whole night. They thought you weren’t going to wake.”
“You’re being more tactful than usual.” Arthur still didn’t lift his head, but he did turn it to look directly at Lancelot. His eyes were wet but strangely steady. “You mean they said I’d die.”
Then he started to fall forward and Lancelot panicked, grabbing for him, but Arthur’s arms suddenly came round and pressed them together, warm moisture rubbing between Arthur’s face and Lancelot’s neck and fingertips gouging into Lancelot’s waist. And Lancelot wanted so badly to do the same, needed so badly to that his chest hurt, but wherever he looked to put his hands, there were stitches. In the end, he wound one into Arthur’s hair and clasped the other over Arthur’s hand.
After a moment, Arthur breathed. Shallowly, roughly, but it gave him control and he was able to move without jarring his injuries. His fingers curled around Lancelot’s and pulled them up between them so he could roll the knuckles across his lips. His gaze slid up Lancelot, wondering like a newborn’s, making heat unaccountably flush into Lancelot’s cheeks. Then he splayed his fingers and stroked Lancelot’s cheeks. “You’re crying.”
“You’re a bastard. You make me do and say things I wouldn’t for anyone including my own mother.” Lancelot hesitated, concerned about the waxen shade of Arthur’s skin, but then the need scraped angrily against his ribs and he ducked in. Kissed Arthur till the other man had him by the hair and shoulder and was kissing him back, taking it over as if nothing had changed.
Footsteps. Lancelot’s hand being foolish and forgetful and landing on Arthur’s back. They broke apart far too soon, and then Lancelot had to sit back when he steadied Arthur lest the damnable surgeon walk in on something his pathetic little mind couldn’t encompass.
Whoever it was paused just outside. “Lancelot? The others are meeting, and Paullus is getting impatient.”
Sometimes Galahad could be surprisingly thoughtful. Shame that the man was so damned careless about it, Lancelot grumbled to himself as he watched Arthur’s attention shift. Before the other man could try anything, Lancelot took Arthur by the forearms and made him twist around to lie down. “I’ll take care of it. I promise not to kill anyone, and I’ll come right back so you can tell me how tactless I was.”
Arthur went, though slowly. But when Lancelot started to go, Arthur reached for him. The gesture faltered due to lack of strength, and so what was supposed to be a grab ended up being only a grazing of fingertips over the back of Lancelot’s hand, but it held him back as firmly as an iron chain.
“I almost died?” Arthur asked, staring up at him. That was when Lancelot realized just how much the world had shaken.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Lancelot’s tongue replied, thick as a board and about as smart. He paused a moment longer, trying to think of something better to say, but all that came out of that was his hand straying to cup Arthur’s chin.
Eyelashes fluttering, Arthur snorted and let his head fall. His breathing slowed and his muscles rippled out their tension from neck down the spine, momentarily throwing the ragged bits of thread into sharp relief. As gently as he could, Lancelot set Arthur’s head back on the pillow. He stayed a fraction longer to make certain that Arthur was only sleeping and had not passed out a second time before he let in Galahad and the surgeon.
Galahad mumbled nasty little things and scuffled his heels in the dirt while Lancelot revised his warnings to the doctor, but he was also trying to peek at Arthur, so Lancelot felt a little more kindly disposed toward his fellow knight. And when they walked in on Perceval’s attempt to make war inside as well as outside, Galahad was nice enough to snap a fist into the side of the man’s head, which saved Lancelot the trouble.
“Shut up and sit down,” Lancelot ordered, gazing round at the various degrees of despair, frustration and fear he saw. “Gawain?”
“Paullus is sending for Ambrosius, and Owein volunteered Dinidan and Geraint. Scouts say there’s too many Woads waiting around for us to march back, so until the other army shows, we’re going to try and hold out here,” the other man summarized. He flipped a hand at Perceval. “And he’s being a bit of a prick.”
Perceval surged back to his feet, and so did Owein, apparently feeling cheated out of his shot at the man. Of course he had been, but unfortunately necessity called for solidarity, and solidarity didn’t arise out of allowing knights to clash with each other. So Lancelot stepped between them and hit the table, giving them all something else on which to focus.
He made his statement as firm, clear, and sweet as possible, given the circumstances. “All right. Owein, draw extra rations and weapons for your men, if they’d like them. Perceval, we’re all from Sarmatia, all knights, and all desperately wanted dead by the Woads. If you don’t understand that, then I’ll toss you over the palisade and let the Britons teach you who’s the more important enemy.”
“And?” The only one actually sitting, Bedivere raised questioning, red-rimmed eyes to Lancelot.
“And—” Somewhat to his embarrassment, Lancelot found his throat closing on him. He swallowed to force it open before he continued. “And Arthur’s woken. So you’ll all behave yourselves because I have no problem with beating you to bloody pulps before he heals enough to be merciful.”
It was morbidly fascinating how everyone’s face sagged in a different way, but all the reactions contained some degree of relief. Even Perceval knew enough to realize he was better off under Arthur than under some other officer, who probably would’ve arranged to have the moody son of a bitch killed in battle by now.
Lancelot flinched away from that thought and hastily moved on to the next bit of business. “Doubtless Paullus will want us to take turns at guard duty, so I want to see a roster. Best archers up during the night, since it’s the Woads’ favorite time to attack.”
Gawain made an uncomfortable cough; it seemed as if he’d been taking on most of the work while Lancelot had been with Arthur—an entire night. Suddenly Lancelot’s shoulders ached and his knees grated out whines, while his vision itched and burned at the weak rays of…yes, morning light filtering through the canvas. He faltered a little, incredulous at himself.
“There’s a bit more,” Gawain said, hesitantly filling the silence that had welled up. “He wants an explanation about Lucius.”
Urien looked perfectly blank. “Heard some Woads had the luck last night.”
“That won’t work, you jackass,” Galahad snapped. “Paullus was on the fucking riverbank with me, watching for Arthur. He saw what we saw.”
“Did any other legionaries?” Lancelot asked, trying to adjust to this new knowledge. His head was starting to pound with a dull, persistent ache and he was fighting it, but it was swiftly beginning to gain ground on him.
Fortunately, Galahad shook his head. “No, by that time all the infantry was too far back to see. But Paullus stayed.”
“So nice of him. Have any of you thought about what advantages he might have from this?” Incredibly enough, Perceval still had the energy for spreading trouble. Lancelot suddenly had a wave of sympathy for Arthur for putting up with this. “He’s a good commander in his own right; why would he agree to splitting armies? And then putting them on separate banks—that’s suicide.”
“Which, of course, is why he’s now in the same shit as us,” Owein drawled. The man’s fingers were tapping and flexing against his hip, like he was feeling for a hilt that wasn’t there.
Perceval instantly rounded on Owein, hissing to beat any snake. Or jealous woman, and women were smarter about how they went about their verbal attacks. “Then Ambrosius. His officers are better generals than he is—that must grate. Not that you’d be worried about that, you—”
“Perceval,” Lancelot snarled. The other man shot him one truculent look too many and Lancelot lost his temper a bit. His sword was out and at Perceval’s throat before anyone else could even reach for their weapons. “If you have anything more to say,” Lancelot said, softly and distinctly, “Then we can go outside and do it.”
It almost looked as if Perceval was going to take him up on that, but at the last moment, Perceval ducked his head. Glanced away and muttered something that Lancelot was going to take as an apology because he very much did not need another complication.
As Lancelot resheathed his sword, Gawain stepped up beside Perceval and took the man firmly by the arm. He nodded to Lancelot, which apparently signaled that he’d handle the bastard. Good. “Owein, go ahead and report to Paullus with your men. Tell him he can come by and have the story straight from Arthur, if he likes. The rest of you have been in sieges before—you know what to do. So go do it.”
* * *
“Because you’re a thieving, honor-less whoreson bastard who’d just as soon kill his own mother as kiss her on the cheek.” Agravaine’s chin took on a pugnacious lift that went well with his overall brainless rudeness.
Dinidan, surprisingly enough, kept his temper. “In that case, I’ll be sure to inform the Woads specially about you,” he answered in the pleasantest tone imaginable. His horse nickered in appreciation and he leaned forward to scratch between its ears, smiling all the while.
That probably wasn’t wise, as Tristan didn’t believe Agravaine had a sense of humor or the capacity to recognize sarcasm slapping him in the face, but it was amusing to see Agravaine’s comically horrified recoil. The man actually believed that one, they would turn around and cooperate with an enemy that had taken as many of their friends as of his, and two, that the Woads would give any Sarmatian a fair hearing before killing them. After so many years, it should’ve been clear where the battle-lines were drawn.
And Tristan should’ve given up on finding men that actually understood that. The most ironical part was not that he hadn’t quite, but that he had found a few.
Gawain and Owein came around the corner, deep in conversation. Then they clapped their hands together in a quick squeeze and Owein turned down another path.
“Here comes the message,” Tristan observed.
“Hmm?” Geraint stopped toying with his sweet-heart’s token and stuffed the braided lock of hair back into his clothes. “What?”
If the man couldn’t figure out for himself how Owein had passed the slip of paper to Gawain, then Tristan wasn’t going to tell him. There was no point in distracting Geraint any more than he already was.
Tristan stopped and re-examined that thought. Though he was cynical, he wasn’t usually that bitter about it.
“Are you helping in the diversion?” Dinidan asked, touching Tristan on the shoulder. When Tristan startled, the other man frowned. “The skirmish on the other side that’s going to keep the Woads from noticing us?”
“Oh. I’ll be shooting from the ramparts. They’re trying not to use men that fought last night.” For some reason, Tristan wanted to fidget when he thought about that. It was a routine undertaking, and if anything, he should be feeling annoyed that he wouldn’t be out there killing Woads with the other knights.
He wasn’t going to think about that pike and about Arthur. There was nothing he could do, so it wasn’t worth the waste of energy. Neither was protesting that he could ride better than Geraint when his horse was still glassy-eyed from its exertions last night.
Dinidan glanced at Agravaine, who’d slouched off to tangle with a wary Gawain, then leaned down a bit further and slid his fingers up Tristan’s shoulder. His nails were ragged and caught on Tristan’s collar, but he was careful not to do the same to Tristan’s skin as he stroked just under the chin. “I wish I could look for you, but I’ll be going the opposite way.”
Then he was back up, sitting primly in the saddle and seeming much calmer than Tristan felt. Gawain had finally chased off Agravaine, and now was giving last instructions to Geraint as well as handing over the message for Ambrosius. It was time for Tristan to go; if he jogged, he’d cross the camp just in time.
Instead, he paused a little longer, watching Dinidan.
“Remember not to let the Woads have you. And take care of her, all right? Since I won’t be around to.” A grin, a flourishing farewell bow, and Dinidan clucked his horse around to the gate. High in the sky above them, she suddenly stooped—Tristan belatedly got his arm up in time for his hawk to land.
After a moment, Geraint followed Dinidan, and Gawain tugged at Tristan’s elbow. “Come on. You can drop him off on the way.”
“Her,” Tristan corrected, falling into quickstep pace beside the other man. He concentrated on checking her for any over-frayed feathers or other ailments that might need treating, just in case he’d missed something during his daily morning look-over of her.
“Her. Sorry. I don’t know the slightest thing about birds, other than which I like to eat.”
It certainly wasn’t the best joke in the world, but Gawain seemed to be genuinely worried about him, so Tristan smiled back. To his surprise, it was a little easier than he’d predicted.
They passed Lancelot after Tristan had safely settled his hawk in his tent; interestingly, Lancelot wasn’t heading for the skirmish, which sounded as if it’d just started. Even more interesting, Gawain didn’t seem shocked in the least that the current cavalry commander wasn’t busy in the field.
“For Arthur?” Tristan murmured.
Blinking, Gawain slowed a bit, then picked up again. “Galahad says he’s still in terrible shape. He could use the help. And—oh, Owein’s commanding the skirmish.”
“Not Lancelot?” Very curious. This diversionary attack was turning out to be helpful in more ways than one, for Tristan had almost forgotten what he truly wanted to think about.
“Lancelot’s overseeing everything, but not actually from the field…” Gawain shrugged. “He’s the best hand-to-hand fighter you’ll ever see. Even edges out Arthur there. And tactics he’ll beat most as well. But strategy—less so.”
Which was unexpected, but only because Tristan hadn’t really thought about it. Upon further reflection, it did make sense. Lancelot seemed to be the kind of personality that would lose himself utterly in a battle, and that would also help explain why he and Arthur seemed so tightly twisted around each other—unusual for such strong individual personalities. “And I suppose he needs Arthur present to focus properly.”
Gawain stifled a laugh and started to reply, but by then they were at the wall and the din of fighting drowned out all words. Tristan nodded a brief thanks to the other man before climbing the nearest set of steps. There he could see the milling mass of Woads, knights and legionaries scuffling just outside the gate, and there his bowfingers started to curl in eagerness. So he obliged them, and faced forward while behind, Dinidan went further and further from him.
* * *
Exhausted by his talk with Paullus, Arthur slumped into the mattress and tried not to think too much on the fighting he could hear. The other officer had filled him in on the situation and on the steps they were taking to deal with it, so he was no longer stewing in ignorance, but nevertheless he could barely stand not to be there. His men were going to battle and he should have been there to lead them, but instead he was confined to a bed, too weak to even lift his head.
He’d almost died.
Lancelot often called him an idealist, but Arthur hadn’t fully understood all the ramifications—and truth—in that term until now, when he could stare at his hands and know a better stab on Lucius’ part would have stilled that tremor in his fingers. When he could remember the day before and contrast it with today, when he not only knew but believed he could die in battle.
Innocence was a strange thing. Arthur had had death circling him for as long as he could remember, back to that hazy memory of his mother’s tears and halting voice and the letter which meaning he’d had to spell out for himself—his father’s death. He’d seen it in the faces of those he loved and cherished, he’d buried it, he’d caused it—and somehow he’d failed to recognize how easily it could touch him.
Life was short. He had so very little time, and so much still to do.
The screams and thundering clashes were dying down now, Arthur absently noted. Years in the occupation of war had taught him something about reading the air, and it didn’t feel like a defeat. But neither did he feel victory. Instead, he simply felt tired, though he could hardly afford to be.
Lucius had been flawed, and Britain had ground at those flaws till the man had broke. Perhaps he would have still followed the same path regardless of the country, but Arthur was sure Lucius wouldn’t have done it with the kind of insane frenzy that had characterized the last moments of Lucius’ life. The land and the war did have some hand in it, for both were hostile and seething and ready at an instant to turn from fair to foul so a man could never really be at ease in it.
What Arthur feared now, he suddenly saw, was that he’d be affected the same way. Because while Lucius had been a cruel, selfish, thoughtless man, he hadn’t been the kind that Arthur believed would snap so easily. Would be so fragile. And Arthur had believed himself to be strong as well, and had seen that disproved in a handful of bloody moments.
“Rome,” Arthur whispered, staring at his hands. A beautiful city that had, for all its faults, been much kinder to him than Britain. And its cruelties were of a more languid, petty nature, without the overwhelming rawness he found here.
“Arthur? Skirmish is over; it looks like Dinidan and Geraint got away clean, and we didn’t suffer any more deaths—Owein knows what he’s doing. Though the surgeons will have their hands full for a while.” Lancelot tentatively stepped in, bearing what looked like milk and soup. Those he set to the side before perching on the bed. “How was Paullus? Do I need to sleep on the floor here with my swords out tonight?”
He smiled as he said it, but Arthur could see well enough that the other man was serious. There’d been so much pain in Lancelot’s face—the first thing Arthur had seen passing out, and the first he’d seen waking.
Undeserved pain. If Arthur could help it, he’d spare Lancelot the same experience in the future. If he could do anything to avoid seeing Lancelot like that again, he would do it. Starting with calming the man’s fears. “Paullus was surprisingly agreeable. He’ll support my position with Ambrosius.”
“And what did he make you promise him?” Lancelot muttered, unconvinced. He took some care to wipe off his hands on a rag before reaching for Arthur. “If you lean on my legs, I’ll dribble less soup on you.”
With the help, Arthur eased his forearms onto Lancelot’s lap, leaning his head against the man’s side. Then he had to stop and fight down the lightheadedness and black spots in his vision. He was also quite thirsty, he suddenly noticed. “To help him transfer to Asia Minor.”
Lancelot most likely was frowning thoughtfully at that. “Small price.”
“It involves leaving Britain,” Arthur pointed out, still struggling with his dizziness. He heard the sloshing and lifted his head by pressing it against Lancelot’s front, then opened his mouth for the spoon.
Thin, bland stuff. But then, they were under siege, though it hopefully would be a short one, and conservation of food was essential.
“Oh, right. Can’t believe I forgot that,” Lancelot replied, sounding torn between amusement and worry.
The worry apparently won out, because after Arthur had managed to down half the bowl, Lancelot paused to stare hard at him. “You’ve never talked like that before.”
“Like what, Lancelot?” Arthur sighed, feeling sleep draw slow caresses over him that he was hard-put to resist. He didn’t want to argue now.
“Like you hate here. As opposed to just the Woads.” Clinking signaled the resumption of feeding, and when Arthur didn’t raise his head quickly enough, Lancelot poked at him with the spoon.
Finishing off the second half of the bowl took nearly all of Arthur’s remaining strength, which served as a fine excuse for putting off his answer. It also made him rather disgusted with himself for acting so pathetically, but he simply couldn’t muster the energy to be more than disgusted. On the other hand, he knew very well that Lancelot wasn’t going to leave without receiving some sort of reply or reassurance.
“Perhaps I do. Being here certainly isn’t having a good effect on my personality. Rome was better for me,” Arthur finally said. He craned his head back so he could see the depth of the concern in Lancelot’s eyes. “I’m sorry about earlier. I spoke too sharply.”
Lancelot went very still, face perfectly smooth. Then the corners of his mouth, the skin around his eyes twitched, and then he suddenly, unexpectedly broke into laughter. His head went down and to the side so Arthur couldn’t see it, and his shoulders heaved till the laughter, hollow to begin with, sobbed into silence.
Arthur concentrated very hard and persuaded his hand to rise to Lancelot’s cheek. Then Lancelot looked at him again and seized his hand so it had to stay there. “You weren’t listening,” Lancelot rasped, smiling like a knife had carved it into his face.
That made little sense, but before Arthur could ask for clarification, Lancelot was holding the glass to his lips. He tried to protest and nearly lost his balance.
“You have to drink. The surgeon said so.” Lancelot essayed another smile. This one was much more natural and it was that more than any doctor’s prescription that convinced Arthur to do so.
In point of fact, it seemed to be a concoction of raw eggs, goat’s milk and wine that didn’t so much sweeten as add a particularly nauseous aftertaste. Arthur barely avoided spitting it back at Lancelot.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Lancelot snorted, pressing fingers against Arthur’s lips till Arthur finished swallowing. “It was going to be fresh horse’s blood and goat liver, but I thought we might want to give you a day.”
“Any other time I wouldn’t mind those, but right now they sound absolutely revolting.” With an effort, Arthur made the stuff stay in his stomach. Then he braced himself for the rest.
Of course, Lancelot could read him like no other man could, and so Lancelot abruptly tipped the glass while Arthur was drinking so Arthur had to down all of it at once. It was probably for the best, given how sickening the thick stuff felt as it coated tongue and throat, but still…Arthur glowered. “You’re enjoying this.”
“What, having you helpless and reliant on my mercy?” Fierce grin, which was more like him. But then Lancelot sobered, wiping at Arthur’s lips with the ball of his thumb. “Not nearly so much as you think,” he murmured. His hand turned to brush knuckles over Arthur’s cheek, along his neck and then down his back, deftly avoiding all the injuries.
Someone called for Lancelot.
He jerked, twisted to face the voice, as did Arthur. Then Lancelot smiled a third time, but this one was humorless and distorted by irony. “When you have to stay still, I have to move,” he said, staring at the canvas walls.
He kissed Arthur twice before he left, once lightly on the forehead and once hard on the lips.
* * *
Walking on the ramparts risked the odd spear or arrow, but it was ultimately more peaceful than sitting around in an uncertain camp or trying to soothe an irritable, restless horse. There was no room to exercise their stallions inside, and outside were always Woads waiting to pike knights out of the saddle, so except for the odd skirmish, they were all trapped within the camp.
A day ago, some enterprising Woads had tried to come up by the ford and drive the Romans back from their water supply, but one of Owein’s men had spotted the attempt and sounded warning well in time. That fight had broken the teeth-grating monotony of huddling, but as it’d also doubled the number of knights in the sick tents, Dagonet didn’t think the good evened out the bad. Certainly it hadn’t done much to help the campfire talk.
Owein and his knights kept themselves busy on the ramparts and away from the others—especially that one named Tristan—taking down any Woad that dared venture into the thin strip of cleared space between the camp walls and the beginning of the forest. Thanks to their efforts, several half-built Briton siege towers now littered that area, and it seemed that the Woads had mostly given up on actually overwhelming the camp, contenting themselves with merely starving out the army. That outcome had done much to improve general opinion of Owein’s knights and had largely removed one source of rumor, another one had soon rushed in to fill the void. Someone was spreading rumors that the infantry wanted to kill off all the cavalry.
“Don’t make sense, so I don’t believe it,” Bors snorted, thumping his back against a pole. He took his time stringing his arrow, then twisted out and shot, startlingly quick for a man of his size. “Half the time we’re the only thing standing between them and a bloody death, so why would they want to kill us?”
“Jealousy?” It was the most common explanation Dagonet had heard.
His…friend rolled his eyes. “Dag. You’re not that thick of a lump.”
“No.” And the most common explanation probably sprung from everyone’s curiosity about why Lucius Cornelius was dead and why Arthur was still bedridden. Having him out, albeit on a stretcher, might have helped morale, but neither Lancelot nor the surgeons seemed inclined to permit that. Which could mean any of several possibilities, but Dagonet suspected it was because Arthur looked so poorly that seeing him would only depress the knights.
“It’s Perceval. I’d bet a barrel of ale against a pile of horse-shit it’s that sour-tongued bastard.” Bors shrugged and shot off another arrow, then dug into the cloth-wrapped bundle between his ankles. When he came up again, he offered Dagonet a choice of slightly moldy bread or a dubious-looking piece of salted pork.
Dagonet took part of the bread and paused his own archery to flick off the black-flecked bits. “Why?”
“Something about dead family.” The pork popped into Bors’ mouth and for the next few moments, periodically reappeared between his teeth. He chewed with his mouth open so Dagonet had a perfect if unwanted view of how salt pork was broken down by chewing. “Which isn’t something to make fun of, but still, that was over there. I can’t even remember my mother and father.”
The other man stopped and stared over the camp, almost morose. “I can’t. And maybe it’s a bad thing, but I don’t think I care too much, either. Got a family here to worry over.”
Thinking over that, Dagonet methodically finished off his lunch. Something whistled from behind and left and he ducked, yanking Bors with him. Over their heads flew a long ash spear, which declined in a graceful arc to nearly pinion Gawain to the ground. He skidded a little as he stopped to stare at it, then shook his head and walked around it.
“Warning much appreciated, Bors,” he called up.
“Should be big enough for you to see yourself without me having to tell you,” Bors bellowed back, though his humor was a bit strained by his relief. He slapped Dagonet on the shoulder, then grabbed Dagonet to him. “Got this one to watch here and half a dozen back with Vanora. Can’t spare my eyes, you know.”
Gawain flapped a hand at Bors, half-heartedly dismissing the jibe. “How about your eyes and Ambrosius? See any riders? Dust clouds?”
Bors shook his head, expression turning gray and grim and tired, like everyone else. “No.”
It’d been nearly a week, more than enough time for the message to reach Ambrosius. If it had indeed reached him, for it’d had to pass through land thickly wooded with the spears and swords and arrows of vengeful, vicious Woads. And no, Dagonet did not believe that the knights sent would have failed for any reason short of death.
Below them, Gawain momentarily let worry crush his face into his hands, but then he lifted his head again. His hand went over and down to tug at a braid as he stared up, lips starting to move.
“There!” A legionary a few yards away suddenly leapt to his feet. He had to duck almost at the same time, due to an arrow coming at him, but he bounced back as soon as possible and pointed. “There!”
Gawain ran for the steps and clawed up them, rushing past Dagonet and Bors. He nearly threw himself over the side staring, and then he grinned. Backstepped almost as fast as he’d come up, yelling for men. They needed to get more archers up, and they needed to get ready to open the gates.
* * *
“…and he’s planning on taking the town tonight,” Geraint panted, grey-faced and shaking with exhaustion. Though he didn’t seem to have any serious injuries, he could barely hold himself in the saddle. His horse had its head tucked between its knees and flecked the people gathered around it with lather every time it heaved another breath. “Ambrosius—”
“Let the man down. Move, move. Back to your posts! Now, you prick-headed louts!” Paullus shoved his way through the small crowd, Lancelot following closely behind. Slowly, with many worn-out smiles, people started to disperse.
Galahad wasn’t about to leave, so he quickly snatched the reins to Geraint’s horse, holding it while the other knight dismounted. Nearly fell onto Lancelot and Gawain, to be more accurate. Then Galahad tossed the reins to a departing knight and followed as Geraint was swept into the nearest tent.
Someone tossed Geraint a waterskin and he drained the bulge out of it before he reported. “We got to Ambrosius in a day, but he was busy smoking Woads out of a cave. He’s headed this way—be here by night. Marching in the dark so his dust doesn’t give him away.”
“He better hurry, because the Woad scouts aren’t that simple-minded,” Paullus muttered, wiping a rag over his brow. “What else?”
“He’s coming up the other side. Going to drive the Woads from the town towards us—secure that, then cross to lift the siege here. Wants us to join him on the other side.” Geraint took another one long swig of water and collapsed against the tentpole. His hands were shaking uncontrollably, and he looked as if he wanted to lie down and never wake up again.
Lancelot snorted and muttered very quietly in Sarmatian: “Finally. We never should have split in the first place.”
Though he clearly didn’t understand the meaning, Paullus seemed to gather the tone well enough. He shot Lancelot a hard look, then turned back to Geraint. “Well done. On behalf of the army, I thank you. But…”
Something cold and dreadful made Galahad glance over his shoulder. Silent as the passage of time, Tristan was ducking into the tent, eyes fixed with unnatural intensity on Geraint. To his credit, Geraint had also noticed—and Gawain, Galahad noted—and was forcing himself to meet Tristan’s eyes, though the effort cost him much.
“…weren’t there two of you?” Paullus asked.
Geraint flinched, but he kept watching Tristan. “It was harder to get back. The Woads knew we were coming—we—they were on our heels. Dinidan and I let them overhear us and think the message was that Ambrosius wasn’t coming till later. And—his horse took a bad leap, broke its leg and rolled on him. He cut his throat so the Woads wouldn’t take him.
Tristan was very still, face very emotionless, eyes very cool and smooth. But there was something uneasy and disturbing rippling from him, which even Paullus seemed to feel, though he obviously didn’t have a clue as to the cause. He stepped back and sighed, then turned away. “My condolences for your comrade.”
It didn’t seem as Geraint could speak, so frozen was he, and no one else wanted to. Finally Lancelot nodded and moved aside, quietly suggesting that Paullus leave. “Thank you.”
It was a commendable imitation of politeness. Galahad had to say, he was impressed. He didn’t think that Lancelot had had it in him; Arthur usually handled all the forced pleasantries. But then, Arthur had never been down for this long before, and they were all struggling to deal with that.
Paullus was rather good himself, for he apparently understood that anything else was solely knights’ business. After another curt nod, he left, cloak swishing above mud-clotted boots.
And then Tristan was across the space, still silent except for the creak and rasp of his armor, and he was grabbing for Geraint’s throat. Geraint went down to his knees, gasping and hitting weakly at the other man’s arms while Gawain and Lancelot belatedly fought Tristan back. They had to pry him off finger by finger.
“Galahad, damn it—” Lancelot hissed, jerking his head.
“Oh. Right.” Galahad shook himself free of the strange dreaminess that had taken him and got Geraint by the waist, pulling him away from Tristan. “Geraint?”
Who was still staring at Tristan, who’d gone limp in Gawain’s hold. “There wasn’t any time!” Geraint hissed.
“You couldn’t even bring back his sword.” For the first time during the whole encounter, Tristan showed a touch of feeling: his lip curled back from his teeth in seething contempt. Then he shook Gawain off and walked out.
“I…think I might have missed a few details,” Lancelot said, curiously eying the remaining men.
Gawain gave Lancelot an uncharacteristic glare before going after Tristan. Meanwhile, Geraint painfully got to his feet and left, though in the other direction. So Lancelot looked at Galahad, as if he was supposed to keep track of this sort of thing for the man.
“What?” Well, if Lancelot wasn’t going to poke his head out of Arthur’s tent once in a while, Galahad didn’t see the point in making it easy for him.
“Tristan and Dinidan?” The other man flicked his fingers in a meaningful gesture.
With a sigh, Galahad straightened up and stretched, then rubbed at his eyes. He hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time since the siege had started, and he was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on the present. “Yes. I think. You should ask Gawain, really. He talked more to them.”
“War’s a bad time and place for it,” was Lancelot’s obscure remark. His eyes were so bloodshot Galahad couldn’t see any white, and the edge to his sarcasm was duller than usual. “Let Gawain know he’s got a half-hour to settle down his friend. We’ve too much to do to spare more time than that.”
“And where are you going?” Galahad asked, following the other man outside.
The side of Lancelot’s mouth that Galahad could see almost smiled, and for a moment Lancelot was lighthearted. “I’m going to let Arthur know the news, and to see what he wants done.”
* * *
Tristan was on the ramparts, methodically emptying his quiver into the Woads slipping through the woods just beyond. He was conscious of everything that he was doing, and had been since Geraint had confessed the news. He was being very careful about his aim, since they were rapidly running out of arrows, and it would be difficult to get more until the siege was lifted. Consequently, he had no idea why Gawain was yelling at him.
“Tristan! Get back here! You’re too exposed—at least lean down so you’re not such a clear target. Tristan!” The other man was hunched behind a taller portion of the palisade, occasionally peeking out to watch the spears and arrows come flying in.
Most of them were already near the end of their range when they reached the wall, and they pattered harmlessly around Tristan. A few, powered by stronger men or perhaps better bows, thwacked deep into the lumber of the ramparts, but so far none had come close to hitting him. He aimed at another shadow and watched in deep satisfaction as it was caught in mid-leap.
“Leave him alone, Gawain,” called a familiar voice. Agravaine. “If he wants to have a contest with the Woads, why not? The worst that can happen is that he’ll get killed.”
The legionaries were probably wondering what was going on, since the entire argument was being conducted in Sarmatian, and a fairly obscure tongue at that. As far as geography went, Agravaine and Gawain both came from a region that were about as far from Rome as Tristan’s homeland, though from different directions.
Interesting how his mind was still thinking, Tristan observed. From the woods came flying a glint of silver-white, and he could almost track the thoughts that led to the conclusion: a spear thrown at him. It was going to hit his side.
It would have, except Gawain grew impatient and rushed Tristan, dragging them both across the narrow platform to the next raised part of the wall. There they were better-shielded, but it was harder to get a clear shot. “Move.”
“No.” Gawain’s stance made it clear he meant it, too. “And Agravaine? If you’re so eager, why don’t you come up here and show everyone how to do it?”
“Go fuck—” Scuffling sounds.
“Try to watch your mouth,” Percival said, words dropping into one of those odd lulls that occurred during any prolonged battle. “I almost thought you were going to insult an officer, and you know that’s a flogging offense.”
That was surprising, but more so for Gawain than for Tristan, who couldn’t work up the energy to care about such stupidity anymore. As soon as he saw Gawain’s eyes flick downwards, Tristan tried to shove past the other man.
Gawain, however, had better reflexes than Tristan had given him credit for, and caught Tristan. “No, you lunatic. You’re trying to get yourself killed.”
“Really? It looked like it was the Woads doing the dying.” Tristan abruptly lifted his bow and arrow above the wall and blindly shot. Luck, it seemed, refused to desert him, for a short, sharp cry followed that.
Something hard and feral twisted at Gawain’s mouth and neck so he turned away to struggle with it. But then he whipped back around and stepped forward, eyes suddenly blazing, all his earlier mildness burning away. “And Dinidan. He’s dead. Dead. And I’m sorry, but that’s what happens. No, there’s no body to bury, so now there’s only his name to last beyond him, and who’s going to make sure of that?”
“And why should his name be remembered?” Tristan snapped before he could help it. His hand lashed out and caught on the rough wood of the wall. “Why should it be linked to this pointless war that’s not even ours?”
“What about your hawk? What about your horse? What about him? Tell me now whether you’d think he’d be happy to see you so soon after him.” Gawain hit out at the palisade, a few inches from Tristan’s hand. “Who’s going to see to your burial? I don’t know you that well. Somehow I don’t think anyone else does, either.”
“So live on? I have to die sometime.” And Tristan would have added more, only something flicked at the edge of his sight and instinct threw him forward to seize Gawain. They barely avoided the huge bolt that ripped through and stuck in the wall, steel head jutting out where Gawain had been before.
Breathing hard, Gawain stared at it with wide eyes. “Shit. They got Lucius’ siege catapults working.” His shoulders snap-rolled with the release of tension, and he looked over his shoulder, grim and resigned. “Look, do what you want. But not here. Not in front of everyone. I’ll kill you myself before I let you make things worse.”
“Is that what you hold onto?” The first flood of pain and fury and nerves was beginning to subside—Tristan fought against it, not wanting it to be so easy, not wanting all he had left of Dinidan slip away, but he’d spent too long perfecting his calm. And he was thinking now that Gawain had broken his focus: Dinidan would still have a burial and a marker in the graveyard that someone would have to oversee, knights like Agravaine were still around and remembering the wrong part of history, and—
--he wanted to live. He wanted to and hated himself for it, because it seemed as if he were breaking a trust. But if he died here, he wouldn’t receive a warm welcome on the other side, that much he knew.
“I hold onto what I can, do what I can. I don’t pretend that it’s all the same, but I won’t make it so easy for them. It’s not my war, but it’s my death.” Gawain jerked his hand at the Woads on the other side of the wall.
Tristan looked at the other man and saw tired, frayed compassion. Then he nodded, feeling the same fatigue settle throughout him, and took out another arrow. He didn’t have the energy to fight on two fronts at once, so he grudgingly yielded the one. “Move. I’ll provide an honor guard to the lands of the dead, even if I can’t bury him.”
After a moment, Gawain did so. He started to go down, but stopped when Perceval came up, bow already in hand. Perceval eyed the both of them, faintly amused. “I have respect for the grieving. Agravaine’s a lout.”
“And you’re better?” Gawain snorted, ducking past.
“I’m patient. I can wait,” came the low, vicious reply. Then Perceval ceased paying attention to them and concentrated on shooting.
He’d have a long wait, Tristan promised. Because now Tristan couldn’t leave Britain. If he couldn’t have Dinidan’s body to properly lay to rest, then he could spill enough Woad blood to hallow the whole land for him.